Thursday, 24 March 2011

Budget Day, March on Saturday

So the budget was neutral, eh?

Not if you're a child growing up in poverty, or if you're on benefits and need a bed or a cooker, or if you're a poor, elderly cold person. Sadly, the media would rather report on arcane fiscal detail rather than on very basic poverty being turned into grinding punishment.

"These reductions will not save great sums of money and are therefore more about punishing vulnerable people than balancing the books."

Sally Copley, Save the Children's head of UK policy, said: "These cuts to the crisis loans will be a huge blow to those families who can't afford basic necessities such as beds and cookers.

"Families living in poverty have no savings and many are scraping by just to put food on the table.

"The crisis loan was the one place people in severe poverty could borrow money to pay for essentials they can't afford, without having to pay interest.

"Sadly they will be left with little alternative but to borrow money from high-interest lenders and loan sharks."

The Misery Index is at a two decade high which the BACP might welcome as an "Opportunity for counsellors" - until we realise that it's only people who can afford it who will approach us privately and student-led counselling agencies are already overbooked.

Our country has already factionalised: trust between different income groups has always been very tentative but when the poor become destitute while the rich pour into London because of the financial welcome we offer (and treat the poor with contempt) riots ensue.  It might be argued that rioting is the only way in which people who are totally marginalised can get any positive change for their communities, which even then is often handled hopelessly.

The cultural aspirations of the rich developers, housing trust and local council upper management,  and people whose lives and homes are perceived as units by these ideological bean counters are very different. Until the desires and lifestyles of the poor are respected rather than manipulated by the middle classes - whether they're architects or counsellors - and until a modicum of empathy is brought into the mix the problems are simply going to continue to cycle.

I know this blog gets quite a few hits and it would be great to know if anyone reading this will be at The March for the Alternative. 

You can comment anonymously.

Here's why you should go. See you there!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Only Connect

via Johann Hari . . .

We call our schools “comprehensive”, but in fact – under both political parties – they are ruthlessly socially segregated. Across much of the country, the wealthy kids are bunched together in “good” schools, and the poor kids are penned off in “bad” schools. British kids are segregated by their parents’ house prices – the “catchment area” – and this is then made even worse by the grammar schools and private schools Starkey champions. So the left-over schools are made up of left-out kids like Jamie’s, or my Trocadero friends, and they have to climb a mountain every day to do the basics. Where there is a concentration of chaotic kids, the school will be chaotic.

There is an alternative – and it has been demonstrated best in, of all places, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Ten years ago, their school system was in a familiar mess, and they passed a simple law to try to solve it. No school could have more than 40 percent of its kids on free school meals, or 25 percent of who were a grade or more below their expected level in reading or maths. Suddenly, the kids who needed most help wouldn’t be lumped together. Kids like Connor and Angelique would be broken up and spread out across the school system, where schools could give them the attention they needed.

The results were startling. Within a decade, Raleigh went from one of the worst-performing districts in America to one of the best. The test scores of poor kids doubled, while those of wealthier children also saw a slight increase. Teenage pregnancies, crime and high school drop-out rates fell substantially.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Nature vs Nurture, Private Life vs Government Policy

I went to a very lovely Baptism a month or so ago and the experience has remained with me. What struck me was how well behaved, intelligent and involved the children were, particularly in doing the readings. I arrived a little early and watched them rehearsing with the clergy but this was simply a matter of getting used to the microphones. During the service they left their pews at the correct time without being herded, stood in front of a large congregation and read with an educated and social ease, then returned to their pews without running or being overwhelmed. These were kids between 6 and 10. I was amazed.

This church is the Sunday morning home of London Protestant socialite bankers and a few members of the Cabinet tag along. The clergy are amongst the kindest, most caring and robust people I’ve ever met and this attitude is brought to the way they run the church. They’re not dependant on or starstruck by their illustrious congregation, evidenced by this inclusion in their newsletter


Salve your miserable conscience by donating a considerable sum to your parish church.
After the baptism we decanted to the church school for refreshments and I watched as again the children behaved impeccably, not as if they’d been frightened into good behaviour, this is just the way they are. For me, the banal and smug adult conversation was painful but there was no denying that these parents were doing something very right with their children.

Being around them I felt a kind of blissful relaxation after my amazement subsided. I hadn’t realized that I feel stressed when watching the children from my own streets perform in schools or when I’m with them on our shared streets or buses or in the pub, but I do. What will they do next? Am I allowed to make eye contact? Will they allow me to ask them to turn their music down? Over the years I’ve learned to behave counter-intuitively, I relax, draw my energy right in and treat them as if they’re my equals. Actually, being decades younger than me they’re not my equals and I demand – and get - the respect of children that I have anything to do with personally, but the rage and lack of control demonstrated by too many young people is dangerous and so I avoid the issue entirely when I’m confronted by it.

