Is child poverty really a problem in the UK?
From Brother Ivo:
Brother Ivo is a post-war baby boomer. He came into the world in an East London council house of which his parents were not the lawful tenants. He was born into a world of food rationing, and remembers his mother buying broken biscuits. His generation went to primary schools with outside toilets; were taught by unqualified teachers; and yet that generation was among the best-educated and healthiest in British history. There was only one television station, and he enjoyed Muffin the Mule which he watched rather than ate. He played innocently on 'bomb sites', blissfully unaware of the huge difficulties Britain faced, with its post-war debt, because it did not have the benefits which the Marshall Plan afforded to our industrial competitors. He was in his mid-40s before he had any concept of the 'Designer Logo' with which most children today are familiar, shortly after weaning.
His Counselling is long overdue.
His mind went back to those times upon hearing of a press release this week, announcing the availability of a new map of the UK. It apparently shows the areas of this country where child poverty is prevalent, and so Brother Ivo began putting his mind to the question: 'Does Britain really have a problem with Child Poverty?'
Within the context of a wider teaching , Jesus once remarked: "The poor will be with you always" (Mk 14:7).
Brother Ivo somehow doubts that when Our Lord offered that observation to his disciples, he had directly in mind that the 'End Child Poverty' campaign would be a significant agent to ensure that this would indeed always remain the case.
Plainly, this is not the campaign's intention.
The 'End Child Poverty' campaign is a wide-ranging coalition of well-meaning and often effective organisations, some charitable, some not, that work together.. to promote politically progressive policies that aspire, but probably will not manage, to achieve the purpose announced in its name.
Who could resist its title? It has all the self-congratulatory hubris of a preening pop star conducting a stadium rock anthem in which we will all rise up, fulfil our destiny, overcome all odds and achieve our goals - together. We can apparently do this by 2020 if only the state were to spend (for which read 'borrow') another £3bn. It sounds an absolute bargain.
Jesus, apparently, could not 'End Child Poverty', but fear not, it can be done - thanks to an alliance of the Bath and North Somerset District Council, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists and the Fire Brigades Union.
Brother Ivo is not heartless, but one sometimes has to inject a little bathos into a critique in order to jolt the public discourse out of sloppy thinking.
Who could resist joining an organisation proclaiming commitment to such an end? 'End Child Poverty'? Add us all to this list.
One supposes this is why any number of organisations have signed up, but someone needs to seriously question the degree of analysis that went into such a decision. Supporters include the Church of England, the Mothers Union, the Rainer Foundation, the NSPCC and many more.
All are well-intentioned in their individual and collective endeavours to do good in the world. One might say they are all part of the 'Big Society' - but that would be party political and inappropriate. Far better to adopt a rhetoric and methodology of something politically neutral; something, say, entirely in keeping with the role of promoting the equality agenda of the progressive movement.
The Church of England has issued a press release in which they resist the attempts of Ian Duncan Smith’s department to try and develop a more holistic but complex approach to the definition of poverty by expanding it to include access to a good education, a decent home, stable family, and parents who are in good health. These attempts at refinement are opposed by the Church of England because it might cause 'confusion'.
There is indeed a difference between the clarity of self-misdirection and confusion that arises from a poor understanding of complexity, but that is not something to be encouraged or celebrated by the Established Church.
The Bishop of Bradford has commented upon this matter in a wider ranging piece: he comments in line with the authors of the report:
Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.Now, one may criticise Mr Duncan Smith for many things, but does the Bishop truly discount the very real efforts which this particular Secretary of State made before coming into office in visiting places like Easterhouse, where he prepared with commendable thoroughness to discharge his current obligations? Is he not the Minister who created a Think Tank - the Centre for Social Justice - which is widely acknowledged to be a centre for excellence in pursuit of 'thinking the unthinkable', to offer solutions to poverty beyond throwing public money at it to no obvious long-term effect?
The Bishop might also reflect upon whether our society’s response to the poor can be fairly characterised as 'scandalous' when it is prepared to build a £400,000 house for a claimant who has never worked, given birth to 11 children, and is apparently able to maintain more than one car and a horse.
Brother Ivo might agree there is a scandal in there somewhere. But is the Bishop absolutely sure that it is a scandal of Dickensian mean-spiritedness?
The coalition's 'End Child Poverty' objective is couched in a simplistic measure of ‘poverty', and the choice of such an emotive name is not accidental.
Consider how language is used to shape the political debate. The 'Community Charge' became a vote-loser once the debate was re-cast in terms of the 'Poll Tax'. The grisly character of abortion was sanitised and became more positively presented when it regenerated itself into the woman's 'Right to Choose'. Re-defining marriage recently became the campaign for 'Equal Marriage', and it is happening once again when the compulsory 'gift' of taxpayers' money to those renting in both public and private sectors is being termed a 'Bedroom Tax' upon the recipients.
