The rich get richer

    New Labour deserves credit for putting child poverty on the
    agenda. It claims that this year the number in poverty will drop to
    3.3 million. But it is still a disgrace that 25 per cent of
    children are poor in Britain compared with 5 per cent in
    Denmark.

    However, those who live outside of wealthy Westminster know that
    family poverty is more extensive than the measure indicates.

    Last autumn, I met a woman who cleans at Canary Wharf in London’s
    docklands. She works nights as cleaners have to keep their distance
    from the fat cats who make money in the daytime. Consequently, she
    must arrange care for her children during these unsocial hours. The
    family income means that they are just above the government’s
    poverty line but the mother cannot save and never has a
    holiday.

    Polly Toynbee in her moving book Hard Work describes how she worked
    with cleaners, hotel staff, and restaurant workers. Those on the
    minimum wage found it insufficient while others were paid below the
    minimum.(1) Consider the Social Fund. Claimants receive loans for
    essential domestic items. The repayments are deducted from benefits
    so they are then well below the stringent social security levels.
    Others are so desperate that they turn to loan companies. Residents
    of the Meadow Well estate in North Shields conducted a survey which
    showed that average family income was £200, that 87 per cent
    were in debt with an average of 33 per cent of income going to
    doorstep lenders, and that interest rates were as high as 2,000 per
    cent. After repayments, many families struggled to provide proper
    meals.

    Despite its promises, New Labour has failed to bring deprived areas
    up to the standards of affluent ones. One hundred and eighty wards
    in Britain have over half their children dependent upon means
    tested benefits. Amazingly, 28 of these wards are in one city –
    Glasgow.

    If the government really wants to abolish child poverty, why does
    it keep the minimum wage so low? Why does it not return to the
    system of entitlements for essential items instead of loans? Why
    has it curtly dismissed proposals that the interest rates of legal
    loan sharks be reduced to 36 per cent? Why does it allow thousands
    of children to grow up in environments of social deprivation?

    The government takes refuge in the figures which show a fall in
    child poverty. But this depends upon its measure of poverty as
    those dependent upon incomes below 60 per cent of the national
    median. This measure is not based on any independent assessment of
    how much families require to afford a decent life style.

    The Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes the case for a measure which
    reflects what most of the population considers to be necessities.
    Its survey of 2002 found that 33 per cent of children went without
    at least one necessity such as three meals a day, adequate clothing
    and leisure activities.(2) In short, a third, not a quarter, of
    children were in poverty.

    A slight increase in incomes is not sufficient. Children are
    handicapped by inequality as much as poverty. In a notorious
    interview with Jeremy Paxman, the prime minister repeatedly refused
    to condemn the widening gap between rich and poor. He could hardly
    do so given that the Blairs with their £3m house in London,
    property investments and huge incomes serve to reinforce inequality
    themselves. Likewise, New Labour refuses to tackle the privileges
    of the rich. Senior members of the armed forces and the Foreign
    Office who serve abroad still receive substantial grants –
    amounting to £100m of public money – to send their children to
    the public schools which are the apex of inequality. No wonder that
    in Britain a middle class child is still 15 times more likely to
    remain in that class than a working class child is to be upwardly
    mobile.

    What should be done? Firstly, a drastic increase in child benefit
    and the minimum wage to ensure that all families have a lifestyle
    which does not disadvantage their children. Secondly, raising
    income tax to 50p in the pound for those with incomes over
    £100,000. The resulting £26bn a year would both finance
    larger incomes for others while also narrowing the gap between the
    top and bottom layers. Thirdly, a large hike in inheritance and
    capital gains tax to address the huge disparities in wealth. These
    steps would reduce both poverty and inequality.

    (1) P Toynbee, Hard Work, Bloomsbury, 2003
    (2) D Hirsch, Strategies Against Poverty, Joseph Rowntree
    Foundation, 2004

    Bob Holman has recently retired as community worker at a
    locally run project in Easterhouse, Glasgow

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