The Dispatches documentary, Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids, was aired on Channel 4 last night. As a practitioner who encounters child poverty on a regular basis, the thing I found most shocking was that despite the heartbreaking situations, small, anxious pale faces and the unforgivable hunger of the children featured, the stories were by far not the most shocking we face on a daily basis. The truth is, this endemic is much worse than could be possibly be seen in a one hour programme.
In interviews, whenever politicians are being probed about how relatable they are to the ordinary citizen, the question that is always used as the litmus test is “ how much is a pint of milk”. Usually they can’t even get that right, but personally I would like to see them answer questions that relate to real struggles of people in Britain at the moment. Imagine Priti Patel’s smirk as she’s asked “which tinned food is less revolting eaten cold because you don’t have the money to heat it up”. Or Jacob Rees Mogg shrugging nonchalantly when posed how he would try to keep an asthmatic 2 year old out of hospital through the winter while living in a damp flat with a faulty boiler and no flooring, utterly astounded when his suggestion to just throw another fox cub on the fire wasn’t applauded as just “good, common sense”. The children in the documentary knew all of these things. They knew how much gas cost, how unfair the system was, they understood how poverty was affecting their life chances socially, economically and medically in the future.
When mainstream media run articles about child poverty, the comments sections are typically an absolute social cesspit of human nature, seemingly devoid of empathy, with blame always being put on parents, no matter what the circumstances. Before the Dispatches documentary was released, comments sections which showed adverts for it had some perplexed users asking why they didn’t just install a wood burner or an aga to keep their houses warm. But in a good practice guide distributed within children’s services and other statutory agencies entitled ‘Neglect In The Context Of Poverty and Austerity’, which was published by Research In Practice in 2019, the findings from recent studies show that practitioners need to unlearn this way of thinking and develop a new approach to supporting struggling families:
To address fully the impact of neglect in our society we cannot look at changing parenting alone. Children’s lives must be understood within the contexts of both the strengths and the difficulties within families….and the wider structural issues, such as poverty and unemployment, within our society. (Scott and Daniel, 2018).
The document identifies that social workers and other practitioners need to consider that “resources and opportunities are shaped by the way the economy and society are structured and by political decisions about the distribution of resources” and that the response to poverty needs to be co-designed by the very people who are experiencing it. Because for many professionals in this area, the occurrence of poverty in the families they are working with is so normalised that it becomes what is described as a ‘wallpaper of practice’- something so familiar that it is no longer even considered as a factor when assessing parents ability to care for their kids (Morris et al 2018b).
The Children’s Commission on Poverty found that those families most at risk of poverty were lone parent, families, children living in Bangladeshi and Pakistani households and families that included a disabled child or adult- the very families that are often scapegoated by political parties and right wing groups as pilfering our resources . Funny how we are continually told that the people who have the very least are the ones taking the most.
Most families living in poverty are in employment too, which destroys another myth about child poverty. It has been on the rise since 2011, with the number of children living in poverty rising by 15%- the majority of which has been within working families (Barnard et al, 2018).
This isn’t just about struggling to buy uniforms or not going on holiday. Poverty affects our mental and physical health, the quality of our sleep and our personal and professional relationships. It affects children’s ability to concentrate and their cognitive, emotional and social developments.
The Conservative government has been in power for 9 years. Their failure not just to address this issue, but to actively make it worse is not just gross incompetence. It is entirely deliberate. In July it was revealed that 3.5 million pounds allocated by the EU in 2014 to relieve child poverty and homelessness had not been used by the government and was to be handed back. Their excuse was that their plan to use it for breakfast clubs was deemed ineligible for the criteria, and alternative uses had not been proposed. Which isn’t surprising. The people in charge of using this money haven’t the slightest idea what it is like to be poor, and have zero interest in actually consulting the communities affected by poverty to see how they feel it would be best used to meet their children’s needs.
Last week, we also found out that a £3.6 billion fund which was set aside for spending on some of the poorest towns in the country- which also happened to be Labour strongholds- was instead used on wealthier areas where Conservative MP’s have a majority of less than 5000, such as Loughborough, a town which doesn’t even feature in the top 500 of the UK’s poorest towns. In fact, one third of the areas that will be receiving cash from the Towns Fund aren’t even in the top 300 of most deprived and this money is being used to hold onto Tory seats, not being put to where it is most needed.
Combine this with the fact that the National Audit Office reported in 2016 that sanctions on benefits claimants actually cost the taxpayer more than it did before the changes. Combine this with the thousands of deaths that have been directly attributed to Universal Credit, sanctions and the other countless and cruel changes to the welfare system. Then we begin to see the bigger picture of what they really think of us and what they are trying to do. By exhausting and gaslighting a vulnerable population, they make us dependant and complacent, make us fight each other over dwindling resources on a promise that things will get better if we just vote for them again, or better still, not at all, lest we start making connections between those in power and how desperate our lives have become.
It’s why some ordinary working class people will vote Tory time and time again. Despite the fact their lives have got worse under them, and will continue to. Despite the fact that they have failed to deliver Brexit when they have had three Prime Ministers and three years, and why people just simply choose not to believe that the Conservatives are privatising an NHS they rely on, despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence to the contrary.
When confronted, their only tactic is to blame everyone else and wash their hands of all responsibility. Priti Patel claimed £152,672.15 in expenses in 2017-18 and still had the arrogance to outright say poverty was not the government’s fault while stood in an actual food bank the other week. While we allow ourselves to be treated with such open contempt, the outcomes of our children worsen. If you have ever supported the Conservative Party, ask yourself what is the best thing they have done to make your life better? The answer is nothing, because if the Tories had benefitted you in anyway, you would not be reading this blog. You’d be busy on your private beach in the Cayman’s, probably deleting any messages you may have ever received from Prince Andrew. They have not delivered on a single thing they promised you and they are not about to start now.
They taught us to be hopeless, that this is just how things are, but we should never accept this as our normal.But if we allow the Tories back in come December it will be. An independent think tank called The Resolution Foundation has predicted that child poverty will rise for at least the next four years, which if correct means another million kids will grow up this way by 2023.
If we want these children to have hope and aspiration again, then we must have it ourselves. If you think voting Tory is a good idea, imagine meeting one of these kids and explaining to them why their suffering is all for the good of the country and we’re All In This Together.