Empathy is needed to fight poverty

“He had never felt poor, and he had no power of imagining the part
which the want of money plays in determining the action of men,”
George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch. Labour is testing its
political credibility on the issue of child poverty -Êbut how
effectively is it exercising its imagination?

Halving child poverty by 2010 is Gordon Brown’s aim but, as the
government shies away from significant redistribution or generously
improving benefits, the target is apparently to be redefined.

The low income threshold of below 60 per cent of the net median
income after housing costs may be replaced, but by what?

A report on the government’s consultation with child poverty
experts is due next month. It ought to include a commitment to a
national strategy and the use of indicators on the well-being of
children, long campaigned for by organisations such as the

Politicians – now less likely to be drawn from the working class –
have often lacked the imagination to understand why the poor aren’t
able to manage better.

Although we now talk the language of social exclusion, instead of
understanding that a lifetime’s conditioning in poverty and chaos
requires extra support to be able to manage, not less, the response
has often been punitive, as exemplified by the workings of the
social fund.

Can’t manage on what you’ve got? Well, now try to manage on even
less. If, that is, you receive a loan at all. As long ago as 1992,
a government-commissioned report on the fund said it was: “A
degrading lottery…We cannot show that those who got awards were
in greater need than those who did not.”

A new assault on poverty should abolish the fund and restore to
social workers the discretion (and the resources) to provide
non-repayable grants. Another urgent issue is the plight of the
150,000 16 and 17 year olds who are not in education, training or
work and who do not qualify for jobseekers’ allowance. Policy
makers and politicians have failed to imagine what it is like to
grow up without love and let down by poor management on the part of
parents, the care system and schools.

We know that a large element of poverty requires more than cash. It
demands the imagination to create enough elasticity so that a
decent minimum income and a customised support system are created
for each human being struggling against the odds.

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