Are we waking up to poverty?
“The United Kingdom contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation.
For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
This is how Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur, described poverty levels in the UK, the fifth richest nation in the world, after an investigation which included analysis of more than 300 submissions from front-line organisations like Little Village.
His findings are reinforced, time and again. Last month, 6 in 10 teachers reported that they had pupils unable to afford winter clothes and shoes. Heartbreaking stories of poorly-paid school staff covering costs out of their own pockets, of kids wearing trousers back to front so the holes on the knees don’t show, of schools installing washing machines and giving out tampons: welcome to modern Britain.
In December, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released analysis showing that child poverty is rising for the first time in a generation, with the equivalent of nine children in every classroom of thirty growing up below the breadline. These are children whose lives are being blighted by poverty. They can’t afford the basics, let alone simple pleasures like having friends over for tea or outings with their families.
And just last week, Parliament published a report that shows that more children in the UK are experiencing severe food insecurity than any other country in the EU. Food banks have become a familiar part of the landscape, even celebrated (somewhat controversially), and baby banks are sprouting up everywhere, with more than 100 in operation at the last count.
How have we let this happen? At one level, it’s easy to understand. This government has unleashed a raft of pernicious policies (step forward, the two-child benefit cap) alongside austerity measures which have undermined social solidarity. Whether by accident or design, these policies have driven a wedge between the poor, who are presented as shirkers, cheats and layabouts, and ‘the rest of us’, who are just minding our own business and doing the best we can for our families.
But rising inequality is about much more than party politics: the problems started long before Theresa May or even David Cameron got the keys to Number 10. Building on the foundations of Thatcher’s ideology on social mobility, Tony Blair famously said “work is the route out of poverty.” Behind that statement is a story of individual responsibility that appeals to our desire for personal agency, but pays little regard to the systemic reasons people end up in trouble.
The reality is that it’s not that people are too lazy to work — it’s that work doesn’t always lift people out of poverty. Wages have barely risen in a decade. The economy traps people in low paid and unstable jobs that make it harder for parents to clothe and feed their kids: two thirds of children growing up in poverty today have at least one, if not two, parents in work. Put this together with rising living costs — especially in London where housing and childcare costs are eyewateringly high— and it’s no wonder people are struggling to make ends meet.
The roots of rising inequality extend deep into our culture, and it’s easy to feel pretty downbeat about how likely we are to tackle rising child poverty. People see poverty as something that happens a long way away to other people. I spend a lot of time talking about the poverty we see right here, right now, across London. And people fall into poverty through absolutely no fault of their own. An illness, a relationship breakdown, a job loss — all things that could happen to any one of us, and all stories we hear regularly at Little Village. No one wants this for their kids.
But this week there was a tiny hint of light in this otherwise bleak landscape. Ipsos Mori released a poll showing that concerns about poverty in the UK are the highest they have been since 1997. Poverty and rising inequality is now the third biggest concern in the country, up there with housing, the NHS, and of course, Brexit.
This certainly echoes my experience since launching Little Village three years ago. We see such eagerness to tackle child poverty. People want to do something, and I notice how emotionally engaged people are. There is something that feels deeply wrong about the experiences of the families we support — the injustices of their lives go against people’s sense of fairness and identity.
With all that in mind, I really hope that the Mori poll is a leading indicator that signifies a growing sense of solidarity and social responsibility. Amber Rudd talked this week about a ‘compassionate’ system of social security. There’s a long way to go before I’d describe the current system as that. But if we are beginning to exercise our collective voice more clearly about the right everyone has to a decent standard of living in the UK, I feel a glimmer of hope that I’ve not had for a while.