Dear Stavros, It has been challenging to think about what might make a difference to the levels of poverty, particularly child poverty, in this country, and wondering whether anything that works here is likely to have any bearing on poverty in the US. I’ve thought about it a great deal over the last few days. I am not sure I have any solutions at all, nor that I am well-placed to make even tentative suggestions. And I doubt that I am about to say anything that you have not already thought of. The fact that some people escape poverty and succeed in education shows that there is no necessary causative link between poverty and poor educational achievement. Since poverty and poor educational achievement are often found together, it would be fair to conclude that there is, however, some kind of association or relationship between the two. I began to write two comments in response to yours, but neither got me very far.
The first was a complicated explanation of the welfare benefits system here in an attempt to show to you that the benefits are not overly generous and do not encourage reliance on the state except to the permissible extent of providing for essential needs in a civilised Western democracy. I had calculated the amount that an uncomplicated family of two adults and two children would receive (about £10,500 plus rent), and had tried to show how their income would almost double if between them the parents found work of 30 hours a week or more at only just above the minimum wage, thereby demonstrating that the present system already encouraged people to find work. The figures I calculated were only interesting, however, to those in the UK. It is their relative purchasing power that might be interesting to you, and I cannot make comparisons with income and prices in the US.
I would say, however, that the welfare system provides benefits for all that are adequate (but no more) for a no-frills life style that would not include the ability to buy “white” electrical goods without a loan or to own a car or to go on holiday, or to eat out in restaurants or even enjoy a coffee in a café except very occasionally, or to buy clothes except at thrift stores, or to own and run a computer, or a dog, or smoke much. There is enough to pay utility charges (electricity, gas, water), basic food and cleaning materials, basic clothes, and a small amount left over for discretionary spending. A system of government loans is available for the purchase of washing machines, cookers, beds and so forth repaid by deductions from the welfare benefits, and – of course – we have comprehensive healthcare free at the point of delivery. There are free libraries for books, and welfare benefits operate as a passport to other benefits such as free school meals, free medicine prescriptions, free dental care. Accommodation is met separately by local councils benefits as are local taxes. Any family rendered unintentionally homeless will be entitled to be housed. In short, there is an adequate safety net, but few people would voluntarily enjoy life in the safety net for long.
Working Tax Credit, the “carrot” benefit to get people back to work, is actually a redistributive tax that concentrates money on families (but discriminates against two parent families, sadly – another bee in my bonnet). It is fairly generous and includes a large amount for childcare so that women are not prevented from working. A single parent only has to work 16 hours a week in order to qualify for the benefit.
My second attempt at a reply was made up of a list of the issues that seemed to me to be relevant to a family’s poverty. These were issues such as disability (mental or physical), debt, parents’s own level of education, lack of aspiration, envy, a desire to keep up with the Joneses manifested by a national obsession with cars and labels or marques, and so on. Just as you can peel away layer after layer of an onion, it seemed as if these issues were, by and large, only superficial manifestations of something else going on underneath. People get into debt because they spend more money than they have. They spend more money than they have often not because they need to (though this is occasionally the case). They overspend because they need – for some other psychological purpose – the things that they are purchasing with that money: the lady who had been caring for her husband dying from cancer for the last seventeen years … let it all get her down and bought some new clothes to cheer herself up. Often it is symbols of the next social class (or our more successful peers) that we aspire to acquire in order to feel better about ourselves – it is true for all of us. As if a few more possessions will make us a little happier.
In relation to depression, another issue which needs addressing, I think that a large part of it is reactive depression, that is, the depression comes upon someone because of the powerlessness they feel in relation to their circumstances. These circumstances of their life are not as they would wish them to be; they would wish them to be better. Of all those issues that I could think of, that present themselves with sad repetition at the advice centre, it seemed that most (with the exception of physical disability) related in some way or another to a self defined in relation to The Other. I think comparisons are generally unhelpful and have a tendency to leave you feeling bad.
The Other has a great interest in keeping the poor poor, for in doing so he hopefully ensures that he does not become one of them. He knows that the border that separates the Haves from the Have-nots is porous and people percolate through it in both directions. The Other hates the idea of being poor and those who are themselves poor must know this. There seem to be two possible responses to this knowledge that poverty and the poor are despised – passive acceptance (which we might also call hopelessness) and rebellion.
Rebellion, in turn, may take two forms which I shall call “positive” and “negative”. In the positive form, rebellion refuses the label that The Other wishes to attach to the poor, and the poor determine that they shall cease to be poor by working as hard as they can, saving as much as they can and generally living a good life for themselves but they do not seek to define themselves in relation to The Other. In the negative or nihilist form, rebellion takes rather the form of the spittle flinging angry troll whose aim is to defeat the Other and who defines himself specifically in relation to what the Other is not. Both may result in social mobility of the poor out of their poverty, but one is likely to produce happy, productive, loving people whilst the other produces sad men and women whose success is only ever defiant,not satisfying, and who will never be happy until the Other has been completely conquered.
