What does the word “poverty” mean to you? Consider this, from a mother involved with lone parent charity Gingerbread: “It doesn’t mean what you put on a plate…it also means, because learning doesn’t take place just in the classroom, it means holidays…and decent food…it means eating healthily – five a day.”
The poverty debate, along with campaigners’ and successive governments’ efforts to address it, was a focus in the recent report, Decent Childhoods: reframing the fight to end child poverty, which I co-authored with Kate Bell (the quote from the Gingerbread parent formed part of the research). The report comes just as many question the impact of the cuts on society’s most vulnerable and their effect on child poverty.
Our report questions why the target to halve child poverty by 2010 was missed – by a substantial margin. But we are also interested in why, despite Labour expending considerable political capital, investment and energy in “ending child poverty in a generation”, the issue did not resonate outside a narrow policy elite.
Poverty, it was argued in a 1981 article in the magazine New Society is a powerful call to action: if you see poverty then you must feel compelled to action. But while the argument has been invoked regularly by activists, there’s a problem with it as a basis for campaigning. Just because I see poverty, and tell you it exists, doesn’t mean you feel compelled to act – it depends on what you see as well.
Most people simply do not recognise the concept of “poverty” as the appropriate prism with which to view childhood disadvantage. It’s not that they don’t see disadvantage, inequalities, unfairness and absence of social justice; they just don’t call it poverty. The standard indicator of poverty – living in a household with income below 60% median is useful as a device to track progress, meaningful in analytic terms but hopeless in conveying a sense of vision or wider social purpose.
What’s more, most people who live in what sociologists or policymakers might call poverty would never describe themselves as poor. And, if there are 2-3m children in poverty in the UK, why are they and their parents so absent from these debates? There is a disconnect. Poverty is for many a stigmatising concept; announcing “I am at the bottom of the pile”.
Our public discourse plays to that stigma, drawing on longstanding images of the “underclass”and a culture that demeans those claiming benefits and living in social housing. This has been explored in Owen Jones’ Chavs: the demonization of the working class which talks about the change from working class “as salt of the earth to scum of the earth” and “a class to be escaped from rather than to be proud of”. There is a change in language and a clear hardening of attitudes towardspoverty . The recent British Social Attitudes survey revealed that people believe the root cause of child poverty is poor parenting.
So how can we communicate a vision of the kind of society we want for our children? “Combating poverty” may help to raise some outcry, but can we develop a more inclusive vision of change which those most effected may want to call their own?
Our aspiration for Decent Childhoods is that all children live in families with financial security; have meaningful opportunities; and are valued.
There’s little point denying that some of what is needed to achieve this requires investment, nor that given the economic times we live in, that this presents an immense challenge. But it’s not all about money. Changing the language around these issues whether as policy makers, professionals, the media and the public could make a profound difference. Whilst children’s sense of being valued comes first from their parents and families, we can do more to engender a positive inclusive language. Our report argues that three public “tests” might help further this cause. Are public services respectful of the agency and expertise of the people they are designed to serve? Can this agenda be an inclusive call to action? Does the language used by those with power and influence stigmatise those without?
Those concerned with demonization of those in poverty should take inspiration from how public language around race, homosexuality and disability has changed over the years. All are different from poverty and from each other as well, but what was acceptable 30 years ago, is no longer acceptable today.
In the way services operate perhaps some exemplars may come from unlikelier sources. Supermarkets wouldn’t dream of stigmatising their customers. They value their pound too much, and there is always another option down the road. If they don’t feel valued as a customer they can take their business elsewhere. Often in public services such an option doesn’t exist (nor should it – our argument here isn’t about choice), but engendering that same sense of volition must be an aim for services.
There are some successful examples putting this rhetoric into reality; although under threat in the current cuts, Sure Starts have been successful in their bottom up, parent led ethos and their universality. Another radical approach, the LIFE project, developed by social enterprise Participle and Swindon borough, for working with families in chronic crisis, puts people at the heart of the solution; they choose the professionals they work with, lead their process, the results have been very encouraging.
We think that rather than trying to sell poverty to a sceptical public, we need to be talking about a broader constituency, and a set of problems that affects both the many on the lowest incomes, and the many more struggling to keep their heads above water.
Decent childhoods means not only financial security, but better opportunities, and a sense that all children are valued. Surely these are things that everyone would want for their children?