Hard Times: a Dickensian Christmas in 2017

By Bernadette Meaden
December 13, 2017

When Jesus was born in a stable, men of high status brought him gifts. The shepherds, being poor, simply brought their company, and their love. I’m afraid that in modern Britain, faced with a child born into disadvantage, the shepherds would have to rally round and do what they could for the baby, whilst the men of high status would withhold their gifts, for fear of rewarding Mary and Joseph’s perceived fecklessness, irresponsibility and bad parenting.

Granada Reports, the ITV news programme for my local region (North West England) has been reporting on child poverty in the area. It has been very difficult to watch. (videovideo)

Primary school staff spoke of hungry children, and parents collapsing in the school hall because they had not eaten for days so that their children could eat. Those parents were invited into the breakfast club for cereal and toast, and then referred to a foodbank.

Other parents are being supported by letting them charge their phones and wash children’s clothes in the school, because they have no electricity or hot water at home. Coats and shoes are given out to children who haven’t got them. The schools reported that they had seen a ‘noticeable rise’ in the numbers of working families who were in this kind of poverty.

Most of this rise in child poverty is due to government reforms and cuts to social security.  No doubt the government would say it has to make these ‘tough choices’ or ‘difficult decisions’, so that when the children grow up they will live in a country with ‘balanced books’. But for children living in severe deprivation now, that notion is an obscene irrelevance. They have one shot at childhood, and if it is spoilt by government policy, the rest of their lives will be blighted. Anyone who doubts this needs to listen to the Morecambe GP who was interviewed by Granada Reports.

The GP said, “We’ve seen rickets, we’re seeing other conditions, commonly now, that are linked to malnourishment…We wouldn’t expect to see them in a developed country” Asked what long-term impact this could have on the children he said, “The first thousand days of a child’s life are absolutely vital in terms of brain development, and if you miss those windows, some of those things will never be recovered. That is devastating long-term in terms of the consequences on their mental health, their ability to work in the future, on their physical health, on educational outcomes – across the board”

We know that child poverty is predicted to rise by one million to over five million, entirely due to government cuts to Universal Credit.   So perhaps it’s not surprising that there now seems to be a campaign to divert attention away from poverty and to get people to focus on ‘social mobility’.

If we view poverty through the lens of social mobility, it shifts the responsibility away from government and the economy and onto the individual, away from concrete facts like wealth and income distribution and on to more nebulous areas like education, where the government can make endless policy announcements, spend a little money here and there and look as if it’s doing something, without challenging the economic status quo or discomfiting anybody who finds the idea of redistribution of wealth horrifying.

There has been a concerted effort to decouple child poverty from social mobility. Indeed the Social Mobility Commission used to be called the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, but child poverty was dropped - presumably because any focus on it was rather embarrassing , as government policy steadily pushed more and more children into poverty.

When Iain Duncan Smith told disabled people, "with our help you will work your way out of poverty" the implicit message was that if disabled people were unemployed, then it was perfectly acceptable that they should live in poverty. Now, the message is that it’s all about social mobility – so if you are a child born into poverty, or your parents have fallen into poverty, then you, or they, just need to get a bit more ambitious. If your development is stunted through malnourishment, that’s evidently a price we’re prepared for you to pay, because we have policies that we know will tip a million more children into poverty, and show no intention of changing them.

The desire to shift focus away from child poverty, deprivation and economic issues was apparent today when Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman talked about "intractable" schools that have not performed well for the past decade. As Ofsted says, "Many have high proportions of pupils from deprived areas, and higher than average proportions of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities." But, says Ms. Spielman, this is no excuse. “I do find myself frustrated with the culture of disadvantage one-upmanship that has emerged in some places”, she said. This is very easy to say from a position of privilege. But when a 21st century school finds itself dealing with the kind of problems we associate with the Victorian era, it may understandably struggle to achieve the desired results.

Ms Spielman displayed a startling ignorance of the nature of poverty and inequality in the UK when, in a radio interview, she said, “Every school has many disadvantaged children, many children with different kinds of problems, yet we have to avoid a narrative of disadvantage one-upmanship.” The fact is, according to the IFS “One in four poor children live in the 10 per cent most deprived local authorities.” To suggest disadvantage is evenly distributed across the country is simply wrong.

Teachers saying, "My school’s got more pupil-premium pupils than yours" is an example of this undesirable narrative, said Ms. Spielman. But pupil-premium numbers are an indicator of deprivation, and that may not mean much to Ms. Spielman, but to the head of a school where parents are fainting with hunger it is one of the few officially accepted, albeit inadequate, ways they have of expressing the grim realities, and actual human suffering, they face every day. Much as some people would like it to be, we must not allow that to be swept under the carpet.

As if soaring poverty wasn’t enough, we now know that some children are being forced to shoulder the burden of social care which has been dumped by the government. Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan recently spoke about a generation of young carers sacrificing their future to care for their loved ones. He said, "Austerity has meant local authorities have had to cut back on adult social care and the result is children are picking up the pieces. A quarter of the children supported by Barnardo’s young carers’ services are carrying out more than 30 hours a week of caring – that’s the equivalent of a full time job.” I would expect these children to struggle to cope at school – or is that a narrative of disadvantage one-upmanship? Social care was not even mentioned in the latest Budget, so we can only assume that the government is happy to let this situation continue.

When challenged about 128,000 children being homeless this Christmas, Mrs May recites statistics about the number of ‘affordable’ homes built under this government. Evidently not affordable for all.

Christmas is all about the children, people say – and for Christians, one child in particular. But this year, I cannot look at a Nativity scene without feeling shame and anger at how so many children are faring in our own towns, cities and villages in the 21st century.

Update: The Conservative MP for the constituency in which the child poverty reports were filmed, David Morris MP,  has questioned the validity of the reports, and suggested the primary schools were politically motivated, with 'links to Momentum'. See a report and interview with Mr. Morris here

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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