What is made can be unmade

I was recently invited to say a few words about the work of the North East Child Poverty Commission at the Mayor’s Reception in Gateshead. Councillor Malcolm Brain, a member of the Commission, has been named as the Mayor of Gateshead for the coming 12 months and he has nominated the Commission as one of his ‘good causes’. So, not wanting to depress the audience, I tried to focus on reasons to be optimistic about efforts to tackle child poverty.

It may seem strange at the current time to be thinking optimistically about the future but I believe there is good reason why people working on the child poverty agenda should remain positive, in the longer term at least. I also appreciate that the content of my recent blogs has not been overly cheerful and I wanted to write something that provided an alternative view to the one which you normally get here……

This week, we have already seen CPAG release an excellent report focusing on different aspects of child poverty, looking at where progress has been made and highlighting lessons that can be learnt from previous policies. Whilst the publication of the HBAI statistics tomorrow will inevitably show that the government missed it’s own 2010 target, they will also highlight that hundreds of thousands of children were lifted out of poverty as a result of a strong policy focus on this agenda.

Reasons to be positive (if not cheerful)

There are lots of reasons to be positive. There is (publicly at least) cross party support for a legally binding commitment to ending child poverty. According to the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey 82% of the public think that it is ‘very important’ to reduce child poverty in Britain (a further 16% think it is ‘quite important’) with 79% of people thinking that central government should be responsible for doing this. A relatively new focus on a children’s rights based approach to tackling poverty ‘offers the potential to orientate current policy debates in positive directions’ (p23). The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) ‘takes as its starting point not deprivation but assets’ and ‘the strengths and capabilities of people living in poverty’. The Webb Memorial Trust have recently announced that they are going to ‘spend down’ their resources over the coming years with an emphasis on ‘solution focussed literature’.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated that the cost of child poverty is almost as high as what it would take to end it. They are also currently working on a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for the U.K. CPAG’s manifesto identifies ’10 steps to reduce inequality and put children first’. The Smith Institute have produced a comprehensive document looking at what we have learnt from a century of anti-poverty policies. Richard Dickens has looked at the record of the Labour government in an article called ‘Child Poverty in Britain: past lessons and future prospects’. The Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty found that, when participants in discussions were presented with the reality of life in poverty, there was a ‘willingness to countenance higher taxes and redistribution to combat poverty and disadvantage’. Do we really need a shiny ‘new’ approach or, as I have suggested here before, just a robust one?

Political priorities

So, in my humble opinion, we know quite a bit about how to end child poverty and ‘what works’ in this area already. Nandy and Minujin, talking about global child poverty, state that:

No new scientific or technological breakthroughs are needed to deal with any of the dperivations or domains of poverty identified by international definitions; governments already know how to provide their populations with safe water, sanitation and adequate housing. What is lacking (as it has always been) is the necessary political will to prioritise children’s needs and to choose to spend the reources required. (original emphasis)

Speaking about the potential cost of domestic child poverty in a chapter called ‘Utopia calling: eradicating child poverty in the United Kingdom and beyond’ from the same book as the Nandy and Minujin statement, Ruth Levitas, highlights that:

‘what is conceivable in terms of public intervention now needs revision, in the light of the vast sums of public money poured into bailing out the financial sector: it is a matter of political priorities’

and

‘High wages and salaries, and City bonuses, are not determined by supply and demand, but frequently, as has recently been so clearly demonstrated, by the power of certain groups to reward themselves. Conversely, it is not inevitable and natural but a matter of social policy that 80% of children living in households with no one in paid work are in poverty’

(my emphases)

This chapter is one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking I have read and I would recommend people read it where possible.* Levitas goes beyond the goal of ‘eradicating’ child poverty (getting it below 10%) by 2020 and argues that ‘the utopian method serves to highlight the limitations of current policy and the framework within which future plans are constructed and constrained’ and that this should be the ‘necessary starting point for social justice in the future and the real eradication of child poverty’

So, hopefully we can see that there is much to be positive about in tackling poverty. The short term picture may not be particularly rosy but there has been a lot of progress made since, for example, John Moore declared, slightly prematurely, ‘the end of the live for poverty’ in 1989. Child Poverty is not a natural phenomenon, it is not something that will always be with us and it is not an inevitable part of modern day life. Nor is it imaginary, invented by ‘sociologists like Peter Townsend (who) wanted to argue that poverty was still a major problem in Britain’. It is real, it is measurable and its effects are social facts that cannot be denied.

If poverty is the product of political decisions (and I believe it is) and not cultural or genetic differences then political decisions can end child poverty. What is made, therefore, can be unmade.

*If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book, Ruth Levitas has an excellent introduction to the concept of Utopia and what it can offer sociology and social policy, from her inaugural lecture in 2005, is available free and called The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society.

I am going to try and post another blog or two here in the near future looking in more depth at Utopianism and the work of other organisations such as the New Economics Foundation and Compass who have both developed  ideas for a better society.

The cartoons included in the blog are from the Jacky Fleming website – lots more can be found here

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