I’ve had poverty on the mind now for a few weeks, ever since I attended ResPublica’s conference of Child poverty. With International Women’s Day still on my mind, and mother’s day coming up next week, another phrase that resonates is ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ A very empowering statement and in this month when we honour women of the world, I think it is also pertinent to point out where our energies should be spent.
As women, we have enormous influence, even though it doesn’t often feel like it and it certainly didn’t sound like it as I sat through the conference on 28 February 2012 at Church House, Westminster listening to some very smart people talk about Child poverty, the issues and the solutions.
Child Poverty had hit the political landscape because of the realisation that the last government’s child poverty targets were not going to be met. So coupled with the coalition’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, Respublica thought it appropriate to re-visit the Child Poverty Strategy released in 2011 and bring it to the fore.
A new approach is needed to child poverty and encouragingly, there were some really innovative ideas floated at this conference that I hope take hold and flourish. The most innovative by far, came from Bruce Davis, who trained as an anthropologist and talked about finance.
He highlighted the importance of investments in combating poverty and how we were stuck with a banking model that essentially didn’t work. The best way to invest money was not to put it in a bank, because that only served the bankers (don’t we know it!) The best way to invest was in assets, such as real property and since this was no longer a safe investment, we had to look for new ways to invest. This could be done by communities, for a nominal sum (as little as £5) and the asset would appreciate over time producing a cash return for everyone who invested. He co-founded Abundance, the first community investment platform, that they call democratic finance.
The first half of the half-day conference was on ‘Thinking beyond welfare’ as it was acknowledged that the welfare bill was too high and we had to look at new ways to lift children out of poverty. Owen Jones, author and social commentator who wrote Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, outlined the main causes of child poverty as Housing crisis – lack of affordable housing, especially in London; Jobs crisis – lack of secure jobs for large sections of the population in the former industrial areas, where a vacuum was created and never replaced; low wages crisis which is being subsidised by the tax-payer through benefits, which has resulted in an enormous bill.
He also gave a well-researched, coherent and credible case for creating more jobs by adopting an interventionist industrial strategy such as that adopted in Germany with enviable results. Germany is one of the few European economies riding the storm of the economics crisis.
Kate Green MP also echoed some of Owen Jones’ observations and called for Labour market reform and she crucially touched on the need to improve access to child care, where the supply side of child-care should be the focus, in order to bring down the spiralling costs and make it more accessible. She also acknowledged the role discrimination, including by employers, played in contributing to poverty. I didn’t agree with her argument on universal benefits, but then the whole conference was tilted a bit too far to the left for my politics, but I digress.
The second half of the conference focused on Community-based early intervention and acknowledged that the support that families received from within their social structure and community was support that was most effective. Inclusion and participation were essential to young people in order to be productive, whatever their background. It was therefore suggested that inclusion was essential to ensure that more traditional methods of inclusion are not replaced by gang culture.
The role of education and early intervention was also discussed and it was acknowledged that good early year’s education was essential for both parents and children, if the numbers of children in poverty was to be lowered. Graham Allen MP, who had worked with Ian Duncan Smith, spoke of the importance of early intervention as 0-3 years are the prime years when the poverty gap is already emerging. He gave an example of his work with young mothers in his Nottingham constituency with an emphasis on increasing social emotional capability and fundamental interactions between children and parents. He achieved an impressive turnaround by using Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) which are now going to be extended to other areas of the country. He said that intervention tended to be too late which made it more expensive and this culture needed to change.
As I listened to all these excellent ideas, what kept going through my mind was how many of these children in poverty were from ethnic minority backgrounds, because all of the causes of poverty seemed to me to be prevalent in ethnic minority communities. Low wages, expensive housing (as most ethnic minority people live in large cities where housing is more expensive) lack of employment, due to discrimination and other factors and lack of assets due to low income.
Even the need for good education, disproportionately affects ethnic minority groups adversely and the research bears all this out.
Research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree foundation in 2007, identified that minority groups had higher rates of poverty than average for the population. It also found that rates of poverty were highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans. Black African children were identified as the second most deprived group after Bangladeshis. 70 % of Bangladeshi children were found to live in poverty.
In the same research, it was identified that unemployment rates were higher for all identified minority groups and the reports uses a term, ‘ethnic penalty’ which is used to ‘summarise the disadvantage associated with a particular ethnic category…..including discrimination.’ It further states that despite high levels of qualifications, Black Africans were not achieving the employment outcomes that would be expected to accompany such qualifications.
When it comes to education, research published by the Runnymede Trust in Black and Ethnic Minority young people and Educational Disadvantage, found that, ‘Ethnic minorities are more likely to belong to a socio-economic group that will increase their disadvantage.’ Also that, ‘The greatest area of concern is for African Caribbean youth who have attainment levels reaching only half of their white counterparts.’
It would seem then that child poverty is a particularly difficult issue for the BME, yet the engagement in these communities is spotty and sometimes non-existent. The researchers, think tanks and policy-makers are largely white, male and middle class and indeed at the conference I attended, there were only three people from ethnic minority backgrounds that attended.
I therefore echo the clarion call of Stephen Baskerville from the London Citizens who campaign for a living wage. It is up to us, who are from these communities to get involved in the debate, discussion, research and policy-making, by civil engagement, calling on government, the market and each other to account, in order to change these awful statistics that make grim reading.
We cannot leave everything to one section of the community to address the issues we face as a community. We must all do it together, that’s the advantage of living in a democracy.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it would surely take a country to lift it out of poverty.