Anarchy 84/Notes on poverty 2: Child poverty, with a look at a Lancashire town

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Notes on poverty

2: Child poverty,
with a
look at a
Lancashire town


On Sunday she wore blue stockings, a yellow skirt and a bright red blouse;
On Monday she wore the same.
On Tuesday she wore a bright red blouse, blue stockings and a yellow skirt;
On Wednesday she dressed the same;
On Thursday again the red, the yellow and the blue;
On Friday again the same.
On Saturday she didn’t come out.
On Sunday she wore blue stockings, a yellow skirt and a bright red blouse.

Kathleen is 9 and is one of a, too large, minor­ity living in poverty. She lives in the old Lanca­shire town of Black­mills, with its population of 33,000. The decli­ning cotton indus­try of Black­mills has been supple­mented by a large nearby engin­eering indus­try and arms factory, to­gether with entry into tex­tiles. Unlike many of the surroun­ding towns, Black­mills cannot be des­cribed as a de­pressed area where unem­ploy­ment is dis­turbing­ly acute. The housing is pre­domi­nantly old and the red brick ter­raced rows of houses, 2 up, 2 down, built for the cotton workers towards the end of the 19th century, were not erected with an eye to
design. The major­ity were built without bath­rooms and are still without them where no Local Author­ity grant has been ob­tained for instal­lation. Most still have the lava­tory outside in the back yard (no gardens). The main road, one of Lanca­shire’s main high­ways, is full of flashy, newly-built super­markets which compete with the two market places which open three times a week. A view of Black­mills from the hills on the edge of the Pen­nines is gener­ally un­plea­sant. Dozens of factory chim­neys inces­sant­ly belch out palls of black smoke which mingle with the smoke of the smaller coal fires which every­one burns through­out the year. The view is always hazy, summer and winter, and the houses, even the post-war council houses, are black­ened and dirty. Com­pared to many of the sur­roun­ding towns Black­mills is good and clean, as any of the older citi­zens will tell you.

  There are few faci­lities for the chil­dren and teen­agers in Black­mills. The chil­dren play in the small parks and on the streets, going up the hill on fine days. Only one primary school has its own foot­ball pitch at­tached to the school. There is one poorly-atten­ded youth centre. The most popular beat-club-coffee-bar recent­ly closed down when the lease expired and the rent went up. There are two cinemas strug­gling for sur­vival. For the adults there is Bingo, the cinema, and one pub per 150 head of popu­lation.

  Although there is no defini­tive slum area in Black­mills and one cannot walk through the streets seeing overt poverty, there is poverty here—hidden behind the skirts of the Welfare Stateas indeed there is through­out the country.

  The work of Professors Townsend, Abel Smith and Titmuss have shown us that poverty exists on a vast scale in this country and hits hardest those who are most help­less—the children. Peter Townsend points out (letter, Guardian, 8.7.67) that the Minis­try of Social Secu­rity (MSS) drew a very severe poverty line when it arrived at its, already high, poverty figure. He accuses the Minis­try of not asking the right ques­tions and comments “… instead of 280,000 fami­lies (with 910,000 chil­dren) having been found in the summer of 1966 to have resour­ces less than re­quire­ments, there would pro­bably have been, judging from the report (MSS) and other sources, at least 450,000 (with over 1,400,000 chil­dren).” These reve­la­tions about the level of poverty become more alar­ming when one realises that in this age of afflu­ence where the stan­dard of living is rising (for some) and the cost of living rising (for all), the amount of real poverty has risen sharply, e.g. since 1954. Poverty can rise while stan­dards rise and now (not a new pheno­menon), many fami­lies, whose bread­winner is in full-time employ­ment, are living in poverty, well below the MSS basic sub­sist­ence level. Poverty cannot be seen solely as the result of unem­ploy­ment and sick­ness (phy­sical, mental or social) but also as a result of a hope­lessly inade­quate Welfare State and straight capi­talist profi­teer­ing and ex­ploita­tion. The major­ity of families
living in poverty have at least one person in employ­ment which means that their poverty is hidden from the bureau­crats at the Labour Exchange and Social Security as they may never have re­course to draw bene­fits that the Welfare State has to offer.