Then there are those who can never move out of their poverty. Principally there are those who have a disability which prevents them from working. I think the majority fall into this category. They will always be poor because they cannot work and it is not their fault. But that does not necessarily prevent them from encouraging and supporting their children in education. Benefits are increased for this group of people, although children often find themselves losing their childhood caring for their parents.
Others stuck in poverty have lives so chaotic and so scarred by abuse, addiction and excess that their survival at all is miraculous. If they have children, those children will almost certainly be taken into the care of the authorities and placed with foster families. Currently a local group of women entrenched in this position – all drug addicts and working street prostitutes – have been “engaged” by an intensive multi-agency programme. So far the news is good – some of the most hardened street prostitutes are actively working to improve their lives and those of their children, to combat their drug addictions and related criminal behaviour, and to move towards a more stable existence with a panoply of support from specialised agencies. It took the most devastating events to produce this level of combined action by the police, social services, housing providers and drug charities, but it is encouraging that their determined work is paying off for the time being. Others are not so lucky. This is a very powerful account of one person’s attempt to help one such chaotic man: Stuart, A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters which describes some of the people who find their way to our advice centre when it’s winter and cold outside.
So, if some people escape poverty, but others don’t, what is it that makes the difference? I toyed with the idea that it was love. A loving, supportive family is a much nicer springboard than a background of abusive familial relationships. Yet some people escape poverty exactly because those very abusive relationships have motivated them to leave it all behind. I have been fascinated by the myth of Pandora’s box for a long time. Depending on who you talk to, there are two very different versions of the myth – both of which are explained in the Wikipedia link. In one version, all the evils contained in Pandora’s jar are unleashed on the world. Hope, the only thing left in the jar, remains locked away inside forever, and we are condemned to a hopeless existence surrounded by demons trying to trip us up at every turn. In the second version – the one I grew up with – the same evils are unleashed but hope is there too as the antidote to evil. Both versions of the myth have their supporters but I believe that we choose which version we support, not generally on an intellectual interpretation of the original texts, but based on our instinctive inclination towards the world. I wonder whether this Hellenic antidote of hope might not equally be renamed faith. It is not hope or faith that makes the difference when you are poor?
Can something as basic as an inclination towards the world be encouraged by the state? It seems unlikely. The role of the state is to provide the safety net of essential provisions – a good education, adequate welfare benefits, protection from criminal harm, public transport, adequate essential health care including non-medical care for mental health problems – but individuals provide the essential difference, I think. Whilst the state may provide the school, it is the inspirational teacher who will make the difference. Whilst the state may provide the mental health services, it is the caring counsellor who will make the difference. Whilst the state may provide the welfare benefits, it is the next-door neighbour or the friend that drops round every day that makes the world seem less lonely.
Almost twenty years ago I read a book, the memory of which has stayed with me. It was written by Bob Holman, a professor of social work, who chose to live on one of the most deprived housing estates outside Glasgow. It was his belief that every mother wants the best for her child, that every mother has hope in relation to her child, but that circumstances in the first five years of the child’s life in the family could make or break the future of that child and determine whether or not hope prevailed. Working with non-governmental organisations such as Home-Start and New Pin and motivated by his Christian faith, he pioneered early interventions in struggling families – these organisations provide practical help with washing clothes, cleaning, shopping, respite child care, and a kind person to listen and support vulnerable families. The emphasis has to be on a “bottom-up” approach that involves the very people that need the help, but the Other being kind makes an enormous difference. Much, much later this sort of work was adopted by a Labour government as government policy under the name Sure Start.
So that’s what I think it comes down to. Hope and Love, or Faith and Love, and in default of that, caring support for vulnerable families through charities and volunteers – but you need to get in early. Oh, and in school teaching girls to respect themselves and their bodies, and teaching boys that there are things that matter more than how much money you have. Tracy Chapman gets it right, I think.
I’ve ducked the subject of why children of some ethnic backgrounds do better than others for now. Briefly, I think the economic and social origins of different ethnicities are probably important in determining the value those parents give to education and the aspirations they have for their children. It would not, for example, be accurate to group together all Asian children since their educational outcomes are very different depending on the nationality of their parents. I would hate to be a policy maker. If I’ve learnt nothing else from my work at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, it is that it is very difficult to generalise about people. I wondered if you agreed, or if you had other suggestions…
There’s a profile of Bob Holman here: http://www.childrenuk.co.uk/choct2002/choct2002/bob%20holman%20a%20profile.html
And an interview with him and an ex-resident of the Glasgow estate here: http://www.variant.randomstate.org/13texts/Bob_Holman.html
New Pin, now Family Welfare Association: http://www.fwa.org.uk/