1. 350k children to lose school dinners while elite dine in luxury

    The Children’s society have today warned that benefits reform will mean that around 350K children will no longer be entitled to free school meals: those where the household earns over £7500 a year.

    This demonstrates a further smack in the face for the UK’s working poor, in the sense that it will mean an increased weekly shop (or meals cost) in a time of high VAT and a rising cost of living. The coalition talk the talk of rewarding the UK’s working families, but the reality is that this move will actually make it more beneficial to take an hours cut or a pay cut, which is nonsensical. Cameron wants to show millions of working class voters that in spite of his privileged upbringing he understands their needs and wants to give them a society which gives a fair return for their work ethic. But what is he actually doing to prove it? He won’t raise minimum wage to a living level, because it is easier to placate big business and keep people in the position of believing they have to bow to the hand that feeds by putting money in the context of benefits (tax credits etc) rather than actual return for their labour in the form of wages. Osborne may have raised the bottom tax bracket (which did nothing for those already under it, and has to be interpreted in the context of inflation, loss of public services, benefits cuts etc to be assessed fairly), but now it seems they are going to attempt to claw some of the money used to pay for the raising tax threshold designed to publicly show increased fairness for this group.

    Whether children come from the families of the working poor, or from the unemployed (and it has to be remembered that in the current economic climate many of these are the result of austerity policy rather than the generational benefits culture the right wing press like to emphasise), they are already being treated as undeserving as a result of their parents economic status and position in society. And whilst right wing psychological analysis likes to dwell on the role of “entitlement culture” to support the idea of taking benefits away, there is no logical evidence to suggest depriving children of what is statistically their most nutritious and sustaining meal of the day will do anything to encourage them into social mobility. Even if you believe that the low paid and unemployed are entirely responsible for their lot, and need to be kicked away from dependency to become “wealth creators”, there is no logic whatsoever in assuming a child should go without a nourishing meal as a result of their parents  actions. Yet again, the youngest are being used as pawns in a political strategy to reinforce the narrative of the undeserving poor which keeps the current inequalities in place, and while it happens, our public school elite continue to dine in luxury. 

    Please sign the Children’s Society petition for free school meals for all children in poverty here: http://action.childrenssociety.org.uk/page/signup/fair-and-square-free-school-meals-campaign

  2. Birmingham Food Crisis: unseen absolute poverty sees pregnant mothers missing meals

    We were really struggling. It really did get to the point where we just didn’t know how we were going to cope. It was literally pick one thing and do that, a case of either stay warm or eat.”

    (Michaela, a Birmingham mother helped by Gateway Family Services Pregnancy Outreach Team, talks to ITV news, Wednesday 11th April 2012)

    Usually when people talk about poverty in the UK they are referring to relative poverty. A person classed as relatively impoverished is significantly below average in wealth, meaning they are economically unable to participate fully in society. High levels of relative poverty indicate high levels of social inequality, which as has been argued in Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level are linked to a variety of negative problems in society. Relative poverty impacts on things like physical health, mental well-being, educational and career opportunities.

    However, absolute poverty - meaning that a person is unable to fulfil their minimum physical needs such as food, drink and shelter - occurs in the UK also, and it is on the rise. Most people are completely unaware of the extent to which this exists, or the ways in which the current economic climate is impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Media coverage of two organisations working in Birmingham have been eye-opening in showing how absolute poverty is a growing problem for the city.

    Gateway Family Services are a non-profit community interest company who work in innovative ways to improve health, develop skills and opportunities and fight inequalities. In the last few days they have been instrumental in highlighting the real deprivation being fought by their pregnancy outreach team. They have set up a food bank in response to the reality that many pregnant women using their services were missing meals for days at a time. Clearly this is a great concern: malnutrition in pregnancy can have a devastating impact for both mother and baby, including obstructed labour, increased risk of premature birth &/or low birth weight (linked to infant mortality, growth retardation and infant illness), and increased risk of anaemia in pregnancy (which is linked to mortality in labour). They are not by any means the only food bank in the city, and like many others are finding big increases in the numbers of people forced to rely on this kind of support just to get by. For some, the service provides a lifeline in a time where we have high levels of unemployment, household debt, and escalating costs of living. For others, asylum-seeker status means that they are unable to access basic benefits and are struggling to feed their families.

