Deborah Orr: Poverty is the root of so many of our problems

The truth is only money can alleviate poverty, but it should not go to neglectful parents
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Poor, poor Falinge in Rochdale. The housing estate has been named the British community with the largest proportion of residents on incapacity benefits. Of the 4,500 people living in Falinge, only 250 of them work. The rest are on unemployment or incapacity benefit, with 42.9 per cent claiming the latter.

Are many of these people really unwell, or are they malingerers? A life expectancy of 68 years, the sixth lowest in the country, suggests that the community genuinely does have serious health problems. Critics will say that residents bring these problems on themselves with their unhealthy and self-destructive lifestyles.

Despising the welfare-dependent has become a national hobby. In the years of boom, it became easy to believe that lack of gainful employment was always voluntary. Yet in Falinge and its environs, there really isn't very much work, and anyway, sometimes the people who have been brought up under such conditions are not tremendously employable. Long ago, the area thrived. People moved there to get jobs in the cotton mills.

More recently, an asbestos factory provided local employment, but that has gone too. Like many places in Britain, Falinge never recovered from the recession of the 1980s. Economic restructuring passed it by. The population has remained marooned for 30 years, festering away like the rest of the one in five people in Britain who is classified as relatively poor.

"Relative to what?" people ask with a sneer. Relative to the cost of living. A relatively poor person, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, lives on £112 or less a week, or £5,600 a year after housing costs and direct taxes have been deducted. A relatively poor couple lives on £193 a week, or £10,000 a year. A relatively poor couple with two children lives on £270 a week, or £14,000 a year.

I would certainly find it hard going trying to live on such a budget, even though I'm fairly bright and resourceful, and have a reasonable amount of creative skill to draw upon.

The stress of living that way really does make people ill, physically and particularly mentally. It dehumanises them, and then people are hated because they seem barely human. Yet hating people doesn't help them. It just makes it easier to believe that they can't be helped.

From the beginning of its time in government, Labour was reluctant to be seen as "helping" such people. That was why it always stressed that its plan was to tackle "child poverty", by rewarding "hard-working families". Yet the proportion of children living in poverty has doubled in a generation and Britain now has a higher number of children in poverty than most wealthy countries.

A new report from the Rowntree Foundation confirms that a decade on from Labour's promise to tackle social deprivation, child poverty and welfare dependence, such ills have remained constant or are increasing. Of the 56 indicators tracked by the foundation, three-quarters have already stalled or are getting worse.

Now, as we enter another deep recession, the last vestige of belief that the Government's pledge to eradicate child poverty in Britain by 2020 was something that could be fulfilled is ebbing away.

Sympathy has ebbed away as well. In the early years of Labour's Government, there was some recognition that referring to "the underclass" was neither useful nor helpful.

Now the word is back, bandied around with vengeful gusto, even though many of the people in this hateful, self-destructive "underclass" are children. Of the 11 million children living in Britain, three million live in "relative poverty". Yet even though the adverse effect of poverty on children is well documented, research in The Lancet claiming that one in 10 British children may be neglected or abused was widely derided.

Instead, the statistics suggest that many "relatively poor" parents are doing a pretty wonderful job, because a significant majority of them are protecting their children well from the consequences of their lack of material resources.

Oddly, however, pointing out their success in doing so doesn't do much good. Ten years ago the left was only too happy to believe that deindustrialisation had smashed and communities and left them broken. Now, the progressives are the most keen to reject arguments that all these problems are still to be fixed.

Society, it turns out, is not a single entity after all, at least according to this logic. If bits of it are broken, that doesn't hamper its smooth overall function. The broken society is now seen as a Conservative idea. Labour supporters prefer to believe that, apart from a few local difficulties, everything is just fine.

The politician who talks the most sense about social deprivation is Iain Duncan Smith. It is worth noting that he dates the development of the present welfare-dependent underclass from the 1970s. The leadership of his party may still be loath to put its hand up and admit that it enthusiastically fostered welfare dependency, in the 1980s, but it is worth bearing in mind that the last Conservative government did not cut public spending at all during its tenure, even though it has retained its image as the party that rolls back the state.

It simply moved cash away from health, education and housing, and spent it on its new benefits instead.

The real value of those benefits has barely risen since those days – unless you have children. Labour, in placing its emphasis on alleviating child poverty, has inadvertently made it pay – in cash, aspiration, intelligence and self-respect – to have children if you are poor. Well-meaning policies have encouraged those least equipped to have children to do so.

Scarily, as we enter another deep recession, the government's welfare reforms run the risk of exacerbating that flaw. If you need to be "ready for work" once your youngest child is out of nappies – or plastic bags – then only having another one will protect you from this legislation.

The forthcoming Child Poverty Bill will make the Government's 2020 target legally binding, whatever that actually means, and the main lever for achieving this will continue to be encouraging hard-working families into work. Can this strategy work in places like Falinge though? Or will public money merely be spent on encouraging people into work that is non-existent?

In the wake of the latest child abuse scandals, there has been great revulsion against policies that encourage people on benefits to have children. That revulsion is so great that decent people talk despairingly of such things as forcing people to be fitted with long-term contraception. These are ugly, if understandable, debates, and in a time of rising unemployment, they are dangerous.

The truth is that only money can alleviate poverty and the Rowntree Foundation estimates that much more than is earmarked will have to be spent if the Government's legally binding target is to be achieved. That money, of course, should not be handed over to neglectful parents.

It should instead be spent on offering psychological support in safe local environments to the many children who are in dire need of it.

The last thing these children need is hatred so deep that their non-existence is ardently wished for. On the contrary, they can only be helped if they are taught what love is.