AS WE ENTERED the New Year my mind was occupied by the number of people forced to go to Oldham Foodbank for supplies simply to feed their families.
More than 700 local families have now used the Foodbank and with that will come a similar number of individual stories of struggle, desperation and need: and in most cases the responsibility to feed young children.
This isn’t an academic view of poverty; I’m like most people in Oldham and have seen firsthand the struggle.
Luckily my father was in work for most of my childhood and, although we lived in areas which some might consider to be poorer (maybe the name Tripe Colony – Miles Platting wasn’t the best address in town), we did have food on the table and were able to afford more than many including good clothes, toys and the occasional holiday to Pontins or Ireland.
And that begs the question which has divided policy makers and ‘thinkers’ (as oppose to doing) about what poverty actually is.
For many people the strong belief is that if you have food on the table and the basic essentials then you aren’t living in poverty at all. For many that is a state of mind from the war years perhaps – when very little was plentiful and you made do.
For others poverty is when a person isn’t able to ‘live’, to enjoy life and take part in society in an active way including socialising.
And poverty – the causes and circumstances – divides politics.
Is poverty self inflicted? Does society keep some people in poverty? Is the gap between poverty and a better standard of life too big for most to make the leap? And what are reasonable wants and needs?
I don’t have a defined answer to any of those questions but I do have a view I’d like to share about Oldham in 2013 and the challenges and opportunities we face.
For the purposes of comparisons and use of available data I am using official figures in this blog which express poverty as households earning less than 60 per cent of the median income, which in Oldham is £32,000 a year.
As I write this 15,865 children are living in poverty in Oldham, that’s 27.4 per cent of our young population.
That, of course, isn’t evenly spread across the Borough where significant pockets of poverty exist with stark contrasts. In Coldhurst almost half of all children live in poverty (47.2 per cent) and Hollinwood (40.6 per cent) compared with Saddleworth South at 4.2 per cent.
Those figures don’t just tell a story solely of income and the “haves and have not’s” they highlight the vast differences in life chances on housing, education, job opportunities, health and life expectancy.
In 2010 the Child Poverty Bill was given Royal Assent with an ambitious target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. That bill also gave Local Authorities the responsibility to carry out a local needs assessment.
Marginal progress was made between 2007 and 2010 with a 5.6 per cent reduction in the number of children living in poverty in Oldham, a larger decrease than the average in England.
Clearly the Council can make some changes and work to improve the circumstances and life chances of young people. The huge investment in education from Children’s Centres to adulthood will begin to pay dividends in time, although it does feel as though we could be facing a cliff edge.
In April this year thousands of people in receipt of benefits will see major changes come into force. For the vast majority that will mean a decrease in income and, for some, by a great deal.
Whether you believe in the need to reduce benefits or the need to reduce the national deficit isn’t for this blog, but the question which needs to be asked is how can the Government hope to meet the target of eradicating child poverty when all the signs say even more families are living on the breadline – and that’s before the changes take effect.
|Impact||Residents Affected||Loss to Oldham|
|Disability Living Allowance||4,000 lose entitlement||£11m per year in DLA|
|Work Capability Assessment||1,665 move from Incapacity Benefit to Jobseekers Allowance||£2.1m per year (once transfers complete, assuming jobs not found)|
|Housing Benefit/ “Bedroom Tax”||2,637 social tenants lose out due to under occupancy||£1.7m per year|
|Council Tax Benefit (devolution, 10% cut)||16,814 households potentially directly affected – subject to consultation||£1.7m per year|
|Benefit Cap-interim||124 households with children have housing benefit reduced.||(£351k per year)|
|Benefit Cap-full||Not known. Occurs once transfer to Universal Credit.||£464k per year|
It is self evident that the best way out of poverty is work – but the answer isn’t to make benefits send more people to the Foodbank.
Going to work has to pay and that will only happen if we tackle unethical work practices such as zero hour contracts, payments below the National Minimum Wage and work towards a living wage.
If all we can hope for as a society is just to get by then what does that say about us in 2013?
Surely quality of life and life chances with the opportunity to do better than the last generation is the hallmark of a civilised society and unless we assert that as our starting point we would have failed those 15,865 children who deserve better.
So what are we going to do about it?
– Regenerate Oldham and create quality job opportunities – the best way out of poverty is work which pays fairly;
– Give every child growing up in Oldham a route to success through further and higher education, training, work placements and apprenticeships;
– Review our agency and procurement contracts to ensure we promote quality jobs and take out unethical work practices including zero hour contracts and positively promote the Oldham Living Wage;
– Continue to invest in education as the best route into quality employment;
– Continue to invest in quality housing and environmental standards – quality of life;
– Ensure public health focuses on education and prevention to stop the cycle of poor health in a way which meets local variances and issues at a district level;
– Continue to campaign on issues which have a disproportionate effect on poorer families including Fair Energy, Fair Fares bus ticket pricing for affordable travel;
– Continue to campaign against unethical or unfair practices across financial services, welfare and social exclusion;
– Invest in welfare and benefit advisors to link income with expenditure and promote financial education through the Credit Union.
Thanks for listening,