    ITV local news footage here: http://goo.gl/BKKtr

    Birmingham mail article here: http://goo.gl/iRXpq

    Similarly, Home-Start UK, a national family support charity, have also been in the media, talking about the way in which their services, once a helping hand for needy families, are being inundated with unprecedented levels of calls for help. In Birmingham they have seen a rise of 70% in requests for help many of which are from working families. Home-Start emphasise that the knock-on effects which come with economic difficulties – mental health problems, relationship breakdown, housing difficulties – are leading to families tipping over into crisis.

    Channel 4 footage on home-start here: http://goo.gl/Q99UI

    I spoke to Vicki Fitzgerald, Chief Executive of Gateway FS. She says that Birmingham is in many ways in a unique position, in that it is unusual to have community support services like Gateway FS funded through public authorities. There has been a great public response to the story, and Birmingham should be proud both of this, and of its commitment to funding the vital work that Gateway FS do. Many cities with similar levels of deprivation rely on stretched charity provision alone to provide food and support, so while the picture highlighted in Birmingham is bleak, elsewhere it is worse still and going unnoticed by many. I have been told by someone working with vulnerable people in nearby Wolverhampton that some local food-bank charities have informally requested a stop on referrals because they are unable to cope with the escalating demand. Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, estimate that they needed to feed 100, 000 nationwide in 2011, and forecast that this figure will rise to half a million by 2015.

    What can we do to help?

    • On a local level, while there have been many positive responses so far, the more people support Gateway FS and other groups the more vital support these groups can give to the community. If you would like to help, you can read about the work the group do at http://gatewayfs.org/ .
    • You can get in touch to arrange donations to the food-bank by contacting Michelle Bluck, who co-ordinates support for the pregnancy outreach team, at info@gatewayfs.org.

    However, looking at the bigger picture, it is not just fire-fighting in a climate of rising economic problems which organisations like Gateway FS have to contend with. Often there is little empathy from the general public for the awful experiences women who use their services have had: Vicki Fitzgerald spoke to me very briefly about the life-histories of some of the women they help, which included being subject to atrocities such as rape in the countries they have left to seek asylum:

    The women have the most complicated and difficult lives and people really don’t understand”.

    In a climate of austerity cuts, we need to fight to protect the good work which organisations such as Gateway FS do locally. However, I believe we also need to ask the question as to why, when the UK is even during a time of economic recession one of the most wealthy countries in the world, we are having the debate as to whether we can afford to meet the needs of society’s poorest, and not the debate of why their needs are not being met in first place.

    Links: further reading



    This post was written for Gateway Family Services and can be found at http://gatewayfs.org/2012/04/13/birmingham-food-crisis-a-glimpse-of-the-unseen-absolute-poverty-in-21st-century-uk/

  3. 100,000 children face poverty: benefits reform is getting this very very wrong

    A leaked government document suggests that benefits reform will mean an extra 100,000 children will be thrown into poverty by the new cap, which is apparently a bold move to discourage benefits dependency culture by pushing people back into work.

    If the government are serious about discouraging benefits culture (I’m not going to go into the argument about media scapegoating, subcultural norms, or any depth here), then they are going about it the wrong way. The reality is that for huge huge numbers of the workforce, full time work means they STILL have to get benefits in order to live. The minimum wage is not fit for purpose. We have a scenario where the absolute worst form of state spending occurs: essentially, the tax-payer foots the bill to allow people at the bottom of the pay scale to live because the private sector insists on creaming profits before giving real reimbursement for the labour which keeps the cogs of their corporate empires turning. While this is allowed to continue, there is no incentive to work.

    Being a right wing government, the coalition have decided to attempt the alternative: they don’t have the strength to face down those who are benefitting the most from this scenario of cheap labour, so instead of raising the standard for those who work, they are going to try to drop it for those who don’t. Nevermind that unemployment is at a record high, nevermind that there is no clear or intelligent policy for meaningful jobs creation, nevermind that public sector jobs are being slashed left right and centre while the promised private sector roles which were going to miraculously open up fail to materialise.

