Thursday, 4 October 2012

Changing the child poverty narrative

Last Saturday The Journal front page featured children's photographs of poverty in the north east from our project last year, inside was a double page spread about the rising number of children living in poverty highlighting the recent Save the Children campaign. The article included quotes from Sara Bryson, Policy and Development Officer here at Children North East; noted the growth in the number of Trussell Trust food banks in the region; and included this example:
"Father-of-two Steven lives in Newcastle's West End and said living on the breadline is humiliating and embarrassing for his children. The former delivery driver receives housing benefit and survives on £288 a month which he gets from his disability living allowance. After paying for all his bills and buying food, he said his family barely has enough to survive.
"He said: 'I'd say my children live in poverty. Things were tough when I was growing up and I can't say that much has changed. The kid's notice it, of course they do. They know they don't have as much as other people. They don't get the same food they used to. I've got two children and they share a room and that's not right really. The oldest is 10 now so it's not long before she's going to need her own room. I can't imagine how I'm going to find the money for that.
"Steven buys all his clothes in charity shops and gave up smoking to free up more money for the family. 'It's the little things that hit you like when my children's school say they're changing the uniform. They want us to buy an £11 jumper with the logo on and the same one in Asda is £3. For the children there is stigma. You go to school and they come home and ask for packed lunches because the other children have them.'"
You can now see some of the photographs the children took beautifully presented with thoughtful comment on the Poverty and Social Exclusion website which is run by the Open University, 5 other universities and the National Centre for Social Research.

What all these different organisations (and others such as the North East Child Poverty Commission) are trying to do is to bring to people's attention the reality of child poverty today. Children North East's particular contribution is the children and young people's lived experiences through their photographs and commentary. The general public's view is that 'real' poverty either does not exist in this country or that it is not as bad as in previous times; alternatively that people who are poor have only themselves to blame for managing their money badly. It is very difficult to change people's minds, 'shouting' at them certainly does not work, it just polarises attitudes. Those of us that want to change the current mindset about poverty have to find ways to engage in a discussion with the sceptics and gradually win them over.

With that in mind I wrote this letter to The Journal which they printed last Tuesday:

"Dear Sir

Thank you for drawing attention to the scandal of child poverty in our region today. Doubtless some of your readers will think that times were hard when they were young, I am sure they are right, but in some ways it is harder to be poor today because now you know you are poor. You know because of TV. Television shows you constantly how much everyone else has, and reminds you how little you have. That constant reminder is a torment that might make you feel hopeless or angry.

Some readers will blame the parents for mismanaging money; they will point to parents buying fast foods for children instead of cooking proper meals. Of course healthy eating is very important but a Gregg’s sausage roll is 370 calories, one fifth of the recommended daily intake for a primary school child. At 68p it’s very hard to beat on price per calorie, and it’s hot so you save the cost of heating the oven at home.

The UK is the sixth wealthiest nation on earth; it is criminal that children go hungry here. The reason they do is because the wealth is not spread out, the poor don’t have enough and the rich have far too much. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest has widened and widened until now it is as big again as it was in Downton Abbey times, you would have to be in your 90’s to remember what poverty was like then.

Yours Sincerely"

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