In a hall in East London, the Reverend Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary’s, Newington, has a question for a small group of local teenagers, all aged around 15 or 16.
“Fifty-two per cent of children in this borough live in poverty. What do you think is the average salary of people who work here?” he asks.
The guesses range from £10,000 to £18,000.
“All wrong,” he replies. “It’s £58,000. Because of Canary Wharf.”
Fraser’s been asked by the local council to find out what local children think is fair and unfair about the borough. We don’t tend to hear the voices of normal kids from the rough parts of town in the mainstream media - we tend only to hear from the extremes (the famous, or the ones being glowered at by Ross Kemp because they're part of a Growing Gang Problem). It’s a shame really, because the things they have to say are pretty interesting. After spending a few hours with them, I made a list of some of the things they find unfair:
- They think that when they put their address on their CV, it makes potential employers less likely to consider them, and that’s not fair. They don’t like the fact that their area is known as a place where there were riots. They don’t like the fact that when they go to places like Canary Wharf it’s opulent and gleaming; the polar opposite of the scruffy houses near Brick Lane where they live.
- They don’t think it’s fair that old people in Tower Hamlets have to live in bad housing association accommodation. They’d like to volunteer to help them, but they don’t know how.
- They don’t think it’s fair that other kids in London boroughs have more facilities, parks and open spaces. They think it’s because those boroughs have better local government.
- They don’t think it’s fair that people who work for the council; bus drivers and the like, are constantly rude to them. One boy: “These people are supposed to be public servants but the problem is they don’t see us as members of the public.”
- They don’t think it’s fair that their streets are scary. They’d like there to be more monitoring of places like bus stations, because gangs and drug addicts worry them.
- They don’t think it’s fair that they themselves often stereotype other young people - e.g. there’s a tendency to think someone’s a “chav” just because he’s wearing a hoodie. One white kid, with a really thick East End accent, says: “Young people often think things like all Asian kids act the same: it’s bang out of order, and that’s mostly because of things put forward by adults in the media,” at which point most of the kids - the majority of them Asian - look at me accusingly, and I take a sudden interest in my shoes.
The thing that got me about this list - and there were a load of other issues - was that I honestly don’t think I’d have said any of them when I was their age. I had a middle-middle class upbringing in a largely lower-middle class town, and was accordingly insulated from the twin concepts of what was fair and what wasn’t.
I wasn’t scared of going out on the streets, I didn’t feel like public servants were in any way opposed to me, I didn’t think my postcode would have any impact on a job application, and so on. I just didn’t feel like I had it much better or worse than anyone else. A bit later, with the benefit of hindsight, I realised I did. But the point is, I don’t think it’s fair that none of these things should have impacted on me growing up, while these kids should be worrying about all of them at once. Because frankly, childhood’s tough enough.
The issue here is one of poverty - in some cases absolute, in most cases relative. Tony Blair pledged to abolish child poverty by 2020, and clearly, we won’t. But the argument over how we assess this is a thorny one. Blair had a simple aim: reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent median equivalised income. There is an obvious issue with this goal: if average incomes go up, but incomes of people lower down the scale stay still, then poverty has gone up despite the fact no one’s poorer. Likewise in a recession poverty is reduced, because the average income goes down.
Policy Exchange - a think tank with which I can usually be relied upon to disagree with on everything - has also put forward a list of reasons why the target is flawed. It points out that if more people are in work, the median income goes up, thus increasing child poverty. So by this measure the Government is rewarded for doling out cash in benefits, rather than getting people into work, or improving the care and education systems, dealing with drug and alcohol dependency, improving housing, etc.
The kids in East London spoke a lot to me about relative poverty - about children in their borough living in cheap clothes, never being able to go on holidays, not eating properly - and as their testimonies revealed, the knock-on effects of this are pernicious.
The question is whether the child poverty measure reflects their lives. It certainly feels right. Are the calls from Policy Exchange and the like merely a desire to muddy the waters? David Cameron has, prior to coming into power, said: “Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong." The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has forecast that by 2015 the number of children in relative poverty will have risen by 400,000. A cynic might raise an eyebrow at this newfound desire to shift the goalposts on the part of the right.
It’s pretty easy to agree with Policy Exchange that the Government should look at things like parents with addiction and at in-work poverty, and it’s also clear that the child poverty measure is not perfect. But there are strong counter arguments. For a start, Labour wasn't just targeting that 60 per cent figure. The issue of shifting wages was why the Child Poverty Act includes an absolute poverty line - defined by the UN as “characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs.”. It also includes a measure of low income and material deprivation, and another on persistent poverty.
Policy Exchange claims that if people are moved from expensive private sector housing to cheaper social housing, that also pushes up poverty, because they need less cash in benefits - but actually there is a measure of before and after housing costs under the current system. Moreover, when the right complains that the statistic is a disincentive to work, it doesn’t note that almost two-thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one member works. The answer is about surely about introducing a living wage, not reducing benefits.
The other issue is that even if you disregard the median income figure, Labour’s achievements on many of the outlying factors were largely very impressive. Educational attainment and staying-on rates increased significantly; subjective well being and mental health indicators all showed a steady upward trend; and homelessness decreased. This was achieved through a number of methods - a more progressive tax and benefits system, measures designed to encourage parental employment, and more broader provisions - Sure Start, early years education provision, and the Decent Homes programme among others.
But it would be disingenuous to make out that Labour’s record was brilliant, when so little progress was made on arguably the two biggest drivers of inequality - the differential rewards in the labour market and the disparities in educational attainment. And there’s a wider problem here: us.
As the policy consultants Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz have argued: “By the middle of Labour’s period of Government, it had become clear to those concerned with child poverty that greater public concern on the issue was necessary to drive forward the policy agenda [...] but the agenda failed to resonate.” They cite three major reasons. Firstly, there was no coherent vision of what a society without it might look like. Second the term itself suggested “poverty” only applied to a static, small group of people, rather than a shifting dynamic, affecting the larger fabric of society. Finally, there was insufficient respect for those in poverty, with politicians and press happy to talk about a feral underclass.
And the one thing that really came out of the discussions I had is exactly how unfair - and how self-perpetuating - poverty is. What the kids were saying is backed up by statistics: by 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE than their wealthier peers. Leaving school with fewer qualifications translates into lower earnings over the course of a working life.
Basically, when you’re talking about child poverty, you’re talking about fairness. It’s something about which we should be absolutely outraged - but we just aren’t.