THE BLOG

I Grew Up Poor And Defied the Odds; Three Million Children Today Deserve the Same Chance

22/11/2016 12:01

To many, I am a 'success' story. From an ethnic minority background, my father died when I was three, leaving my mum to raise my siblings and I on a combination of debt, benefits and her salary as a part-time sales assistant. 34 years later, I hold a PhD from Cambridge, have a string of publications to my name and a household income which dwarfs that which I grew up with.

On paper, at least, I am what social mobility is all about. However, I am also an exception, not the rule. For every one of me (born in the 1970s, growing up in the poorest fifth of society and going to university), there were four undergrads from the top fifth of society.

But I take no credit for this success. Rather, I recognise that I was lucky. In fact, I was incredibly lucky. I was born into, and benefited from, particular circumstances that helped me. 3.7 million poor children today, however, probably won't and here's why:

Welfare support has been cut. For families like mine in the 1980s, the system of benefits not only offered more of a safety net than that of the present one, but was also designed to last a lifetime. Take Widow's Pension, for example, which continued to supplement my mother's low income to the age of 60, even after we ceased to be her 'dependents'; its modern-day equivalent (Bereavement Allowance) is capped at 52 weeks, after which the benefit stops, regardless of a widow's circumstance. Other benefits, such as child benefit, were also more generous in the 1970s because they were uprated in line with earnings or prices, whichever was higher. Over the past 40 years, however, these benefits have increased in line with prices only and sometimes, not even that; child benefit, along with tax credits and other working-age benefits, were only uprated by a below-inflation 1 per cent from 2013. This has meant that benefits have significantly lost their value over time, with some experts predicting that child poverty will rise by 700,000 by 2020, partly as a result.

In fact, in comparison to the tax and benefit systems of 1997 and 2008, the 1979 system (the year I was born) offered better overall protection against child poverty than its more recent equivalents. The most recent cut to welfare support drives this point home. The extended cap on benefits, introduced earlier this month, is estimated to hit 116,000 of the poorest families, affecting nearly 320,000 children. Unlike the benefit cap introduced in 2013, which mainly hit around 12,000 households of between one and four children, the extended cap will impact nearly ten times as many.

The fact that this policy has met with little of the 'I, Daniel Blake' outcry that might be expected of a more civil society, highlights how current social attitudes are less empathetic towards those in need, in comparison to when I was growing up. In the 1980s, my family benefited from a more benevolent outlook on those in need of welfare support. We may have had it financially hard, but at least we didn't face the risk of being seen as 'benefit scroungers', who were getting 'something for nothing.' And at least our hardship wasn't reduced to 'poverty porn,' propagated by a tabloid media and stripped of any humane content, facts and perspective.

Today pollsters find that the benefit cap is among the most popular of Government policies, reflecting a startling lack of empathy among the public towards the casualties of it: children. This is despite the fact that two-thirds of poor children live in working households and represent precisely those 'just managing' families that Theresa May talks about.

As if being poor wasn't enough, families also have to bear the burden of stigma that comes with it.

Low-income families have also been hit by wider austerity measures. Despite the fact that early years interventions are critically important for children's outcomes, it is this provision that has been rolled back as a result of the 2010 cuts. These were key interventions that benefitted low-income families between 1998 and 2010 - a time when Every Child Mattered, regardless of background, postcode or parental income. Sure Start Children's Centres, for example, have been largely successful with the greatest impacts being detected for mother and family outcomes and I have seen first hand how these Children's Centres were often hubs for joined-up services targeted at lone-parent, low-income families who would not otherwise be in touch with mainstream support services.

I also recognise that not every child benefits from a high-achieving family. Coming from the upper middle classes in Sri Lanka, much of my extended family came to the UK in the 60s and 70s with significant human capital, setting foot on English soil with a fluent command of the English language and professional qualifications abound. I undoubtedly benefited from this. We may have been poor, but having aunts and uncles that were skilled, educated and aspirational set high expectations of me and provided role models for me to emulate. This human capital also enabled me and my siblings to benefit from small, but significant acts of benevolence, which provided a safety net for us when times were hard. While my grand-uncle paid for my father's funeral, for example, my Aunt helped with childcare so that my mother could increase her working hours. None of this would have been possible if our family had low levels of skills and education.

There was also a stronger sense of local community 35 years ago and I remember neighbours, friends and our church playing an important role in supporting us. In fact, the first person at our house following news of my father's death, was a neighbour, dressed in a bath robe with dripping wet hair. She picked up the phone, mobilised a few relatives and put the kettle on (yes, she was English). From that point on, various neighbours, relatives and friends descended on our house and continued to support us in the years that followed. Would a community mobilise like that now? I'd like to think so, but families live further apart and the scale and pace of social change has meant that fewer of us know our neighbours, let alone those in need. Globalisation has transformed the shape of many communities, which are now more diverse, less homogenous and more transient. Today, digitalisation means that we are more likely to spend our time look at our phone than looking out for our neighbour, leaving places like foodbanks and overstretched charities to pick up the pieces.

There are a plethora of research reports that will tell you about the causes and effects of poverty, but let me summarise for you the actual experience of growing up poor: it's hard. You hide your needs to protect your parents from worry, because they preoccupied on a daily basis with simply getting by. You're often alone to make sense of a confusing feelings about your circumstances: embarrassment, social anxiety, stigma, shame, anger, frustration. You're exposed to 'real world' pressures and anxieties because your family struggles to heat the house and is too embarrassed to claim your free school meal.

But it's not all bad. Some of my most difficult and painful experiences of growing up poor have taught me more than both my Cambridge degrees put together. And this raises an important point about the way we view poor children. With attitudes often polarised between indifference and disdain, we tend to forget that children have potential, above all else. Poverty isn't just a terrible affliction that can scar you for life and render you to some scrapheap of degenerates; it can also shape the fabric of who you are and often for the better. It can teach you strength, compassion, humility, understanding and independence, as well an ability to reach out to, and connect with people from all walks of life. Wouldn't the world be a slightly better place if we could harness the potential of children like that and intervene to transform their life chances?

With the UK set for the biggest increase in child poverty in a generation, we can't let ourselves become a nation that stops fighting for the equal life chances for every child. Poor children are children first and foremost. Small, vulnerable and with vast amounts of potential. Most importantly, they are our future. Our collective future. This if nothing else, should be what we remember on Universal Children's Day: our collective responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable, precious resource in our society.

The views I express here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

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