Poverty in the UK is such a talked about subject. So many people can’t get their head around the facts or totally deny that it exists, calling it all ‘relative’. Asked to write about poverty in the UK, a ten year old girl at a private school produced this: – “The family were poor. The daddy was poor. The mummy was poor. The children were poor. The nanny was poor. The maid was poor. The gardener was poor…”
In the UK no one can say that children have to trek miles every day to fetch the only water fit to drink. This is absolute poverty and globally millions live and die knowing no other way of life.
But just as the lack of such extremes distinguish our world from theirs, you can’t sit back and condemn the tens of thousands around us who look out every morning and despair at the inequality and relative poverty UK children endure with little hope of change. They may not be destitute as in some societies (such as Ski Lanka which I talked about in Podcast 6) but, according to Barnados:
- 1.6 million children are growing up in homes which are too cold.
- 41% of children in the poorest fifth of households are in families who can’t afford to replace broken electrical goods compared with just 3% of children in the richest households.
- 59% of children in the poorest fifth of households have parents who would like to, but cannot afford to take their children for a holiday away from home for one week a year – this only applies to 6% of children in the richest fifth.
- Three-year-olds in households with incomes below about £10,000 are 2.5 times more likely to suffer chronic illness than children in households with incomes above £52,000.
The Government has a statutory requirement, enshrined in the Child Poverty Act 2010, to end child poverty by 2020. However, it is predicted that by 2020/21 another 1 million children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the Coalition Government’s policies. I have talked about this on several of my popular podcasts.
If someone breaks their leg and, in great pain, reaches hospital to be told not to make so much fuss as the person in the next bed has two broken legs, it doesn’t exactly take away their pain, does it?
Poverty gap widening
Living in the fourth richest economy in the world, the question becomes one of deciding priorities. Why can’t our young people get proper housing as a human right? The few “affordable houses” built in a village not far away now have BMW’s parked outside. Why do so many single elderly freeze to death? Why do some families have to live for a week on the same money as is spent most nights by one couple eating out? Tens of millions are spent on subsidising opera and still its yet another elite art form denied to (and possibly not wanted by) 99% of the population. Hundreds of millions are wasted on computer systems that promise mountains and deliver molehills. Despite the promises of government, the top universities are still denying poor children access. The gap between rich and poor widens year on year and, with this economic crises, more in the middle are sliding backwards. House repossessions are up and the public sector is squeezed. Many head for the supposedly lucrative waters of the private sector and find what a dangerous place it is. Those who can’t or won’t go find themselves stuck with low pay and little power as they become increasingly disillusioned and the local authorities find less and less room for manoeuvre.
Those who worship the market talk of “inevitable casualties” in a free market economy. Fair enough, if we live in a dog eat dog society with little compassion and even less understanding of civilisation. Actually those who talk like that are shooting themselves in the foot as the creation of an underclass living in poverty in the UK, with no hope, brings huge costs with it. It costs eleven times as much to lock up and keep a juvenile criminal than it would to seriously fund an education for them according to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman. This looks like the way society is heading with the ‘haves’ increasingly heading for a world of protected communities with high security and the rest fending for themselves. As much crime is prompted by poverty in the UK and fuelled by debt, there is a horrible inevitability about this. Lots of people ( many of them women) are in prison for debt, contributing to an overcrowded system and an expensive bill for us all. I hear all the time about initiatives and government led projects to lift people out of poverty in the UK but see little result. No one can seriously believe that an entirely equal world is possible or even wanted but, by the same token, we can’t carry on hurtling towards extremism. There always have been and always will be the super rich, objects of fascination and envy for many. Most people would give their eye teeth to have that kind of security. But we don’t have to come down, at the other end, to the lowest common denominator. Surely we can up basic provision for a home, food, clothes and health care for all. Perhaps we could call it the poverty Olympics and set aside ten billion for that !
An updated version of the schoolgirl’s story could read:-
“The family was poor. The government response was poor. The public understanding was poor. The level of compassion is poor and the amount of common sense around seems very poor indeed.”