Monday, 9 January 2012

Relative Poverty

It is estimated that 2.5 million British children are currently living in poverty. This week channel four 4thought TV are running a serious of short films looking at children's experiences of poverty. As I listened to the first child I thought of my own childhood and what I would have considered poverty to be in 1978.

My first home was a rented flat with no bathroom or inside toilet. No phone, washing machine or central heating, This was the seventies and despite pampas grass and leopard print bedspreads, mod cons were still not accessible to all. Unscrupulous landlords peddled shoddy accommodation, splitting houses without proper conversion and renting them as flats. When the front ceiling fell in we waited weeks for it to be repaired, watching television together in my parents bedroom. If you had asked us if we were living in poverty we would have been shocked, my parents would have been offended.

We ate good homemade food , chicken cobbler, whitebait, stuffed marrows, fish and chips from Andy's, the occasional giant Chinese spring roll. As a child I was well turned out, to be honest I knocked spots off even the most wealthy judge's daughter in Dulwich Village. I went to to the pictures, on holidays , received treats, toys and pocket money. No, poverty was other people, people who were starving, Sometimes we would take an evening walk into Dulwich Village and look at all the big houses as a form of after dinner entertainment. Window shopping, we didn't expect to live like that, in the seventies you knew your place. I am possibly one of the last generation to remember a time before general home ownership and mass consumerism. Posh people lived differently, it was accepted.

No, we felt sorry for people who were uncared for, the scruffy girl whose mother walked about done up to the nines, kids who looked like they hadn't had a wash for a while. I learned to fear emotional poverty from an early age and it still knots my stomach to hear of children with no human kindness in their lives. I have met people who have risen from poverty to wealth who are still searching for that lost experience of early family life. Family is still vital in determining a child's experience of poverty on both emotional and material levels. A child living with a single parent on benefits without family will suffer far more than a mother who is helped financially by their extended family.This by no means suggests that single parents cannot provide a loving and secure home, its just tougher for them, especially for those without a supportive network. Help with clothes and extras make a big difference when money is tight. When the state is failing to provide, those without extended families suffer the most.

My parents were determined people. My mother walked to the phone box and hassled the housing until we were rehoused. We eventually ended up living in one of the more salubrious parts of West Dulwich until I left home for university. In 2012 most families will not have this option. Social housing is thin on the ground and high rents and rising fuel costs are driving people to cut back on social activities, clothes and food. Further Education will be out of my son's reach. We may have phones, washing machines and computers coming out of our ears, but once these goods are worn out we are left with less than the the children of the seventies. For all of our progress we are relatively poorer today, if hope is gold we are reduced to counting coppers.

The question of poverty and how it is defined still remains a hot potato. Does it matter how we lived in the past, that we don't know we are born today. Relative poverty is not about who has the latest Wii or comparing ourselves to Victorian England. It's about deciding how we want our children to live today. Properly fed, warm, clothed, educated to the best of their ability, socially engaged, treated and loved.

Photo of me enjoying a 1970s holiday

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