The truth about modern poverty
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I THINK we have very outdated notions about what child poverty is in
this country. We think of a Dickensian view of a child without shoes,
without food,” says Lisa Harker. The woman who has been dubbed the
Government’s “child poverty czar” is out to change people’s attitudes.
A long-time campaigner on children’s policy, Harker has been given
the task of scrutinising the Department for Work and Pensions’ work on
child poverty. She has been in the role part-time since July,
“challenging and questioning” its policies, and her report will be
published next month.
The work has led to wider questions, she says, not least the idea
that the pervasive Dickensian view of child poverty stops us seeing
what’s under our noses. Poverty, she says, increasingly means that
someone in a family is in work, but struggling. “They’re people who we
work with. They’re not A. N Other group that we don’t see who are
feckless or cut away from the mainstream of society,” she says.
As well as being likely to focus on how the Government can lift
people out of poverty through employment, higher income support, tax
credits and the minimum wage, her report will lay responsibility at the
private sector’s door. The notion of in-work poverty, she says, is a big
departure in thinking, but a necessary shift in a rapidly changing
labour market. “Helping people out of poverty is going to be as much
about ensuring they’ve got the right skills to compete in the labour
market as it is about tackling unemployment. Of course it raises the
question about the responsibilities of employers.” Decent wages,
flexible working, career progression and skills are all issues for them,
But public attitudes are complex, Harker adds. Earlier this year she
wrote an essay for the Institute for Public Policy Research, a
think-tank, pointing out that many people regard hardship as a symptom
of personal failure in others.
“We have hidden (poverty) away. And I think the Government has a
responsibility to be much more upfront about the level of inequality in
our society. There is a fear that this is not an issue the public will
be interested in,” she says.
Even so, she’s not cynical: “I do believe that there’s an innate
British sense of fairness, that people want to live in a country where
the economic growth is shared among us,” she says. A public debate is
needed, she suggests, to reignite our sense of moral outrage about child
poverty. And a “Bono, a Geldof or a Jamie” wouldn’t be a bad idea
either. “I do think our language about poverty turns people off.
Statistical measures do not resonate with people’s everyday
understanding of what poverty is. We need to find a way to build the
equivalent of Make Poverty History in the UK.”
There is a sense of urgency to Harker’s work — the Government’s
target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 are
certain to be missed if something doesn’t change. And Harker is
personally impatient, something she says is more pronounced since she
was knocked off her bike by a lorry in Oxford, where she lives, two
years ago. She was pregnant at the time and almost died.
“I don’t want to be defined by it, but it was such a major thing in
my life. It also doesn’t feel honest not to share it,” she says. “I’ve
got a sense of time being very short.” Given her high aspirations, she
still feels that she will have failed even if her recommendations are
“It’s all about trying to really raise the stakes,” she says. “While
I hope that I have my feet on the ground and suggest things that are
practically feasible, I also hope that some of what I’m saying is a step
ahead of where the Government is.”