Al-Mizan Charitable Trust is a Muslim grant-funder which supports disadvantaged people and deprived communities across the UK, regardless of their faith or cultural background.


George Osborne is Cutting Hope

Poverty - absolute or relative - diminishes people, taking away their pride. Where will we be when the coalition is done?

Mary O'Hara writes in the Guardian on what it means to be poor in Britain today.

"...When I realised exactly what George Osborne's announcements earlier this week will mean for poor and less well-off families my heart sank. When it became clear that the government was delivering a double whammy by reneging on the one feeble commitment it had made to tackling child poverty and scrapping the previously proposed increase in the child tax credit as well as taking its ruthless scythe to the working tax credit, well the sinking feeling just kept coming.

Estimates from the Resolution Foundation put the total combined value of these new cuts at £1.2bn in 2012. Changes to the child tax credit alone will wipe £110 a year - per child - off the household budgets of more than 5 million lower-income families already grappling with falling living standards, stagnating wages and the looming uncertainty of unemployment. For the hundreds of thousands of families already without work and struggling to bring up children on state benefits the situation is even bleaker. That many more children will be thrust into poverty is - whatever the prime minister might say - inevitable.

A few months ago, before this latest tranche of dismal statistics but after the drive to austerity had begun in earnest I was asked to write a foreword to Professor Danny Dorling's latest book on social inequality, Fair Play. With the prospect of double-dip recession hanging over the country I was eager to learn more about the evolution of social inequality and the consequences of denying the most deprived in our society of a fair start in life. As I began the process I thought back to my own recession-scarred childhood growing up in poverty during the 1980s. It reminded me that behind all the regressive policies, behind all the statistics and all analysis, are actual children and young people being told by very rich men that their already struggling families are about to struggle even more. Statistics, while illuminating, do not begin communicate the reality of the lives of children from poor families. The effects of child poverty run deep and last long and my own experience is just one of far too many.

In the early 1980s, during the brutal years of Thatcherism, my proud bricklayer father became unemployed. He would never work again. On many occasions my six siblings and I were painfully aware of what it felt like to have no money for basic provisions. We were aware, too, of the fact that receiving free school meals placed us in a particular category of people somewhere towards the bottom of an already deprived community. And we were also conscious of the humiliation of borrowing money from the "tick man" who visited weekly to collect what he'd lent us at extortionate rates of interest. All so we would have some presents at Christmas.

We had no washing machine. We were often envious of our friends whose fathers had jobs and we were certainly envious of the middle-class people we never got to meet because they lived in "better" areas and didn't send their kids to the same schools as us. Many people can't understand this.

The concept of relative poverty - measured according to people's inability to live a comparable standard of living to most of the population - is often wheeled out by the right as evidence that real deprivation doesn't actually exist. Compare today's poor with the genuinely impoverished of decades past or with those in developing countries, the argument goes, and really, they are pretty well off. Look how many poor people own mobile phones, they say, or a television. The attitude is that the modern poor and marginalised should stop their whingeing, get off their backsides, accrue multiple low-paying jobs, and grin and bear it.

Of course millions of children in developing countries live in appalling conditions and yes, the "urchins" of Victorian England who spent their days in poorhouses, roaming streets or working for a pittance in hazardous factories endured enormous hardship. Only a fool would suggest otherwise.

But all of this is missing the point. Poverty - absolute or relative - diminishes people. It takes away their pride. Worst of all it takes away their hope. Don't think for a moment that a child in a poorer household doesn't absorb what is going on around them. Try going to the shops with a parent who has to hand something back because they are a few coins short. Try living in a community where its commonplace for mothers to borrow from one another to buy bread when the family allowance runs out and there is still a day until unemployment benefits are due.

Earlier this year when the BBC ran its documentary Poor Kids in which we heard first hand from children currently living in poverty I could immediately identify with them. Even though my childhood is long behind me their words were painful to hear. Like when eight-year-old Courtney, a young girl growing up on a council estate in Bradford said: "We're a poor family. We're different. People with money, they have more stuff to play with in the garden. They have things in the house." Or when 11-year-old Sam from Leicester who says: "We only get a small amount every month and that goes on what we need and not what we want."

For some children, their homes become unstable as parents crumble beneath multiple pressures. Some kids end up taking on the adult roles of parents who can't cope. The children whose parents, like mine, go into debt to have a TV so there is something resembling a normal life at home or who by hook or by crook find a way for their teenager to have a decent pair of trainers so they aren't embarrassed to go to school, know these things come at a huge price - financial and emotional.

So what if some poorer families manage to accumulate a few consumer durables. They're cheap compared with a few decades ago for a start. But don't think for a moment that people on the poverty line can easily afford them. At the extreme end thousands of poorer families turn to loan sharks to pay for such things. Being in possession of a few "luxuries" is not the same as being able to afford them.

And before someone says "oh well then if they can't afford them they shouldn't buy them" try telling that to the parent who simply wants their children to have something more than nothing. Try walking in their shoes.

Our politicians talk the talk on social equality and "poverty of opportunity" as some like to refer to it, but they merely tinker with the damaging effects of actual poverty. Under New Labour there were some encouraging developments of which the minimum wage, a calculable focus on child poverty, improved maternity rights and progressive projects such as Sure Start are just a few. But to their great shame, their "progressive" era also shepherded in the conditions that cultivated a jump in wealth inequalities between the very top and very bottom of our society. If you were born poor under the New Labour government you can bet you are probably staying poor. In a decade's time, who knows what poorer children's prospects will be?

There are many studies that document the social attitudes, structures and political forces including the ideologies espoused by the Tory government in the 80s under Thatcher, that brought Britain to a place where it ranks disgracefully high among wealthy nations on income and health inequalities. That any government in 2011 does not have (as a new report published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The New Policy Institute, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, concludes) a comprehensive poverty strategy, is simply unacceptable. Despite David Cameron's rebuttals that more children will be thrown in to poverty, as chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, says: "Warnings of a bleak future of rising child poverty have not just been ignored, the government has actively decided to let child poverty rise."

Who knows where we will be by the time the coalition is done? And who knows how much children from poor backgrounds will have had to endure by the time we reach that point? As Dorling says: "The prejudice that preserves poverty remains stronger in Britain than in most of the rest of the rich world." The heart sinks.

Published in the Guardian (2.12.11) - This article is an edited version of the foreword to Fair Play by Danny Dorling, published by Policy Press

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