Indictment of a threadbare social policy

6th December 2002 at 00:00
CHILDHOOD POVERTY AND SOCIAL EXCLUSION: From a child's perspective. By Tess Ridge. Policy Press pound;17.99 paperback, pound;50 hbk.

A little boy on BBC 1's police series Merseybeat recently got into trouble for trying to wreak revenge on a moneylender who was harassing his mum. She'd borrowed some money to send him on the school trip she couldn't afford. The boy, by the way, was nicknamed "Povvo" by his classmates.

It's fiction, but elements of the basic scenario - anxiety about the cost of a trip, and the nickname - ring true. Tess Ridge, author of this book, quotes a mother of three as saying: "When they have school trips and things I have to say no and that's the hardest because we get so many letters home for school trips."

And as for nicknames, there's the child who says: "If you are, like, wearing scruffy clothes people just go, 'Look, look at him, scrub'."

You might think that as the years go by, the number of children living in poverty would gradually fall? But it comes as a shock to learn from the first chapter of Ridge's book that over the final 20 years of the 20th century "the numbers of children in poverty showed a three-fold rise, from 1.4 million in 1979 to 4.5 million in 1998-9". We have the highest rate of child poverty in Europe - 32 per cent of our children are poor by comparison, say, with France (12 per cent), Germany (13 per cent), or Denmark (5 per cent).

Since 1999, when Tony Blair announced a 20-year mission to eradicate child poverty, there's been much more awareness of the size and nature of the problem. A lot of the detail has been missing from the picture, however, and this book does an excellent job of filling some of the gaps.

It's based partly on analysis of existing data - mainly the British Household Panel Youth Survey - and partly on interview-based research among children and young people from low-income families in urban Bristol and Bath and in rural parts of Somerset.

Statistics, they say, are anonymous. Maybe so - but those on child poverty are stark enough to conjure up the image, familiar to thousands of teachers, of the child who isn't quite so well dressed, has free dinners, often looks wan and tired, and who desperately needs to go off on the residential trip - but keeps saying, out of consideration for his mum, that he doesn't really want to go.

The interview material in the book confirms the image: there's 14-year-old Cally, who says: "I don't know, sort of like, the future what's going to happen and that. I might not get a good enough job and all that." And Brad, aged 15, whose only wish for the future is "to have more money that's all, go to college so I can get a job so my kids don't have to go through it".

One of the striking features of the children in the survey is how understanding they are of their families' problems and, in some cases, how resigned they are to missing out on what their peers take for granted. Fifteen-year-old Clarke says: "If you can't do it, you can't do it - you accept it don't you?" And from 10-year-old Nigel, there's resignation beyond his years: "I won't really ask. I try to forget about it or something."

By contrast, adults don't come out of the story well. At one level, there are the teachers who aren't always sensitive about the impact of demands for cash for trips and special events, and the doctor who can't be bothered to fill in a form that would have given a mother access to a holiday from the Family Fund. "If they want me they can write to me," he said. (She didn't get the money.) But the responsibility goes much further. If one British child in three lives in poverty it's because that's how we've chosen to run our country. Germany has a better record than the UK, not through some accident of nature but because its welfare system - created by deliberate national policy - helps poor families much better than ours does.

So, are we going to do better? In school, we can think about the issues that children identify as problems, such as trips and uniform. At national level we can take a look at benefits - the book recommends overhauling the Social Fund and replacing loans with straightforward grants.

Most importantly, we need to listen to the children because, as this book shows, they have needs - and insights - which though linked to family concerns are nonetheless particular to them. And as Jack, one of the parents interviewed, says: "It's always the kids that suffer at the end of the day isn't it?"

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