Where there’s a will

Child poverty is back on the political agenda. For years the
Conservative government was in denial about its existence in the
UK, but the election of Labour in 1997 brought new thinking and
targets for its eradication.

But what has changed since then? According to The Well-being
of Children in the UK
, a report from Save the Children and the
University of York,1 overall rates remain high despite
some improvements. To continue drawing attention to the problem is
important. So, too, is the development of ways to analyse it.
However, consideration is also required of whether genuine
obstacles to tackling it exist. Or, as campaigners (including
myself in the past) are wont to assert, is it just a matter of
political will?

To tackle a problem necessitates that it be accurately defined.
Yet, the quest for a single measure to define poverty has to be one
of the more fatuous. Should housing costs be included? Should we
count numbers on income support or cost baskets of essential goods?
Is poverty “absolute” or “relative”? It is like arguing that the
size of a car should only be measured by the power of its engine or
its height or how many people you can cram into it. The Save the
Children report proposes 22 “domains” of well-being, including
mortality rates, diet and nutrition, maltreatment, teenage
pregnancy, child care, the environment, youth suicide and mental
health. All 22 provide key insights into what is needed for
children to survive and thrive.

Given the evidence of complexity, why the continued quest for
simplification? Elected politicians need to demonstrate that their
policies are effective within a five-year timescale, without
noticeably adverse effects on their electorate. If nothing
improves, does that mean the policy is wrong or that politicians
are powerless in the face of an intractable problem? If there are
improvements, do we blame politicians or the incidental turnings of
the economic cycle?

Or perhaps the responsibility lies with parents rather than
politicians – which suggests why targets are necessary but why
there may be limits to their usefulness.

Similarly, journalists need to sell information to a public who
have limited time to absorb it. Facts and figures may be rendered
more entertaining when illustrated by interviews with “real poor
people”, particularly where they can be portrayed unambiguously as
victims or villains. But sensationalism can be counterproductive.
Although it attracts attention, it can distort attitudes and may
encourage a view of poor people as innately different, to be
pitied, despised or feared.

As for cultural attitudes towards children, it is not always
evident that people in the UK like them much. The United Nations
recently chastised the UK for failing to outlaw smacking (news,
page 10, 10 October). It seems we continue to believe that the
infliction of pain is an acceptable method for adults to
communicate with small children. They expressed concern at the
number of children in custody and the high level of violence and
suicide in young offenders institutions. Restrictions on
children’s freedom and quality of life can be more

Save the Children highlights the increase in road traffic and
concurrent decrease in children’s use of public spaces.
Fuelled by genuinely sensational, if rare, events such as the Soham
killings in the summer, the difficult balance between protection
and empowerment may tilt towards the former. Restrictions arise
because we do care, not just because we do not.

We need to accept that child poverty is not one problem but a
multitude of inter-related problems, and be willing to engage with
that complexity. A cultural shift is needed to find ways to welcome
children into society’s mainstream, instead of containing and
constraining them. Politicians have power to resolve or exacerbate
problems, or create new ones. Child poverty targets are a good
start and there are signs of progress. But there is much more to be
done to remove the obstacles to our children’s

1 Jonathan Bradshaw et al,
The Well-being of Children in the UK, University of York
and Save the Children, September 2002

Sally Witcher is a freelance consultant and researcher.
She was formerly director of the Child Poverty Action

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