Time to give poverty a place at the table

7th June 2013 at 01:00

Poverty hides in plain sight in Scotland. We have far more children living in poverty than other northern European countries, yet it rarely captures the public's imagination.

Some see that indifference as a sign of the times, the legacy of the Thatcherite self-sufficiency and individualism that have made neediness shameful. Yet Scotland prides itself on a collective spirit, and Holyrood's politicians do not shy away from blaming social problems on poverty. So why doesn't it resonate more?

There is too often a sense of inevitability about poverty in Scotland, a tacit feeling that in some places it is a fact of life, part of the social DNA in moribund, post-industrial communities. Perhaps we are not quite as prepared to tackle poverty head on as we like to think.

Words such as "deprived" and "disadvantaged", preferred in polite circles to the blunter "poor", have a distancing effect. They would have been abhorred by that great chronicler of poverty - and sworn enemy of jargon - George Orwell. We talk about poverty often enough, but in terms that insulate us from what it really means.

Delegates at the recent EIS conference on poverty, however, were confronted with shocking realities: children excluded from school because, on long-empty stomachs, they had snapped; others who fall asleep at their desks because no one can afford to buy pillows for their beds.

Glasgow Caledonian University poverty expert John McKendrick wants us to move beyond the dry, deadening indicators of deprivation, beyond "the comfort of depressingly familiar knowledge". We must "sharpen our thinking" about how to tackle poverty, he says. Scotland, remember, is supposed to eradicate poverty by 2020, yet is on course to have tens of thousands more poor children by the end of the decade than it does now.

Teachers at the conference spoke of parents who refused to accept free school meals or accept help with basic domestic skills. However well meaning, such initiatives erode people's pride by implicitly telling them that where they come from is a problem, something that needs to be fixed.

Poverty correlates with a host of social problems, but it is not synonymous with unrelenting misery. "Most of the kids love Castlemilk," says Irene Campbell, depute head at the secondary school in one of Scotland's poorest communities. She sees a solidarity among her students not replicated in wealthier parts of the country. "Bang the Drum" command the T-shirts of young players at the astonishingly successful table tennis club in another supposedly blighted part of Glasgow, Drumchapel: coming from the Drum is a source of pride, not shame.

Tackling poverty is not about rescuing people from their surroundings but giving them the tools to choose for themselves whether to move away - or do something worthwhile in the place where they have always lived.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk, TESS reporter.

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