    But moving aside from the short term problems, there is and never will be any moral justification for a policy which will leave 100 000 children impoverished. Poverty is an indicator for a lifetime of inequality, including poor health, poor achievement in education, and future poverty itself. In a libertarian dream world, childhood poverty is that little nudge which drives a child to move out of the housing estate and up to the dizzying heights of success: why would anyone see their parents scraping around for food and fuel and want to emulate their existence? But the reality doesn’t work like that. The social statistics show that the biggest likely consequence of childhood poverty is adulthood poverty. Psychological research can explain this a little further with the behavioural process of learned helplessness. What this means is that basically it is a human trait that if we are exposed to failure repeatedly over a period of time, we will stop trying even when escape is possible.

    A government prepared to push children into poverty - let’s not forget, the same government happy to advocate cutting off benefits for cancer patients after one year, the same government who are slashing rape and domestic violence support, the same government who are putting record numbers of pensioners into a position where they cannot afford to heat their homes - are a government at war on the weakest in society. We have to bring them down.

  4. Democracy =/= Capitalism: Christmas, and child labour

    After a year of record political unrest, we are winding down for a bit of “peace” (if you can call it that, maybe not in our house!); a christmas breather. It is going to be a very unusual christmas for me this year, for two reasons: firstly, because I am in the process of losing someone I am very close to to a form of terminal cancer, and secondly, because it comes after a year in which my world view has been “sharpened”, where I struggle to switch the politics off.

    The last year has seen people taking to the streets in record numbers: from the massive TUC demonstration in March, to the summer riots, from the springing up of occupations around the country to the growing crescendo of public sector strikes, the voice of dissent is growing. Add to this that the UK is only a tiny part of a worldwide picture: the dischord is globalised and being felt from continent to continent.

    It has been quite a politically charged year for me too. This time last January I had strong political beliefs but wasn’t particularly active: the mounting evidence of the injustices of the austerity drive has led me to the point of thinking “if not me, who?”, and in the space of a year I have gone from political near inertia to building a 2000 strong petition and taking to the streets with my slutwalk sisters to protest the culture of victim blaming, speaking in front of a few thousand in Birmingham at the June 30th strike ralley, speaking on a panel about activism at the UK Feminista summer school, writing a chapter on the working class right wing for the Labour Left red book, and taking on the role of regional women’s officer for UCU. As a result of this, combined with my vocal social media presence, I have made some great new connections, but I have also put myself in the line of fire for a good deal of negative attention, both from people I know and people I don’t. (Anyone looked at their hidden “other” messages on facebook yet? Wished I hadn’t when I found them the other day). People who know me well and know my character and beliefs know that if there is one thing I hate more than almost anything, it’s conflict. I’m naturally a people pleaser and in most cases would do almost anything rather than disagree. So it is a sign of how bad things really are when I am putting myself through the emotional stress of a year of public disagreement.

    Many people automatically assume I’m a revolutionary. I’m not, I’m a social reformist - I don’t believe in revolution as an effective method for bringing change, unless we are talking non-violent direct democratic revolution rather than bloody insurgence. For some reason (probably the effect of tabloid-think grouping all dissenters from liberals right through to Stalinists into one simple package) some people think I’m a pro-soviet communist! Clearly, I’m not. I have no more support for a handful of State figures holding the majority of the resources than a handful of anyone holding the majority of the resources, that’s why I’m a marxist. I’m a marxist because I believe in the analysis that money is essentially an illusory system whereby consensus about the relative worth of the different roles people fulfil in society inevitably keeping a huge number in poverty. I’m also a liberal.

    I tweeted about this a few weeks ago, saying something along the lines that I was gravely concerned that lots of people (marxists) seemed to believe that we were living through a time in which capitalism was in its last throws, commenting that I believe capitalism is not in crisis, and that it is the checks on capitalism which are actually at risk. I had a brief exchange with Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick, who commented that one of if not the biggest problems is that people lack the imagination to see beyond Soviet communism as an alternative to capitalism. We also agreed that the fundamental problem in terms of conceptualisation is that the majority of the public assume that capitalism and democracy are synonymous rather than separate and often conflicting things. So for most, while they sympathise with criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, they assume that consumer choice is the freedom they must preserve in order to avoid a totalitarian state regime. As long as we have capitalism, we have democracy, and vice versa, therefore we must not complain too much about the obvious inequalities of capitalism because these are the necessary price for freedom.

