In reading articles about economic poverty I am struck by the fact that most discussion focuses on the ways that spending power and material choice are limited for people with low incomes. In this paper I want to focus on the effects of poverty on the individual. I have not approached this as an academic subject, but have drawn on my experience of working in mental health, and the experiences of members of my family who work in public services. I feel this is a very relevant discussion for our times, and one which fits well with the aims of Progressive Pulse, with its commitment to a society that benefits the many not the few, the equal value of all children, objective truth and new thinking.
During the 1980s I noticed something had changed among the students who I supervised on placement. In case discussions about the problems faced by our clients the students no longer mentioned poverty, which was in fact a huge factor in most cases. When questioned, they said that poverty was not something covered on their courses. Perhaps this began as a well-intentioned change made to avoid stigmatising poorer people; or a deliberate move to seize the narrative, for whatever reason, poverty dropped out of the training curriculum, and with it went much understanding of people’s daily lives and the factors affecting people’s health and resilience. Things have moved on apace; the belief that poverty is a self-inflicted choice and that poor people can choose to help themselves has been largely assimilated into our culture.1 A new discussion of poverty is well overdue.
The material effects of poverty are multiple, interlinked and self-reinforcing, creating a whole range of outcomes in which poorer families are disadvantaged. From birth, with babies in poorer households having a lower birth weight and higher mortality, children born into poverty are disadvantaged. Low food quality and lack of facilities to prepare food, for example in homeless accommodation, can lead to poorer health. Substandard housing conditions, such as damp rooms, affect health as children develop, and poorer families tend to be placed in areas where there are few community facilities and shops, increasing their isolation and limiting their choices. Such areas are also less safe, and children in poorer families have more accidents. Poor families may be exploited by loan sharks, targeted by gangs and subject to friction in the community, creating constant stress.
Due to lack of money, their home environment, for children in low-income families, is likely to have fewer age-appropriate toys, books and sources of stimulation. Parents may be preoccupied with working long hours, or with the stresses caused by their situation, and have less time to spend with children. These factors lead to delays in reaching milestones for the developing child, for example in fine motor skills and language development. Poor children are not any less loved than children in well-off families, but this does not compensate for the range of disadvantages caused by poverty. The effects can be seen in school, with young children from poorer backgrounds showing more behavioural issues and attention-seeking, having a shorter attention span, being less able to motivate themselves, showing anger rather than problem-solving when confronted with difficulties, and having a narrow range of personal experience to draw on compared to their peers. All of this is likely to contribute to lower attainment, and also to a lack of resilience, self- confidence and personal resourcefulness.
Poverty is so much more than lack of money; it encompasses the resulting poverty of choice, experience, personal development and opportunity. Poor children internalise a sense of being worth less than others, as they quickly realise they do not have the same advantages or ‘things’ as their peers. Among teenagers considering career choices, for example, those from low-income families are less likely to have given thought to a career and the steps to be taken towards it, and more likely to reject suggestions from professionals because they feel they are ‘not clever enough.’ They may say it’s not worth studying a particular subject because they’re not good at it, which they tend to put down to the teacher not liking them; they are fearful of taking the risk of personal responsibility and aiming high. They have narrower horizons than their better-off peers and fewer positive role models; where they have made a career choice – often the same as that of another family member – they can be very fixed on that and will not consider other options. This kind of poverty among individuals results in a huge waste of potential talent for society.
Young people affected by poverty enter adulthood often with a pervading feeling of emptiness stemming from a lack of self-worth, sometimes expressed in anger or disaffection. Marketing knows that sense of emptiness well, and aims to exploit it with things we are told will make us happy. However it is a bottomless pit, and the treats we all like to motivate ourselves with are followed in poorer households by crippling debt as poorer consumers are always unable to sustain the things that society tells us we must have to be successful. More and more time is spent on the minutiae of daily life, as ways of surviving have to be found; leaving little time for aspirations and ambitions. The accumulated factors mentioned above also create a poverty of resilience, with those affected less able to overcome problems in their lives because they have fewer personal resources and limited experience of success.
‘A history of poverty, with its timeless social stigmas, can be one of the hardest things to overcome that an individual will encounter in their lifetime. The psychological and spiritual repercussions of poverty are exacting and insidious in ways people don’t perceive. Our ability to recognize the iron grip of internalized shame that poverty creates, is a difficult process of denial and reluctant hard-won acceptance. . . . The pain and survivors’ guilt many of us feel, of the mental illness that seized several of our siblings is currently one very real aspect of the price some of us were forced to pay. A price that levelled its impact on the struggles that a life of poverty inflicted on us.’ 2
Poverty can be cyclical, with children limited in their turn by the deficits experienced by their parents and no way of breaking out of their situation, so the effects can become entrenched and quite extreme: for example, families where the children have not attended school because the parents do not know how to use an alarm clock or public transport; where children are undernourished because the parents have no experience of preparing a meal other than a sandwich or breakfast cereal. It is hard to imagine what life is like for people who have not had the opportunity to learn the most basic of skills which most of us take for granted; or the shame they feel and the lengths they go to to try to hide these deficits.
Of course, not everyone who has experienced poverty is affected in the same way, and many people make good lives for themselves even with the odds stacked against them, at least until they hit a crisis. However, safety nets and helping hands for those in difficulty have become increasingly scarce, particularly in the past 7 years, with the withdrawal of youth and community centres, family support centres, Sure Start, Connexions, and so many other sources of support. Along with local charities, many of these offered early intervention in a way which was non-stigmatising and open to everyone, so that help could be offered before families and individuals descended into crisis. The cost of this loss of support is huge, for society as well as for the individuals involved, as the UK spends far more than its European neighbours on preventable problems such as crime, family breakdown, mental ill-health and drug abuse.3
To break this spiral, which wastes the lives of increasing numbers of people in our society, we need to:
- reclaim the discussion about poverty, its costs to our society, and what can be done to address it
- reject the notion that poverty is a choice, and promote proper understanding
- assert the value and the need to support or reinstate measures that help individuals and families to change their lives: for example, fair and adequate wages and and welfare benefits; free school meals; children’s centres which are free of charge; community support facilities; credit unions; student grants; careers services.
‘A woman, who had survived a childhood landscape of terror and the despair of being shuttled between relatives as a foster child, unloved and unwanted. A woman who wanted nothing more than to create a happy sprawling family, to cancel out her own lonely history as an abused and neglected only child but of a mentally ill mother. In my efforts to save my dignity, my pride, and any semblance of future ambition I might entertain, I would remember only the happy times of our family.’4
Edited by Dory Dickson
with contributions from :-
Michelle Plant – Careers Service Brent Taylor – Primary School Teacher
1 Much of this change can be attributed to the seeds sown by the American theorist Charles Murray, who argued that dependency on welfare benefits is a lifestyle choice associated with laziness, drug and alcohol abuse, criminality, etc. Whilst having no basis in fact, this theme has been constantly expounded by the popular right-wing press and media.
2 Theresa G Kennedy – Essay on Poverty, 2006
3 A detailed analysis is found in Action for Children and the New Economic Foundation, Backing the Future: why investing in children is good for us all, 2009
4 Because the reality was too painful to recall. Kennedy, 2006