In the same way a campaign actually predicated upon narrowing income distribution is being redefined in terms of both ending poverty and benefitting children. The campaign defines poverty via a politically-conceived mathematical formula: if a child lives in a household in which the income is less than 60% of the median income (currently £26,000 in the UK), that child becomes automatically and absolutely statistically defined as 'living in poverty'. But if that average income rises, so does that 60% threshold for poverty. The poor are statistically always with us - unless, of course, we abolish income differentials. In that case, our standards of living could repeatedly halve but nobody could possibly end up 'in poverty' as nobody would be subsisting on 60% of the increasingly lower income.
Conversely, it follows that no improvement in living standards per se can change the fact that the lower 40 centiles will always be defined as 'poor'. Make everyone three times richer and you have done nothing to end poverty. All that has been actually achieved by the adoption of such a definition of poverty is that language and objectivity has been devalued. Those who opposed changing the definition of marriage might usefully exercise caution about moving the word 'poverty' from its age-old meaning equating with destitution. It is as linguistically dishonest as the Labour politician who reputedly declared that his party would not be satisfied until everyone was on 'above average wages'.
In creating a map and adopting the 60% formula, the report, deliberately or by chance, replicates the same approach of Charles Booth's work on the London poor between 1886-1903. While this may have been a useful one-off tool on a specific survey, its subsequent use as a constantly re-calibrated measure de-couples the defined term 'poverty' from all or any objective meaning.
It is rather like discussing tiny men in the context of the United States basketball league, where the 'tiniest' man on the team might be 6'4" tall.
One does not need to think for long to appreciate that 60% of a late-Victorian standard wage might be a very different level of 'poverty' from that which obtains today. The decision to define poverty in relative rather than absolute terms creates a number of unsatisfactory outcomes, both in terms of reality and analysis.
Suppose a child lives in a household of constant income. One day, 100 billionaires relocate their homes to London. The national average income has fractionally risen, yet by that one event - and with no impact on the child's income or living standards - our child has 'fallen below the poverty line'. Conversely, if, the following day, 200 billionaires take fright of government tax changes and leave, the overall and median national income has fallen, and we can all celebrate that this child, and perhaps many others, will have been 'lifted out of poverty'.
Both in reality and analytically, this is fraudulent political nonsense. But, somewhat worryingly, many good and well-meaning people have failed to spot it - or the political agenda which underlies the adoption of such a shifting definition.
Now let us us look at something altogether more more concrete.
On a world-wide basis, the United Nations adopted specific definitions of what level of deprivation constitutes 'Absolute' and 'Overall' poverty:
Absolute poverty was defined as 'a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services'.
Overall poverty takes various forms, including 'lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets' (UN, 1995).
Applying these standards, it is very hard to contemplate that they seriously describe the standard of living enjoyed by those on less than 60% of the UK average income. That 60% represents £16,000. However, that figure excludes housing costs, and ignores the fact that the least well-off family in Britain enjoys not only free education for its children but also free health care and a life-long pension regardless of contribution. Neither should we ignore the huge benefits of living in a country where a vote, a jury system and a relatively uncorrupted culture can be taken for granted. Unfortunately, they are deprived of free access to broadcast services as they have to pay for the BBC whether they like it or not.
The most deprived area on the map is Tower Hamlets, which has a significant Bangladeshi population, generations of which have made a choice to relocate from an area where real poverty, life-threatening disaster and hopelessness are widespread.
Child mortality rates among the under-5s in the UK is 5.4 per thousand. In Bangladesh it is 47.8 per thousand.
A 2010 NHS report on 10-11-year-olds in Tower Hamlets recorded the incidence of obesity/overweight at 25%.
Might Brother Ivo be forgiven if he approaches talk of this being 'the most impoverished borough in Britain' with a degree of scepticism?
Now, Brother Ivo is not unsympathetic: something is wrong, and outcomes for these families can and should be improved as they begin the ascent up the economic ladder following the example of Huguenot, Jewish, Irish (and even Brother Ivo's) families before them. Wish them well, but let us preserve the values of the economic order that attracted them here in the first place.
The first rule of managing one’s way out of debt and disadvantage is to pay off debt. Yet, ironically, the 'End Child Poverty' campaign proposes further spending while we continue to borrow. If you do not wish to repeat history, it is no bad thing to re-visit our past and recall how badly the United Kingdom fared when struggling for 50 years to pay off the debt incurred in the liberation of Europe.
You would have thought that this salutary lesson would not have been lost on the Chancellor who signed the final repayment cheque - Mr Ed Balls MP.
(Posted by Brother Ivo)