  In Black­mills the wages for un­skilled workers are low. Un­skilled labour­ers in tex­tiles only earn between £8 to £11 per week. Women workers in tex­tiles earn the same. Buil­ding labour­ers can earn up to £25 to £30 per week by breaking their backs seven days every week, weather permit­ting, but this is very uncer­tain money and all too fre­quent­ly they receive an insul­ting wage. There is very little con­struc­tion work in Black­mills and buil­ding workers go far afield to find the well-paid jobs. Where these low paid workers are the “honest poor” always trying to make the best of it, budget­ing their money as wisely as pos­sible, never wasting a far­thing, and just managing week by week, they will rarely see the man at the Dole office and no one will offi­cial­ly hear of their plight. It is easy to dis­cover that unem­ploy­ment has risen in Black­mills from 318 to 479 in one year (how many chil­dren are depen­dent on these 479 bread­winners we are not told) and that about 125 of these unem­ployed are recei­ving supple­men­tary benefit, but it is almost impos­sible to dis­cover the fami­lies in need who are on very low incomes, often suppor­ting large fami­lies. These fami­lies would once have been called “the deser­ving poor” who are often too proud or igno­rant to admit their poverty.

  The proposals made by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) would help these fami­lies where they have numer­ous chil­dren (and poor fami­lies are usually large fami­lies). One of the ways CPAG propose to alle­viate family poverty is by greatly increa­sing family allow­ances and abo­lish­ing income tax relief for chil­dren. “This would leave the net income of well-to-do fami­lies un­changed, except for those in the surtax class; the whole of the in­creased expen­diture would be concen­tra­ted on the poorer families, without the need for a means test” (Poverty, No. 3, Summer ’67). There is no indica­tion that the Labour Govern­ment have any inten­tion of carry­ing out these propo­sals or any others which would make even their own alleged concept of the Welfare State a reality.

  The Welfare State alleg­edly exists so that people do not fall into poverty. Not only do succes­sive Govern­ments shield them­selves from knowing the full extent of poverty amongst chil­dren, but this Govern­ment deli­berate­ly and cal­lously makes sure that those fami­lies who are already poor, stay poor. The wage stop is one of their more insi­dious weapons. “This is the rule which enables the Ministry of Social Security to pay less than the basic supple­ment­ary benefit rate when a man is sick or unem­ployed, thus deli­berate­ly keeping the family in poverty. Some 30,000 fami­lies suffer under this vicious rule, inclu­ding over 100,000 chil­dren” (Poverty, No. 3). In effect, the wage stop means that a man can get no more from Social Security than his potential earn­ings
would be if he were in employ­ment. The figure for poten­tial future earn­ings seems to be arrived at in a rather random way. “The outcome of this combi­nation of guess­work and rule of thumb is that normal earn­ings are as­sessed at asto­nish­ingly low levels—mostly between £9 10s. and £11 10s. in the 52 cases inves­tiga­ted”[*] (New Society, 14.12.67).

  The Govern­ment are under tremen­dous pres­sure to change the wage-stop rule, largely thanks to the CPAG and social workers dealing with poverty. Child Care Officers auto­mati­cally assist wage-stopped fami­lies in getting their bene­fits in­creased. They have used their in­flu­ence at all levels to exert tremen­dous pres­sure on the mana­gers of the MSS to imple­ment the wage stop in a liberal way. In Black­mills they have been largely instru­mental in getting the number of wage-stop cases down to about 12 from many times that number.

  The children’s depart­ment are in a parti­cular­ly good position to exert their influ­ence as they, more than any other agency, deal first-hand with poverty and its effect on children.

