Sunday, 5 April 2015

No English child, not even the very poorest, lives in "Victorian condidtions"


The airwaves have been filled with that traditional Easter refrain of teacher trade unions moaning about their lot. And amongst this has been a 'report' (I can't find it on their website so no link) from the NASUWT about child poverty. From the media reports this work is a collection of anecdotes from NASUWT members - pretty useful given that these are men and women at the 'front line' who undoubtedly are seeing examples of neglect and poverty in the children they are teaching.

But comments like this are quite simply misleading:

"Children in 2015 should not be hungry and coming to school with no socks on and no coats - some children are living in Victorian conditions - in the inner cities," said one unnamed teacher.

Now I know the term 'Victorian conditions' is simply a hyperbolic description but we really should recognise that, even for the very poorest in our society, life is vastly better than it was for the poor of England's 19th Century cities. Here's American writer Jack London (yes, the same bloke who wrote 'Call of the Wild') on East End slums:

The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot. [9-10]

London reports in detail on the slums including such practices as renting 'part of a room' and the letting of beds to three tenants for eight hours apiece. And the chances for children in these places - certainly compared to the circumstances of the children described by NASUWT members - were a different order of deprivation:

They die like flies, and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded. They have no home life. In the dens and lairs in which they live they are exposed to all that is obscene and indecent. And as their minds are made rotten, so are their bodies made rotten by bad sanitation, over-crowding, and underfeeding. When a father and mother live with three or four children in a room where the children take turn about in sitting up to drive the rats away from the sleepers, when those children never have enough to eat and are preyed upon and made miserable and weak by swarming vermin, the sort of men and women the survivors will make can readily be imagined. (from Arthur Morrison's 'A Child of the Jago')

Yet we persist in trying to suggest that child poverty in England today is in someway comparable to these conditions, to playing an exaggerated sensationalist game of poverty pornography.

Child poverty in parts of Lancashire is as bad now as it was in Victorian times, a councillor claimed today.

Coun Brian Rollo, who represents Preston’s most deprived ward Ribbleton, said “shocking” figures of up to 38 per cent of youngsters living below the poverty line show Britain has hardly moved on from the end of the 19th century.

The reality - and we should remind ourselves of this every time we discuss relative poverty - is that the 'poverty line' described by Cllr Rollo describes a level of material comfort that hardly anyone in Victorian England enjoyed. It's not just the free education, free healthcare and benefits system but the triumph of 100 years investing, innovating and creating. Radios, televisions, cars, running hot and cold water, central heating systems, an abundance of cheap food (so abundant that plenty of folk want to make it more expensive) and cheap clothing.

This isn't to deny poverty - the lack of what we see as essentials remains a problem and a challenge - but it is to say that the conditions in which the very poorest children live are vastly better than the circumstances of children in Victorian England.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Recall that a first child gets £20/week in child benefit and you can also claim more by child tax credit, on top of any other benefits that the parent(s) receive.

A 750g box of Kellogs cereal costs £2 (I checked). A child's portion is about 30g. There's atleast a few weeks breakfasts for a child. You can also buy a few cans of beans and toast for cheap.

Some questions need to be asked about what the parents of children who go into school hungry are spending their money on. The benefit system clearly allocates enough to meet their basic needs as it is.

It's also worth asking: Why are so many people who are incapable of raising a child on their own, without state support, having children? Nowadays top earners are penalised by the costs of having a child (no more child benefit for them) while a single parent will be a given a free flat and thousands of pounds in extra benefits.