Friday, 7 September 2012

Head or heart?

Last week Patrick Butler a Guardian journalist phoned me having read my blog about Children North East staff feeding children out of their own pockets this summer. He is interested in the rapid rise in the number of Food Banks being set up and rightly christened ours a 'Mini Food Bank' in his blog. That prompted some debate on Twitter as to the reasons why children are going without food and what should be done about it. The UK is the 6th wealthiest country in the world, no one should go hungry here. The reason children go without meals is structural - not enough properly paid jobs. But faced with a hungry child what are you going to do, explain how hard it is to change the system or give them something to eat? This week Save the Children launched their first ever poverty appeal for UK children making exactly that point.

One of my colleagues said 'The thing I love about Children North East is it's heart, if we see a problem we just get on and do something about it.' It's true, for example last Christmas Eve one of our staff was visiting a family, they had nothing for Christmas and were expecting to have a miserable time. She came straight back to the office and took them the office Christmas tree, decorations and all. Perhaps a different organisation would have worried it contravened a policy regarding donations of electrical equipment. What we know is it cheered the family up no end.

Last week BBC Radio 4 'Four Thought' broadcast a talk by Ian Robertson, Professor of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin about how power affects the brain. People in positions of power experience increased amounts of the hormone dopamine in their brains which stimulates increased testosterone in both women and men. This has the effect of them becoming more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive; but it also has the effect of making them less empathetic, more ruthless and to appear more callous. I emailed Professor Robertson and asked if he thought the same would apply to people at the top of the social pecking order especially in very unequal societies. He replied yes, there is evidence to support that: 'Research in the States showed for instance that high social status drivers (assessed by value of car) were more likely to engage in traffic violations and display other behaviour that is similar to that shown by people high in power.' If you regularly drive around Newcastle you would probably agree!

Save the Children don't have any projects in the North East so I was delighted to be asked to comment on their new campaign on local radio and TV. I am shocked by the comments made by some people about poverty on radio phone-ins. Not just the lack of sympathy but the outright aggression towards less well off people whom I regard as less fortunate and therefore deserving understanding and help. BBC Look North broadcast my observation that poverty is not the same as it was in the 1920s or 30s; inequality - the gap between the best and lowest paid people in the UK has widened enormously since the second world war to the extent it is as big now as it was in Edwardian times and the 1920s.

If being better off and perhaps feeling superior to our fellow citizens is affecting our brains, I hope we have the good sense to pay more attention to our hearts, how it feels to be poor amongst people who have so much.

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