On the 25thMarch 2010 the Child Poverty Act became law. Brought into statute with cross-party support, it committed Britain to lifting all children out of poverty by 2020. Almost two years on, rather than being closer to that aim we are getting further away. Eradicating poverty in a society riven with structural inequalities was always going to be a challenge. However the challenge continues to grow, at least in part, because we continue to ignore the most obvious solution: children themselves.
What is persistently absent from contemporary debates on childhood poverty are the views and lived experiences of children and young people themselves. Children and young people have been a driving force in every significant movement resulting in social change in modern society. They may live in the same dire conditions as their adult counterparts but are not bound by the same shackles of responsibility and fear. They are at the forefront of movements that encourage society to think differently.
The American civil rights movement, with its dramatic social impacts, was steeled by youth action. In many cases the actions of progressive young people were a response to the conditions of poverty, as much as to institutional racism. When, in spring 1951, black students refused to abide by Virginia State’s segregated schools policy they were also protesting at overcrowded classrooms and crumbling buildings. The result was the famous Brown v. Board of Education legal case that led to the phasing out of segregated schools from 1954.
We could also cite the courage and actions of the young lions in South Africa, who played a central role in the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s. Today too, young people have been instrumental in the fall of dictatorships throughout the Arab Spring. Close to home, the Occupy movement in New York, London and countless other locations, has been led by young people. Whilst some commentators have dismissed the movement as a left-wing spat, it is the first grass roots challenge to the orthodox ideology that “we’re all in this together”. It is also genuinely international, using viral communication to link together what the Occupy Together web site describes as “over 600 communities” in 95 cities, over 82 countries.
Even if you do not accept the notion that young people are central to processes of social change, the voice of children in current debates about childhood poverty is glaringly absent. This seems fundamentally mistaken given that they are increasingly asked to shoulder the burden of the economic crisis.
The removal of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the rise in the costs of tuition fees has taken significant numbers of young people out of education, with UCAS application down 12% in 2011. Analysis of the cuts so far also reveals that youth services have been disproportionately affected. Meanwhile, January 19th marked the first anniversary of Britain’s high water mark for youth unemployment, when a figure of 20.7% was reached for the first time. Or, to put it another way, nearly 1million 16-17 year olds were out of work. All of this paints a bleak future for the country’s younger generations, and what happens if their concerns – their possible solutions – are not accounted for by the nation’s decision makers?
The events of summer 2011 provided the answer, as riots spread across major cities.Unlike most major media outlets, which recycled chaotic images of theft and violence, The Children’s Society spoke with young people and adults about what led to the riots and what needs to be done to prevent further acts. The majority of respondents blamed poverty for the actions, believing that young people took part to get goods that they couldn’t otherwise afford to buy.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that young people are driven to dramatic action, whatever its rights and wrongs. Even policy makers are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem of childhood poverty, as each new piece of research suggests numbers are likely to continue to rise. Alan Milburn, the Independent Reviewer ofChild Poverty & Social Mobility,suggested in December 2011 that the 2020 Child Poverty Targets are not going to be met. He went further to argue that figures are going in reverse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the changes to welfare reforms coming from 2013 are going to see a further 800,000 children living in poverty.
Such findings have generated many column inches in the press and academia, analysing and theorising about what is to be done. However, research the backgrounds of the average academic, MP, policy advisor or journalist and you will struggle to find many who have lived through childhood poverty themselves. Like the civil rights protestors, who understands how to shift the heavy weight that is poverty better than those who carry it daily in all that they do? Indeed, any type of childhood will be a distant memory to the majority of those charged with addressing the growing social problem of childhood poverty during an age of austerity and economic crisis.
The current failure to come anywhere close to the ambitions of the 2010 Child Poverty Act has prompted numerous concerned responses. Some commentators have suggested that, if we are going to see a reversal in child poverty rates, then what is required is a radical shift in policy. There are whispers that we need changes of a scale unseen since the foundation of the welfare state. That would require a real movement in our society, rooted in the lived experience and action of those to whom it would matter most. The welfare state was not created in abstract, but with the people who benefitted most from it. Those very people, in housing estates around the country, became the nurses, midwives, teachers, housing officers and employment advisors that brought Britain into recovery from the devastation of the Second World War.
If such a shift in thinking and action is necessary, then so is a new approach to involving children in ending poverty. That approach must see young people as part of the solution rather than the passive recipients of the problem.
Sara Bryson works as the Policy and Business Development Officer at Children North East, a regional children’s charity that has just completed a participatory photography project exploring the experiences of poverty amongst children and young people in the North East. More information on the project – and a national conference that was held to disseminate and discuss the findings – can be found here. The two photographs included in this post were taken by young people as part of the project.
Sara will also be posting again in the near future on how this project is developing and how it will continue to involve children and young people.
A slightly longer version of this post can be found in the current edition (24th Feb 2012) of The New Statesman. The magazine features a special pull out section on Child Poverty produced in association with the Webb Memorial Trust