Dani Garavelli: Stain of poverty won’t come out in wash
THE latest Save the Children report into deprivation in the UK makes for depressing reading.
The charity, which more traditionally fund-raises for countries in the developing world, has launched its first ever domestic appeal because, it says, 1.6 million youngsters across Britain are now living in extreme poverty and it fears, without its help, the figure could rise to two million by 2015.
According to its study, large numbers of poor parents are going without meals, falling behind with bills and making do with worn-out clothes and shoes to make sure their children get enough to eat. Four fifths are racking up more debts as they struggle to make ends meet.
In particular, it highlights the plight of an often overlooked section of society, the working poor. As a recent Department of Work and Pensions’ report pointed out, more than 60 per cent of children who live below the breadline have at least one parent working, albeit in a job which pays them less than they need to survive.
Save the Children hopes to tackle this by raising £500,000 to support those families struggling to keep their heads above water. On its website, it solicits donations in much the same way as Oxfam does when fund-raising for Africa. But instead of encouraging people to give £5 for fertiliser or £25 for a well, it tells potential donors £10 can be put towards a washing machine and £50 will buy a high chair. This, it says, will help ensure children have clean uniforms for school and that families have somewhere they can share a meal together.
That the campaign has proved a talking point is undeniable. All week, people whose efforts to provide for their children (and teach them the value of having a job) are being stymied by low wages, reduced hours and rising food prices, have been shedding some light on what it’s like not to know how you’re going to make it to the end of the week. Meanwhile, Paul Brannigan – star of Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share – has give a moving account of a destitute childhood with heroin addict parents.
Clearly something needs to be done to improve the lives of poorer families, and yet there’s something about the “It Shouldn’t Happen Here” appeal that strikes me as a little, well, naive. The Scottish Government last year invested £175 million in initiatives to support our most disadvantaged communities. If people’s problems could be solved by buying a washing machine and a few toys and books, then UK deprivation would surely have been eradicated by now. There’s something patronising about the tone of the appeal too. I’m sure Lauren, 23, who fled home with three children under seven to escape domestic violence, was genuinely grateful for the new cooker bought for her, but when she says her future “is now looking brilliant”, you can’t help thinking she’s humouring the charity a little.
White goods are great – they are life-savers for bigger families – but can be costly to run and are useful only for those who have the energy and structure in their lives to use them. The reason children from homes affected by alcohol, drug abuse or mental illness go to school hungry and dirty has more to do with an inability to create a structured environment than with a lack of equipment.
Such youngsters would surely have benefited far more from early intervention programmes such as Sure Start, the budget for which has been cut under the Tories, than material goods which may – in some cases – be sold to feed a habit.
As for the working poor, the odd hand-out might help tide struggling parents over a particularly rough patch, but it won’t revolutionise their lives. What they need is a decent living wage, affordable childcare and a just tax system.
To be fair, Save the Children does run a more practical initiative – Families and Schools Together. Recognising that education is one of the key factors in breaking the cycle of poverty, it fosters links between children, parents, teachers and their communities to give them a better chance of fulfilling their potential. Yet even this project runs the risk of absolving the government from introducing policies which will lead to a redistribution of wealth and a fairer, more equitable society.
It is worth remembering that deprivation here is measured in relative terms (those whose income is less than 60 per cent of the national median – or £17,000 a year). Just how relative can be seen by looking at Save the Children’s other campaigns for people in developing countries, where poverty is absolute and babies in drought-affected or war-ridden villages have ribs poking through their chests. Though relative poverty is important – the citizens of a wealthy country should be able not merely to have enough to eat, but to participate meaningfully in society – I’d rather give my money to the starving.
That’s not because I think the British poor are any less deserving, but because, while a one-off cash donation to the East Africa appeal might mean the difference between life or death to a child, tackling the kind of poverty we have here needs long-term strategies and a paradigm shift. If the Save the Children appeal can raise awareness and guilt-trip the government into more action, then it will have proved worthwhile. However, if the message it sends out is that by indulging in small-scale philanthropic gestures we, as individuals, have the power to transform the economic landscape, then it’s worse than pointless, it’s downright dangerous.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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