  One of the special diffi­cul­ties the chil­dren’s depart­ment has had to over­come is general lack of sym­pathy for the people who they try to help. These are more often than not “the unde­ser­ving poor”; problem fami­lies, perhaps better des­cribed as fami­lies with prob­lems, which are often so insur­moun­table that the family breaks down. The break­down of a family cannot be attri­buted to one single cause. There may be matri­monial dif­ficul­ties; the parents may have un­stable, inade­quate per­sona­lities, or maybe mental illness. Large fami­lies, sick­ness and unem­ploy­ment, and parti­cular­ly poverty, where the chil­dren are suf­fer­ing, will all bring the family to the atten­tion of the chil­dren’s depart­ment. The family is usually re­ferred to the depart­ment for some form of “anti-social” beha­viour like non-payment of rent, juve­nile delin­quency, mental illness, mis­treat­ment of chil­dren, and such like, but it is gener­ally found that central to the problem of the family is inade­quate perso­nali­ty, large fami­lies and poverty. It is easy to imagine how mothers of large fami­lies can be driven to dis­trac­tion by the sheer physi­cal effort of looking after large, perhaps unruly, fami­lies, let alone the mental anxiety of living on impos­sibly low wages. The children’s parents are often under-educa­ted and inade­quate. They have no idea how to help them­selves and feel that their en­viron­ment controls them as they have no appa­rent control over their en­viron­ment. Why does a man go on having child after child when he is earning a mere £10 a week? It would seem that chil­dren are just part of the things which happen to him.

  When pres­sure becomes too great for poeple they break down and display a variety of anti-social beha­viour. In Black­mills the young lorry driver, earning £12 a week, already with six chil­dren aged 1 to 8, tried to escape through gam­bling which became com­pul­sive. He prob­
ably gambled no more than many other fami­lies could toler­ate but because he couldn’t pay his council house subsi­dised rent of 25/- per week his family was inves­tiga­ted. It was found that the chil­dren lacked many bare essen­tials, but the family, now at least, is recei­ving some help.

  The woman of 30, husband left, who, as often as pos­sible, gets out to the smart-set pub, looking pretty, leaves behind three chil­dren sleep­ing in the same bed with only one blanket and no sheets. They are poorly clothed and usually grubby. There is no furni­ture in the front room and the house is dirty. When she became ill and very weak she still had to cope with the children. So far, she gets no direct help from any source.

  There are the fathers who drink most of the money away, perhaps because they cannot face the thought that even if they didn’t drink there still wouldn’t be enough money to feed the chil­dren pro­perly. Child care officers are very prag­matic in such situa­tions. There is no ques­tion of morali­zing. The chil­dren need help and as far as pos­sible they give it, reali­sing that to split a family up is usually worse for the child than living with inade­quate parents whose major crime, more often than not, is poverty. They tend to have a liberal—if not at times a liber­tari­an—ap­proach to their work.

  In Black­mills there are various other organi­sa­tions which work on the fringes of the problem of poverty. The NSPCC (who have also come to realize that prose­cu­tion is no answer to cruelty) work in close liaison with the chil­dren’s depart­ment. Many of their cases are caused by poverty and their help tends to be prac­tical. The WVS gives clothes to the poor but only when they “bring a note from someone in author­ity, like a doctor or a vicar” (WVS worker). The church-run Moral Welfare Asso­cia­tion tends to help un­married mothers.

  In effect, it is only the child welfare officers who really come to grips with the chil­dren in poverty in Black­mills, and attempt to nurse the problem fami­lies back into some kind of stabi­lity. Gone are the days when they saw their func­tion as keeping the poor “happy in their misery”. They now see them­selves as a pro­fes­sional body exer­ting in­flu­ence on the Govern­ment to take real steps to alle­viate poverty.

  But it has taken a group like the CPAG to come up with a defi­nite prac­tical plan which could reform the present situa­tion imme­diate­ly in a way which would reduce some of the worst effects of poverty. They have really hit upon the crux of the problem. Whilst social workers and others see the problem fami­lies and offer what help they can, there are count­less others invol­ving over 1,000,000 chil­dren who are living in poverty with no one to help.

  Perhaps the parents are not anti-social enough!

* Investigated by the Supplementary Benefits Com­mis­sion.

Some morning, after a star
Has hung over our house all night,
We might walk forth and recognise things:
This would be one miracle worth seeing—
Energy working on our values
To create something out of nothing.
And what might we see?
That boy with the twelve-month running nose,
is not just a pillar of snot
Trying to annoy us,
But a person of flesh and blood
With other things to see besides a nose—
No shoes, no fruit, no underwear—
These are the things his presence screams at us.
The feeling that a surplus of food
Gives us a well-earned condescension
Over the ones whose children
Sit and wait, and who, finally,
Are destroyed by the great bitch, hope,
Would be seen as our greatest shame.
I’m not setting out a catalogue
To gratify complacency:
A star did shine over our house last night,
But we, the strong, the good, the beautiful,
Remained impregnable.