Living below the Breadline

I heard something on the News today that surprised me and it took a few moments to work out why that was. It was an item about child poverty in the United Kingdom and the fact that there are more children and their families living in absolute poverty now that there have ever been.

Rural Poverty

That wasn’t the thing that surprised me, although it should have. The thing that did it for me was the interview, which took place in a remote Scottish village in the north of the country. For some reason I didn’t expect poverty to affect village life, especially Scottish village life. When I wondered why I hadn’t thought of life that way, I realised that my experience of this way of life was limited to Lillian Beckwith who wrote about Hebridean life with humour.

Lillian penned such comic classics as A Rope in Case and The Hills is Lonely. She was born in 1916 and penned her most recent book in 2002. I cannot find anything to say she has died, so must assume she is still alive and flourishing. She described a life that was hard but not focussed on money or having modern conveniences or technology. I suppose I still think of life in the furthest reaches to still be like that.

It was evident why life had become so difficult for the families being interviewed. Theirs was a fishing village and there were no more fish to catch, so when other potential work opportunities ran out, clearly there was no income. What it means for a lot of families is that they have to uproot themselves from their birth place and move to other localities for work.


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published some statistics relating to child poverty in Great Britain for 2004/5. They make dismal reading. Of the national population, 27% of families are claiming out of work benefits, and so technically are in poverty. When that is broken down to localised areas, the highest statistics are for London where 39% of the families who live there are impoverished. In the North East 32% are struggling; in Scotland 25% have very little or no income and in the West Midlands 30% of that population are below the breadline. The lowest statistics recorded in this particular survey are for the South East where 21% of families are suffering.

Below is a direct quote:

Child Poverty Key Facts

  • The proportion of children living in poverty has doubled in the past generation.
  • The UK has proportionally more poor children than most rich countries.
  • In 1999, the Prime Minister committed to ending child poverty by 2020.
  • In 2005, 3.4 million children were living in poverty.
  • 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty between 1998 and 2005.
  • This is a reduction of 17%. The target was 25%.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2004/5

It looks hopeful but there are still far too many families in poverty.


We could debate the causal factors that have led to so many families with children barely surviving. We could blame parents for not managing their income; we could look to credit card companies and see how they draw in the unwary; we could look at these families and say with smug attitudes that they only have themselves to blame; we could point the finger at addiction and poor parenting and loss of real family values. We could say it is the fault of selfish women who insist on getting pregnant even though there is no man to support them. We could do all of these things.

Effects of Poverty

What we should be doing is thinking about what it means for a child to live in poverty. It means that they live with their parents’ unease. It means that they eat poor quality food and dress in inappropriate clothes. It means that they may suffer from depression because they are surrounded by hopelessness. It means that their development and potential are greatly reduced by their circumstances. Their health may also suffer due to poor accommodation. These children are the lucky ones who are still with their parents.

One child interviewed in the news item stated that he hated Christmas because he knew that was when his parents felt even more miserable as they attempted to make something positive for the children and probably spent money they didn’t have so that the family would feel normal. Where hope fades, children may be removed from their parents’ care and placed into the care system.

I remember seeing a drama documentary which of its time was a real innovation. It was called Cathy Come Home produced by Ken Loach and was on television screens in 1966. The story was about a young couple who married, had a family and eventually found themselves on hard times. The film made harrowing viewing. There was no happy outcome for anyone.

A Realistic Future?

Some of the legislation may have changed and there is certainly a lot more publicised help and support for families, but when we get down to the real rock bottom, is it actually much different? Is there realistic and sustainable support for families which will remain until they are truly back on their feet? I doubt it, because the resources we have are stretched to breaking point.

Part of my work involves training family care workers. One of the voluntary organisations who employ me to do this supports families with children under five years to try to help them get out of social care and to return to an effective and rewarding life as a stable family unit.

Realistically this work can take years in some cases, but at least six months for most. The workers have a maximum of 12 weeks to help each family to turn around. You can see how it is almost guaranteed to fail. This is not exceptional and everyone works hard to support the families to reach a satisfactory outcome but because organisations like these are few, their time is of a premium. Those families who look likely to succeed are sometimes given an additional three weeks to succeed.  It almost feels that we are throwing money away. It is better than nothing but what does it actually achieve long term?

Poverty is the trap that the majority of us avoid by the skin of our teeth. It is the stuff of nightmares for parents. The real fear of redundancy and closure hangs over some communities like a pall. I don’t have any glib solutions and I know that there are people working to find ways to put an end to this abject existence. What I do think and feel is that we all should educate ourselves about the reality of poverty in this country. We may not have as many who are starving compared to some of the African countries, but these are our children in our country. Shouldn’t charity begin at home?

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