Friday, 10 June 2011

Facing up to the problems of the Poor Kids

On Adam Ford's recommendation, I've just watched the BBC One documentary Poor Kids (4 days left to watch on iPlayer at the time of writing). If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth watching. However, it is by the same token saddening and infuriating to sit through - not for the subjects of the documentary, but because the conditions they live in are suffered by 3.5 million children across the country.

The documentary takes three households in Leicester, Glasgow, Bradford and tells the story through the eyes of the children at the sharp end of it.

In Leicester, eleven-year-old Sam suffers bullying for being poor, not least because he has to wear his sister's hand-me-downs to school. The documentary shows him being taken for his very first haircut as a treat by his aunt for turning twelve, and the power going out in the middle of his birthday celebrations. He sums up the situation that so many people in Britain face when he states that "they're raising the prices of food and lowering the money." But not everybody has to face that situation with the fear that "soon we're going to starve to death."

Ten-year-old Paige lives in a tower block in Glasgow that is ridden with damp. She cannot sleep on her top bunk for fear that it will spread and get on her chest. This leads the show to point out that "47% of children with asthma are from the poorest 10% of families." Nor is it just asthma, as "poor children are two and a half more likely to suffer chronic illness." As the show goes on, her family is re-homed and her tower block demolished, though her friend in a nearby block is not so lucky and at the end of the documentary she reflects that she "feels sorry for" her and could not go back to such conditions. Though many people are stuck with them and "over one million homes in the UK are classified as 'unfit to live in'."

For eight-year-old Courtney in Bradford, life's main problems are skipping meals when she is unable to get them free from school, and chronic eczema. "1 in 5 poor families report skipping meals," according to the documentary, and it gets harder when the summer holidays arrive and there are no free meals in school. In one scene, she discusses her future with her slightly better off friend Paige and concludes that she will remain poor.

Sam has a similar thought, and contemplates the day when he is "raising two kids on my own." This is not far from reality, given that "out of the 12 rich countries studied [in a UNICEF survey of 22 European countries], kids in the UK have the lowest chance of escaping poverty." As Adam Ford says in his review of the programme, "these children have grown up very quickly, and display a better understanding of the way the world works than some adults." It is far easier to see the effects of capitalism when you live at its sharp end.

So, what's the answer to this problem? The show's director, Jezza Neuman, provides no answers. In his blog, he is equally vague. "So many of the children we met while making the film could go on to great things in life, if given the right chances." But, of course, they're not and there is no suggestion that they ever will be.

At present, what we're witnessing is the opposite. It's not just the attacks on the public sector - where jobs are being cut, services are being decimated, and benefits are being slashed - but the private sector too. As Sam already noted, pay is falling well behind inflation as companies implement their own austerity and have those at the bottom pay for profits at the top. He's also right to see that there are five people to every job, but he understates the problem given that this increases substantially in poorer areas.

But to talk about "the right chances" reduces this to an individual matter. If we're talking about people pulling themselves out of poverty, we are accepting poverty as a given. What we need, in reality, is a collective solution to the root issue. Otherwise, for every one who gets "the right chances," countless more Sams, Paiges, and Courtneys remain trapped in the mire that Poor Kids documents.

In the immediate term, this means defending what benefits and recourse to assistance already exists. The programme tells us that "child poverty under current policies is set to rise 11% in the next 3 years," and so of course we need to fight tooth-and-nail to resist that trend. But even given a short-sighted perspective on the world, it is clear that we have to go beyond simply defending what already exists. This documentary demonstrates just how meagre that is and there is a clear need to not only stop the tide of cuts, but roll it back. The measures we're seeing now are just the escalation of a thirty-year trend, and as such we have a considerable way to go just to reach a tolerable level of concessions within the existing system.

Even this will not fully remedy the situation. Poverty will continue to exist, and the ruling class will continually try to tear down what we have where it benefits them. If we are able to build the momentum of a working class resistance movement, our aim should not simply be to defend and patch up a state welfare system. Ultimately, we should be looking beyond that to a free society based on mutual aid and self-organisation, unburdened by the yoke of either capital or the state.

If this seems fanciful, I refer you to Mikhail Bakunin: "By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible. Those who have cautiously done no more than they believed possible have never taken a single step forward." The Poor Kids demand that we start moving.