Single, childless, poor and excluded

Working-age adults are more likely now to be living in poverty than they were when Labour came to power
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The Independent Online

Shrinking childhoods, a show of artworks by socially excluded children now showing at London's Tate Modern, is not a cultural diversion for the faint-hearted. Exhibit after exhibit stands testament to the cruelty adults inflict on children, in the form of violence, abuse or neglect. Again and again, a child demonstrates a painfully incomplete understanding of the forces that are conspiring against her - as when a girl expresses her perspective on how a car with flashing lights and sirens took her mother away "and I never saw her again" - or conversely an understanding of what's going on around her that is all too horribly well developed - as in a depiction of domestic life when "my mother is a whore".

Shrinking childhoods, a show of artworks by socially excluded children now showing at London's Tate Modern, is not a cultural diversion for the faint-hearted. Exhibit after exhibit stands testament to the cruelty adults inflict on children, in the form of violence, abuse or neglect. Again and again, a child demonstrates a painfully incomplete understanding of the forces that are conspiring against her - as when a girl expresses her perspective on how a car with flashing lights and sirens took her mother away "and I never saw her again" - or conversely an understanding of what's going on around her that is all too horribly well developed - as in a depiction of domestic life when "my mother is a whore".

Much of the material is far too shocking for children to look at, let alone create. Yet while it is possible to persuade oneself that the suffering of these children is the suffering of a tiny minority, the fact is that many of these social ills are directly connected to poverty, and even almost eight years into the Labour government, child poverty in Britain still stands at a whopping 3.6 million.

This is not to mock the present Government's record, although the high-profile progress it promised on this issue has in reality been slow. The Blair Government has reversed a 20-year trend by challenging the advance of child poverty. In 1979, when Thatcher came to power, one in eight children lived in poverty. In 1997, when Blair took power, there were 4.3 million children in poverty - a quarter of the child population.

Given our understanding of the cycle of deprivation that is continued by life chances stifled from early childhood, it is not surprising that Labour decided to focus on children when it began to tackle poverty, targeting benefits at families and rolling out much admired initiatives such as Sure Start. In its way, such a policy is a huge leap of faith, eschewing the usual political necessity of the short-term result, and concentrating instead on attaining a generational shift that can only be seen to work over many years.

Yet, as a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirms, Labour's policy of concentrating so heavily on helping socially excluded children, has left other vulnerable groups in a worse state than ever. Pensioners managed early on, to call widespread public attention to their plight, and the number of senior citizens in poverty, after a bit of a false start, is now down from 2.7 to 2.2 million. Others have been less able to attract public and ministerial sympathy.

Those who have suffered most have been working-age single adults and childless adult couples. Working-age adults are more likely now to be living in poverty than they were when Labour came to power, with the figure now at 3.9 million, or 300,000 more than in 1997. Other vulnerable groups include the chronically sick and the disabled, with asylum seekers being "expressly excluded from the inclusion agenda".

On one level, these gaps in support and provision confirm that left to its own devices the economy does not itself do anything that reduces poverty. Only in the areas where the Government has heavily intervened has the onward march of poverty been reversed. This would appear to be an indicator that free, globalised markets, far from doing what neo-liberals promised - and delivering a rolling back of the state - instead demand the state's continued engagement in order to mitigate the polarising effects of free market economics.

But on another level, a more instinctive level that cannot so easily be backed up by statistics, the Government's slow progress in the areas it has focused so strongly on, and total failure in the areas which have not attracted specific attention, suggests that a society cannot be made more cohesive by dividing its needy into the "deserving" and the "undeserving".

By selecting children as the most innocently deserving of government help, Labour did much to defuse ongoing complaints that the welfare state helped the irresponsible and the feckless, the lazy and the addicted, instead of those who simply needed a cushion during a difficult time. (And while much of this complaint had no foundation, it is true that many people do abuse the welfare state in all sorts of small and sizeable ways.)

But the trouble is that children grow up quickly, always looking to those just a few years older to see what the future holds for them. Is it not possible that by allowing single childless vulnerable people - often young men - to simply rot among the ruins of a 20-year campaign of government hatred and neglect, the government has left in place a generation of role models that belie all it has to say about education, aspiration and much else besides?

Plenty of the people that the Government has failed to target struggle on being decent citizens as they struggle to work for minimum wage, with no benefits targeted at them and in some parts of the country a housing market that makes an affordable home of their own an impossibility. But surely such people are prey to the same social ills that parents in poverty fall victim to - like mental illness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and crime. In a society which still ghettoises its least fortunate citizens, the lack of support for this section of society may well provide a substantial counter to potential progress among other citizens.

Much of the trouble comes because of the government's two great capitulations. The first is its failure to significantly challenge "the market". The only real challenge has been the imposition of a minimum wage, and even that is fudged as it allows business to use the welfare state to subsidise poverty wages through the tax credit system. The most damaging failure to challenge the market, by the same token, has been Labour's tardy response to the need for the provision of social housing. This has caused almighty property inflation and excluded the single and childless - who have a cat's chance in hell of a council flat. The second is to succumb - superficially at least - to an almost Victorian charitable model in running the welfare state that relies on means testing among the "deserving" for state help to be won.

A "deserving" child may not understand himself to be the lucky recipient of targeted benefits. But he is quite likely to notice that his older brother, cousin, uncle or "uncle" has adopted a certain attitude to a world he perceives as hostile. Likewise, a 30-year-old man who is having trouble coping with life, is far from happy to see what help he would qualify for if only he could get hold of a baby. Treating people so very differently actually creates more divisions among the society it is trying to heal.

In neglecting to address the difficulties faced by the single childless adultthe Government has spent eight years helping least those who are perceived -with some cause - as being the most likely to commit antisocial behaviour. Since they too are likely to find themselves housed among the poorest, the ghettos of poverty around Britain are again intensified.

For reasons of humanity and fairness alone these whole swaths of people should not have been excluded from Labour's delicate filigree of credits and benefits . But even in the most bald of practical terms, this is the failure that undermines all their successes, and keeps British society divided, suspicious and fearful.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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