Friday, 22 January 2010

Warning! I might rant...

So, as promised, a proper post; this is your chance to bail out early though, as it's going to be about something that made me cross, so I may rant.

Still here? Okay then. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Whilst driving down the A2 last Sunday, I was listening to news crumpet Kate Silverton's show on Radio 5 Live. Just for a while, you understand, and only once I had passed beyond XFM's broadcast range. Anyway, towards the end of her show, Kate did a piece on child poverty in the UK. She started with the statistic that 1 in 3 children in this country - that's 4 million kids - are considered to be in child poverty. I was pretty shocked by this, as I suspect you might be now.

Then Kate introduced Joshua Fenton-Glynn, a spokeperson for the Child Poverty Action Group and before I start to rant I should emphasise that this is an entirely noble organisation, worthy of your support. For absolute clarity, I'm not getting at CPAG or Mr Fenton-Glynn. I'm not even getting at Radio 5 Live, a station I often turn to on long car journeys, or Kate Silverton, who actually seems rather nice, and bright as a button too. But this whole piece did make me cross. I'd better explain why.

Kate asked Joshua for a practical definition of child poverty, and he replied that it meant not being able to engage in the things that other children take for granted. He gave exmaples of children not being able to go on school trips, and not having their own bedrooms. For clarity, he stated that child poverty meant not having "what you need to get by". This got me thinking, firstly about my own childhood. I hadn't had my own bedroom until my sister left home when I was 10, pushing 11 - until that point, I had shared with my brother. As for school trips - yes, I went on the day trips but there were some grander excursions during my secondary education that I didn't even ask my parents about, because I knew that they were too expensive. I also knew that if I had asked then they would have found a way to send me, but that's beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination could you say I was in child poverty though because I had "what you need to get by" by the bucketful... and that's because what you actually need to get by, aside from the obvious physical needs of food and shelter, is a stable, loving home. It really doesn't matter that much, does it, if you have to share a bedroom?

The CPAG guy then went on to say that children are expected to be able to do their homework on a computer, and that they feel excluded if they don't have one at home. This may be true but it got me thinking again: is this really how we measure whether a child has what they need at home? Don't get me wrong, I think computers are great and have made a career (of sorts) out of them. But something about this expectation that a child should have one at home jarred with me. I wasn't cross yet, but that was about to change.

Apparently, a stated aim of Gordon Brown's government is to halve child poverty by the end of 2010. It is not on target to achieve this. It was at this point that Kate introduced Theresa May, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as another guest on the show. Kate then asked Theresa and Joshua what should be done about the problem, and it was during their replies that I started to get a bit worked up. One of the most effective ways of raising a child's standard of living is, apparently, extending the tax credits and benefits system to give more to their parents. Also, since 59% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, it might be appropriate to consider raising the minimum wage. Oh, and extending free school dinners had proved effective in the past, and there was more talk of the proposed Tory tax-break for married couples that would, apparently, remove 300,000 kids from child poverty. And that was more or less it...

Again, those are all perfectly reasonable ideas - you might not agree with them all, but you can see that there is some logical reasoning behind why they might work. And, as policies go, they are well-intentioned. But what made me cross (to the point that I was verbally remonstrating with the radio and an otherwise-empty car) was that there was no consideration given to what people can do themselves to help raise their children out of poverty.

Now something like 21% of the adult population of the UK smoke - that's roughly 1 in 5. I could make the suggestion that this figure rises the further down the socio-economic scale you go, and that by inference the parents of a child in poverty are more likely to smoke than this. If you've followed the last hyperlink you'll have seen that there are figures to support this suggestion, but I don't want to turn this into a discussion about class, so for simplicity's sake I'll just use the national average. 1 in 5 of the parents of those 4 million kids in poverty... that's 800,000 kids with a smoking parent. Now what I don't know is how many cigarettes the average smoker gets through in a day but I reckon a reasonable estimate is 10. Maybe that's too conservative, but it's a starting point. That's 3,650 cigarettes in a year, or 182.5 packets of 20. What does a packet of 20 cost, about £6? So that's £1,095 a year, literally up in smoke. Now I've never been a smoker, so I can only imagine how hard it is to give up, but if my child was in need I'm pretty sure I'd be giving it my best shot. After all, £1,095 would buy a computer, pay for a lot of school trips and still leave enough change to be able to contemplate moving somewhere with more bedrooms. I don't even need to point out the obvious health benefits for all concerned to make this seem a blatantly good idea... and 800,000 kids could, at a stroke, be taken out of what we here in the UK call child poverty.

Then I got to wondering how many parents of children in poverty have Sky TV? Their cheapest monthly package is currently £18 - that's £216 a year. It all adds up, doesn't it? And this is why I got cross. Yes, child poverty might well be a problem in this country, especially given the broad definition of what apparently constitutes child poverty. But there seems to be an expectation that someone else - whether that's the government or CPAG or whomever - should fix it. I'm pretty sure that if my child was wanting for something I would do anything and everything I could to rectify the situation, just like my parents did for me. My Mum and Dad were in their mid thirties before they had a holiday; before then, they couldn't afford it and other things, specifically the family, came first. Are today's generation of parents, with their monthly contract mobile phones, Sky TV and all the other trappings of 21st Century life, really as ready to sacrifice aspects of their own lifestyle for that of their children? Sadly, I suspect that a significant number are not, and that surely contributes to what Gordon Brown calls the "scar" of child poverty in this country.

To close (I need to stop ranting soon), I want to go right back to the CPAG spokeperson's practical definition of child poverty - not having "what you need to get by" - and the examples of this that he gave - no computer at home and having to share a bedroom. Can poverty really be defined in such glib terms? Forget the UK, think globally. Anyone who has watched any of Channel 4's current India-themed series of programmes will have seen what poverty really is, in its harshest sense, when the basics of food, drink and shelter are not a given. Maybe we should ask a boy scavenging plastic bottles from a Mumbai rubbish dump so that he can recycle them for a few rupees whether he'd mind living in the UK? After all, he might have to share a bedroom... Or we could go to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world even before the earthquake, and offer a street-child a home... but she might have to walk to the nearest library to do her homework on a computer, and miss out on the odd school trip.

Really, who's in poverty here? And have we got our definition of poverty right?

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