Poverty is a consequence of the structures and inequalities of society – it is not inevitable. Government must act – but so can we. Luke Bramhall asks what you can do prevent poverty from limiting children’s chances…
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update
Poverty is not a thing of the past. This is what we were told 10 years ago. It was 2011 – a year when there was a Child Poverty Act hoping to eradicate child poverty by 2020, and there was a new commitment across political parties to address this issue.
So where are we now? Well, 10 years on and we are seeing rising levels of poverty, food banks becoming the norm, and a housing crisis. If poverty wasn’t a thing of the past 10 years ago, it certainly isn’t now. It seems almost futile to consider the inevitable question of what can be done now, within a climate of budget cuts, austerity and a country recovering from a life-changing pandemic.
There were 4.3m children living in poverty in the UK in 2019/20 according to data from the Department for Work and Pensions – that’s 31% of children, or nine in a classroom of 30 (DWP, 2021).
As the national lead on Poverty Proofing at children’s charity Children North East (SecEd, 2019) I see and hear, first-hand, the realities of those facing tide after tide of negativity as a consequence of poverty. There are many things I would like to say to decision-makers, who have the power to make a massive difference to the plight of millions of children, families and individuals suffering poverty.
First and foremost, we need a national strategy that focuses on the alleviation and eradication of poverty – a strategy that ensures that national leaders are held to account for decisions that plunge children and families into the poverty trap.
In essence, I am arguing for a redesign of our society to create a place where anyone can thrive and everyone can belong. Like many campaigners, I would call on the government to reinstate the uplift to universal credit, concentrate efforts on increasing social housing, and create a national living wage that at least hits the bar set by the Living Wage Foundation (of £9.90 or £11.05 in London).
National decision-makers have, as they have had for decades, an opportunity to make the difference that matters but policymakers often seem detached from our everyday lives. As decisions are made at Westminster I, along with many others, despair at the lack of understanding and the lack of empathy for many who find themselves drowning under the weight of financial insecurity.
Too often it feels that we are fighting against a runaway train that can’t be stopped. It causes great frustration and anger about the injustice that is poverty. It is important, of course, to get our placards out and campaign against such injustices, but I believe there is another approach we can take too – an opportunity to make a difference and change this tide.
A structural issue
The evidence tells us that poverty is a structural issue (for more, see Bramley, 2016). We have seen that, over decades, poverty is reduced by structural and policy changes that focus on poverty alleviation and eradication. We know, for example, that the government’s decision to cut the £20 uplift to universal credit will sweep a further 500,000 people – including 200,000 children – into poverty. We also know that three-quarters of children in poverty live in a working household (DWP, 2021). We know that pre-COVID unemployment had been reducing, yet child poverty rates are soaring. We know social mobility is at an all-time low.
All of these issues point towards one conclusion – that poverty is a structural issue. Nelson Mandela once famously explained “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”
So, what does this all mean for us? The facts don’t lie. Poverty is a consequence of the structures and inequalities of society. Poverty is not inevitable. This is the hope – the hope that poverty does not have to be and does not have to belong in our society.
I have spent the last five years of my life speaking to children living with the frustration, sadness and hopelessness that poverty can sometimes bring. But there is hope and, while this can feel detached from the day-to-day reality, it is this hope that can inform and influence our work – and I encourage you to allow it to inform yours.
If poverty is a structural issue then the route out of poverty is by addressing structural inequalities. What can you do, day-to-day within the structures of the organisation where you work, to ensure that poverty does not limit, hinder or reduce the opportunities for the people we work with? What policies, practices and systems do you employ within your school that identify, exclude, treat differently or make assumptions about those who have less money?
What can you do differently?
To go one step further, let’s consider the employment practices and policies that govern you and your colleagues. How do these exacerbate the problems for your colleagues who are struggling financially? What can you do differently? Small step-changes like these can make a real and significant difference.
Eradicating poverty seems like such an unachievable and insurmountable goal, but are we going to resign ourselves, and those we care for, to suffer the injustice and shame that poverty brings?
While addressing organisational inequalities you may alleviate poverty for a few but, if we all address these structural inequalities, can we not create a brand new normal? One where financial insecurity does not dictate belonging – a new normal where people expect opportunity rather than being constantly denied chances, a new normal where people feel heard, and the ill of poverty is challenged and burnt out.
While I continue to call on politicians in Westminster to step-up and take the vital choices that could be transformational for communities drowning in poverty, I am not going to sit back and wait for decision-makers to change their ways.
I am going to look hard at what I can do, what I can change, and how I can contribute and champion a redesign of our society where financial equality, accessible opportunity and positive wellbeing reign. Hold on to this hope.