27 Feb 2014

Child poverty: rhetoric and reality

There’s always a disconnect between any Westminster debate about poverty and any discussion with people who are actually living it.

Certainly sitting on Angela Chicken’s eleventh floor council flat today in Southampton, all the talk of internal cabinet wrangling over the definition of poverty and whether the chancellor has trumped the work and pensions secretary seemed rather, well… abstract.

By the current statistical measure of child poverty – a household where the income is less than 60 per cent of the average wage – Angela and her nine-year-old son tick that particular and unpleasant box.

Angela, a former graphic designer, now works part-time in the local Sure Start earning £8 an hour. She gets working tax credit and housing benefit but after all her bills are paid she’s left with about £88 a week to buy food, clothes, fund school trips and cope with whatever emergency may come her way. Currently, that includes having no freezer and an oven that needs repairing.

So what’s her definition of poverty? Well, it means her son doing an extra after-school sports club is a no; it means she can’t take him on a day out to anywhere that might cost any money; it means she can’t afford to fix the hole in her shoe or have her hair cut.

But, for Angela , almost more important than the issue of money – or the lack of it – is the question of where she, and others like her, people living in poverty, sit in wider society.

She says poverty is isolating, it’s embarrassing. She says all the language now is that poor people are somehow to blame for the situation they’re in.

Most frustrating is that she’s done everything the government have asked of her. “Going back to work, the volunteering, the zero hours contract and still life is crap.”

And that’s why the rowing in Westminster does matter in the eleventh-floor flat in Southampton. Because it’s about whether government is committed to tackling child poverty.

Today’s strategy offers little if anything new.

The government’s own chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Alan Milburn, described the situation as a farce.

“The Government has ended up in a no man’s land where it effectively declared its lack of faith in the current measures but has failed to produce an alternative set.”

No man’s land? Angela Chicken knows all about that.

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