Nature, Nurture. Would bloody horrible children be better able to cope with life if they’d been brought up in the same circumstances as their London banker counterparts? Would well-behaved and socially relaxed children become wild if they grew up in the same circumstances as their dangerous peers? I suspect there are many answers and so many variables that we can only make best guesses.

Like my daughter, I was brought up in poverty and in social housing yet both of us have avoided repeating the worst behaviours that we endured in overcrowded communities and ill-run schools. It’s possible to have a conversation with all of the children in my block of flats on our estate and they’re all doing well at school. In our block of 8 families there is one man: does that make a difference? Not in my experience. Poverty makes a difference, we can’t take our children on holiday – I didn’t go on holiday in the UK or abroad until I was 25 – and very ordinary experiences like recreational shopping or going to the cinema or taking a picnic on a bus to the park were closed to us. We grow bored and resentful. Some of us give up trying because poverty truly is largely inescapable: why strive and be endlessly disappointed?

So when she had the chance to leave Britain we grabbed it with both hands. She’s in Australia where overcrowding is unknown; poverty exists but the economy and a personal sense of status isn’t dependant on some people living in poverty forever; where what you can do and what you know is as useful as who you know; where a great many more children can breath deep and look at horizons. I wish all this for all our over-stimulated, frantic children (who will spit in your face if you call them children) who, as well as seldom experiencing meaningful boundaries, are unlikely to experience sustained good teaching, open spaces and being rewarded for their skills rather than for their dads income or who their mum socialises with. I wish that it were possible for all children to be comfortable reading complex texts out loud, in public, but I’m not holding my breath.

It's a cliche that Britain is one of the most class-ridden country on earth. We can legitimately point to other countries where maintaining an underclass is based on religion or simple elitist bullying, and all fair minded people dislike and want to alter the conditions that keep dalits living in dungheaps or Saudi people routinely abusing foreign workers. Foreign aid is is moral and proper, and at the same time we need to look at our own country and engage with complex facts and figures. These figures seem to be saying that a British underclass supports the economy (a pool of unemployed people keeps wages and inflation low and the stigma of being on benefits ensures that a great many people will take a low paid job when they'd be better off being on benefits, keeping prices down)  and that as a nation we're more than content to have a proportion of our children die or be brought up in unending poverty and die young. Are you content with that? Look deep.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Book Review: Understanding the interpersonal dimension of gender and poverty

 There are many minds in the international development field that will switch off at the sight of the word gender in the title of this book. They may say they are concerned with more important, big-picture ideas about aid, governance, trade policy, etc. This is a problem, because those very same big ideas that dominate the field keep breaking down at the seams because their thinkers overlook exactly the kinds of nuance and detailed policy thinking that fill this book. So let me assure such thinkers that this is not a feminist text, nor does it fetishise the issue of gender. Rather it is about the interpersonal dimension of development—how women and men relate with each other, how children relate to adults, the old to the young, employers to workers, households to agencies. It is about how these relationships shape individuals’ struggles with poverty, and how these struggles aggregate to become wider narratives of poverty across whole societies.

Please read the entirety of this review which deconstructs the Protestant Work Ethic thus:

In one scheme in Dar es Salaam, analysed by Fauzia Mohamed, Lecturer in Sociology in the Open University of Tanzania, the credit agency seems eager to promote a Protestant work ethic, which presumably they find lacking in Tanzanian society. One official states that:
“We try to enlighten our clients that those who are serious in their businesses are the ones who escape the vicious cycle of poverty, since the harder they work, the faster they make their repayments. This gives them more money to invest in their businesses causing their businesses to expand faster, giving these women more money which will eventually reduce their poverty.”
Firstly, the statement shows that the agency prioritises recovering its funds ahead of real poverty alleviation, since women are taught that repaying the agency is a precondition for escaping poverty, a strange and artificial claim. Secondly, for Mohamed, it showed no understanding of Tanzanian women’s lives.
In the absence of other available criteria, the agency assessed individuals’ capacity to borrow based on their apparent industriousness and devotion to income-earning activities. But this directs loans only at those women who have the luxury of time and resources to devote themselves to income-earning, and writes off the neediest women where they don’t demonstrate the appropriate work ethic.
But the neediest Tanzanian women are not lazy, merely sensible. They are already industriously juggling children, domestic chores, and favours for neighbours. They may neglect repayments not out of incapacity but out of rational preference to maintain good relations with their community instead of credit agencies. Women may default to help their neighbours, causing agencies to refuse them further funds, but these women know that their neighbours are more likely to be of real assistance than the agencies in times of crisis, and will happily divert their repayments to help each other.