I don’t usually blog about the detail of my working life (I think it’s asking for trouble) but in honour of Blog Action Day, I thought I’d put down some thoughts about one aspect of my work: child and pensioner poverty and income deprivation.
Last week at work I read a report that stated that a working parent of two children, earning the minimum wage, would have to work at least 80 hours a week to stay above the poverty line. Over 50% of children living in poverty in the UK have parents who are already in employment so the causes of poverty are much more complex than the government tends to like to make out. Even when both parents are employed, the financial exclusion caused by low pay or other circumstances can lead to severe deprivation for families. For example, in the county in which I work, a colleague from a local Citizens’ Advice Bureau informed me today that she deals with people who have loans charging 198% APR (there are reports of loan sharks charging 8000% APR too, although I haven’t come across it where I work), purely because they can’t get credit from mainstream lenders.
If my washing machine breaks, I’ll put a new one on my credit card or take some money out of my savings. For many families, this simply isn’t an option and they become easy prey to loan sharks. If you owe money to a loan shark who shows up on your doorstep with a couple of burly blokes but you’re also in rent arrears to your housing association, which would you pay off first? The thing is, the loan shark might beat you up, but the housing association will evict you.
Financial exclusion doesn’t just happen to you overnight. If you leave school at 16 with no qualifications, your chances of getting a job that pays much more than the minimum wage are pretty low. If you’ve grown up in a deprived area, with parents that have been out of work or on a low wage all your life, your aspirations are likely to be lower, and there’s a good chance you have bad health, misuse drugs and alcohol or have a criminal record. Or all three. Essentially, if you’ve been poor growing up, you’re likely to continue to live in poverty. On a daily basis, it frightens and angers me that this is the situation in the UK in 2008. And yet the cycle is continuing with no sign of being broken.
Currently, the work that I do to tackle poverty feels like fire fighting. By the time we lay on programmes to move parents into employment or to give debt advice, it’s already too late. What we ought to be doing is preventing poverty in the first place by improving educational attainment everywhere, providing employment opportunities that pay a living (not a minimum) wage and delivering financial literacy to children at an early age. It’s a long-term strategy. It is a strategy that must create the conditions for and facilitate financial inclusion, rather than force it through imposed benefits conditions that ultimately just push people into employment that is rarely appropriate for their circumstances and skills and doesn’t really solve the problem in the long run.
That long-term strategy can only be led by central government but must be delivered on the ground by local voluntary and community sector organisations – credit unions, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, community crèches – supported and funded by statutory agencies. In 1999, Tony Blair pledged to eradicate child poverty in the UK by 2020. Eight years in, it feels like little progress has been made. The only way to eradicate poverty is to take radical steps, to make fundamental changes across government. Essentially, government must take their pledge seriously.
I suppose what I want to say is that poverty is closer to home than you think. Even in the relatively affluent county in which I work, I know a primary school teacher who has to wash and provide breakfast for her pupils before they start the day. It is appalling that this happens and we should be thoroughly ashamed.