Just you try living on pounds 41 a week, Prime Minister

The poor know poverty best, and should be given more support in changing their lives for the better
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The Independent Online
Three people have been to see me recently. The first was a lone mother with two children who survives on an income support payment of pounds 111 a week. Her flat had been burgled; she could not afford new shoes for her children and felt she had no choice but to keep them off school. The second was a pregnant woman who was looking for a secondhand pram. She was receiving pounds 41 a week. Then there was a man, with a wife and two children, who could not live on their pounds 129 a week and as a result they were in the hands of loan sharks.

Poverty is a way of life for hundreds of thousands of people who rely on charity just to get by. It's not a question of help to provide the satellite dish, but small amounts of extra cash to deal with real grinding poverty.

I live in Easterhouse in Glasgow, one of Europe's largest housing estates where poverty is endemic. I am involved with a project that recently received pounds 3,000 from the Charities Advisory Trust. Within a few months the money had gone to help some of the people - like those mentioned - who turn to us in desperation.

People like this do not need to be told by academics what they see every day. They did not need the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to tell them, as it did last week, that New Labour is making little difference to the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. They know.

The situation is often made worse because many have their meagre benefits reduced by Social Fund loans. Until 1988, social security recipients were entitled to grants to replace essential items. The Conservative government replaced most grants by loans from this Social Fund whose repayments are deducted automatically. The Labour opposition protested furiously that deductions of up to pounds 30 a week would cause enormous suffering. Now in power, New Labour has refused to reinstate the grants.

Projects such as Fare (Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse), the group with which I am associated, can offer help. They cannot put an end to hardship which continues to exist under a government which constantly proclaims that it is tackling poverty. That hardship will continue until there is a substantial increase in the money paid to the more than six million people who are dependent upon income support or the job seekers' allowance.

The Government's response is that the way out of poverty is by work. This has several flaws. Jobs are not easy to find on peripheral housing estates. Those which do exist are often badly paid, temporary and unsatisfying. Not least, some parents should not be pushed in to work. Seven Easterhouse residents wrote about themselves in a recent book. Most, like Penny who constantly moved to avoid a violent partner, needed to be at home. The security of Penny's children required that she was there when they returned from school. Yet the Government message is "Get a job or stay in poverty".

To deal with poverty, one has to understand what it is. The Government either assumes that income support levels are the poverty line or refers to families below half average income. It does not ask whether these amounts are sufficient. The Family Budget Unit of London University has detailed how much is needed for a "low cost but acceptable standard" (LCA). The calculation takes account of the costs of food, shelter, clothes and social participation. The amounts allowed are not high; the holiday allowance is for one week in a self-catering chalet in Britain, not a luxury month in Tuscany.

A couple with two children on income support receives pounds 39 per week less than the LCA rates estimate they need. Using this as the yardstick, the Government's significant increases in child benefit and measly rises in income support are insufficient. The introduction of the minimum wage and the much vaunted Working Families Tax Credit will still leave many in poverty.

Poverty is not just about a lack of material goods. This week I called upon a woman on income support. She has almost withdrawn from outside contacts and is depressed. The furniture has been obtained on hire purchase. Her debts are so high that the only meat she and her son eat is corned beef. She broke down at the prospect of Christmas.

Another woman had been a volatile lone parent whose daughter was taken into care. Now she is still poor, but she has won back her child and finds great satisfaction in being involved in the community. What made for the change? She received a small legacy when her father died and used it to set up a home without debts. She became a volunteer in the local food co-operative. When elected its chair she declared: "This is the first time I have ever been shown respect."

This woman was offered opportunities to resist the effects of poverty. Unfortunately, such chances are limited in deprived areas. Satisfying careers are almost non-existent. In areas deserted by banks, low credit is impossible to get. One woman had succumbed to a shop which offered instant credit, and was then crippled by a legal interest rate of 55 per cent. Leisure is scarce: our estate has no cinema, ice rink or bowling alley.

Poverty is bad enough. When combined with few opportunities to find a way out, a lack of proper jobs, large debts, poor health and little leisure, it can be psychologically as well as physically overwhelming. And whatever the Prime Minister might think, there is a north-south divide. Well-paid jobs are more abundant in the south. Banks are clustered there. Leisure is more accessible. Researchers at Bristol University demonstrated recently that of the 14 poorest and most unhealthy constituencies in Britain, nine were in Scotland. The worst six were here in Glasgow.

As a Labour Party member for 37 years, I do not wish to decry the achievements of New Labour. But it is not transforming the lot of the poorest. I suggest three ways forward.

It should set up a poverty unit of low-income members who decide just what is a decent sufficient income. The Government should then ensure that no citizen falls below this level. If the costs mean increased personal taxation of the fat cats then it will also serve to reduce inequality.

It should immediately replace Social Fund loans by entitlements. It should limit the legal rate of interest for consumer goods to 25 per cent. And it should back community projects. By that I do not mean more regeneration "partnerships" in which highly paid outsiders decide the agenda. I refer to locally controlled projects providing the services people want - credit unions, food co-ops and so on. These projects receive little support from local authorities. Fare receives not a penny from Glasgow City Council for its six staff salaries.

If the Government established a national neighbourhood fund with grants reserved only for local initiatives, then residents would participate in more activities and gain more control over their lives. Local employment in satisfying jobs would increase. The salaries would boost the local economy. Co-operation, mutuality and altruism would be accelerated. These are values which not only give meaning to low-income participants, but they also must become widespread if government is ever to be convinced that poverty should be abolished.

These projects show that poor people are often the best equipped to help the poor. The Government should stop regarding them as problems to be fobbed off with a few sweeties and see them as people who can contribute substantially to a fairer, more decent and more equal Britain.

Bob Holman is a former professor of social work who now acts as an unpaid social worker. His book `Kids at the Door Revisited' is published in February.