Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 2 May 2015

'Victorian Poverty' - Spectre or Chimaera?

Teachers are bringing an extra packed lunch for poor pupils, washing their clothes and even cutting their hair as they warn of a return to Victorian poverty.
This, via the Telegraph, is according to a survey by the NAHT, which reports that, by their calculations, schools are spending an average each year of £2000 (primary) to £3000 (secondary) on basic school equipment, washing clothes and feeding children.

And who is to blame? Why, the evil Tories!
"This is money that schools are having to find to help families who have been left high and dry by cuts to public services."
Though the union spokesman is generous enough to share the responsibility around;
“We know that whichever political party holds power after next week, deeper cuts are coming.”
Now, I admit I am slightly puzzled. This country has a long history of people who, in conditions of abject poverty, kept the doorstep spotless and the children well-scrubbed, while more widely-travelled members of clan Macheath have seen youngsters in immaculate school uniform issuing from tiny mud huts in the African bush or slum dwellings in India.

What, then, are we to make of this?
He cited a case of a teacher in Hackney, east London, who had to teach a child how to brush her teeth after the pupil came to school with food in her teeth and toothache. 
Other teachers had to provide their students with toothbrushes and monitor that they brushed their teeth during school hours.
Or this?
“Teachers give pupils new clothes while they wash their dirty clothes and prepare breakfast for them..."
According to the NAHT spokesman, poverty and poor parenting are inextricably linked:
If you’re a poor child growing up in what seems like Victorian Britain at times, schools have to provide basic parenting and other services.”
With a certain interesting irony, I could borrow the Left's customary modus operandi and protest that this is deeply offensive to the many parents who, despite desperately straitened means, manage to give their children breakfast and bring them to school as clean and neatly-dressed as possible without any outside help.

This seamless elision of poor personal hygiene with government policy is at best simplistic. Teachers report that there are children arriving in Reception class unable to use a knife and fork or hold a pencil and some are barely toilet-trained (possibly the real reason for installing school washing machines); the level of support required to overcome such monumental parental inadequacy is surely beyond the means of any UK government.

Meanwhile, far from being an extra mouth to feed on limited resources, a British child can now be a goose that lays golden eggs. For some low income households, the weekly child benefit (£20.70 for the first and £13.70 each for the rest) may be doubled or trebled once benefit payments and tax credits are taken into account; under the circumstances, although poor money management undoubtedly plays a part, the term 'Victorian poverty' is hardly appropriate, however appealing to headline-writers.

There have, sadly, always been parents who neglect their children. In previous centuries, poor sanitation and malnutrition compounded the damage done by parents too busy, idle or intoxicated to care or whose mental or physical incapacity rendered them unable to meet the needs of a dependent child. Where possible, relatives or neighbours might step in to help - plenty of today's pensioners can testify to the once-common practice of taking in someone else's children.

The advent of the Welfare State quite rightly ensured that, along with healthier living conditions, practical help and support were available to those on the margins of society but, however well-meaning its founders, the twin evils of unwieldy bureaucracy and poorly-targeted benefits have conspired to undermine its function as far as child-rearing is concerned, complicated by the vast burden placed on the system by early parenthood, fragmentary family structure and deliberate exploitation.

Throwing money at the problem is not the answer, however. My own dealings with Social Services and benefits offices (as both 'client's representative' and temporary employee) revealed a monstrous logo-ridden, Left-leaning, meetings-with-biscuits office culture which, though it would definitely benefit from substantial pruning, is likely to have been preserved as a safe haven for those wielding the knife while front-line services bear the brunt of 'government cuts'.

In any case, according to a document from HomeStart* (a charity which arranges for volunteers to work with families in difficulties):
The volunteer thought that it did not matter how wonderful an array of services you can have on offer for families. If they do not have the emotional ability to be in a place to recognise that they need them, or how to actually go and ask for help, it can be a waste of time.
That the Welfare State is fallible is undisputed; that teachers or schools will quietly step in to help deprived children in genuine emergencies is, I should hope, a given. However, such necessary assistance cannot and should not be conflated with regular measures to counteract ongoing parental inadequacy, incompetence or laziness, least of all in the interests of generating political capital.

*The document provides case studies of families in crisis - a sobering catalogue of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness, sometimes repeated over several generations. The State simply could not afford to fund what HomeStart volunteers are doing unless other public services were cut to the bone.
I know someone who, having been helped by HomeStart, has herself become a volunteer now that her own children have left home - that is surely the way forward, rather than relying entirely on an overstretched welfare budget. The crucial thing is to break the cycle so that the children can avoid the same problems and a formal welfare system is not necessarily the way to accomplish it. 


  1. What is worrying is that it is people like David Bell or Ofsted who are bringing this to the media:



    Both of those have form in the breakdown of society in themselves.

    And it's generational, sorry to say. These are now the children of Gen X, the first generation to have lost the plot in the dark 70s and never find it again - this is their children today. Merging with this are the children of the Boomers - Gen Y - and these two generations, one following the other, are where we are today.

  2. You're impressively quick off the mark with those links, JH. Yes - the NAHT survey is merely another slant on the same story, brought up once again to serve an agenda.

    The breakdown of the family - we are close to, if not at, the point of half of British children born outside marriage - has to be a major factor in all of this.

    I wonder if the affluent, well-educated feminists who wrote men out of the family structure ever considered the ways in which such 'liberation' from the marital shackles would render their lower-status sisters - and their teenage daughters - highly vulnerable to transient predatory males.

  3. I’m sure many middle class academics, journalists and assorted pundits have contributed to this problem.

    It seems to be a combination of hubris, intellectual incompetence and bungled tinkering with important social structures which led us to where we are and the political left is mostly responsible.

  4. Depends, AKH, how one reads "is mostly responsible". :)

  5. AKH, to that potent cocktail, a cynic might add a deliberate infantilisation and bribery of the population to make them easier to control and manipulate. Bread and circuses have been replaced by benefits and 'Strictly' but the purpose remains the same.

    JH, much the same verbal scrutiny should perhaps be applied to the rising tide of political mailshots.