    Of course, the key issue overlooked in this argument is that it only sees the western consumer as involved in the process of capitalism and democracy. It ignores the key issue that it is only a pocket of civilisation which capitalism is working for; that for millions globally capitalism does not mean a vote, it means sweated labour, child labour, poverty, starvation, epidemics of treatable illnesses, slavery and death. The West does not have its consumer freedom and the benefits of consumer choice in some sort of bubble from the unfortunate goings on in the rest of the world, but as a direct consequence. It is not democratic for a child to go blind before the age of six or lose fingers in machinery to make meaningless disposable items for some other more fortunate child elsewhere, because who ever would possible get a majority vote through for that to happen, and yet it happens, daily, and because of the ability of capitalism to mask these very undemocratic processes under the guise of consumer freedom, we continue to support them just by not trying for change.

    I’ll try to write more about this at a later date, as I really belief that it is only in tackling globally sweated labour that capitalism can properly be regulated and kept in check, but I think the biggest problems in tackling this issue are the following:

    1) Sweated labour is ironically a class issue. There is a cultural expectation to provide your child with a magical (expensive) christmas and while the better off can afford to do this in (not always) more ethical ways, for many at the bottom in UK society struggling to keep up with the demands of a child already being socialised to continually want, the cheap items sweat-shops provide allow for a guilt-free christmas.

    2) Psychologically, the sweat-shop workers who produce so much of the never-ending chain of goods which feed the western lifestyle exist in a place so distant in the western mindset that they might as well be imaginary. When we perceive cultural similarities, we find it easy to think about and imagine ourselves in a place that is geographically very distant (New Zealand, for example), but the mechanisms of capitalism mean that we see a product as a reified thing, separate from any of the processes and more crucially the people involved in its production. 21st century capitalism allows or even encourages us to think that the starting point for a product is the shop floor. To think otherwise is to risk imagining the self as part of an exploitative chain in which ultimately you are benefitting from child/slave/sweated labour, and it’s not a happy place to be.

    3) The biggest issue is a combination of current democratic processes leaving a feeling of impotence, combined with a massive scale version of what social psychologists call the “bystander effect”. The current political system is not fit for purpose, in that it does not allow for direct democracy or empowerment. I’m constantly trying to get people more involved politically but why should they be anything other than apathetic given the lack of ability to influence what is in place? I’ve spent months writing to my MP, Chris Kelly, with barely a couple of e-mails to show for it. People are (in my opinion) basically good but programmed to make the least possible effort; the current system encourages and feeds off a feeling of powerlessness which allows the elite to continue to control the majority of how society works. Add to this that the more people who can do something in any one situation, the weaker the moral obligation felt by the individual to get involved. For example, when social psychologists get someone to collapse in the street and one person is passing, that person will generally help. However if a person collapses in front of a large number of people help is much less likely: diffusion of responsibility has taken place where all present both assume that others will step in and feel vindicated of responsibility should this not be the case. On a much bigger scale, I think exactly the same thing happens with child labour, and I’ve certainly been responsible for ignoring my conscience in favour of this belief in powerlessness and blamelessness over the years.

    So, this year I’m attempting a child/sweated labour free christmas - I’m buying from these organisations/sites, and hoping for a new year where the world wakes up to the clear distinction between capitalism and democracy:

    http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/ethical-collection * edit: it has been brought to my attention that oxfam are currently involved in some questionable practices including unpaid internships and participation in workfair. Whilst I would not suggest any boycot because of the numbers of industries relying on oxfam as a buyer I will publish details of any campaigns to address these issues soon.



  5. I’m undecided about what I think about this. I think children are conditioned to be little consumers from a very early age and hungrily eat up and reproduce the dominant norms of society, including dominant norms about gender and sexuality. I think that it is a misunderstanding of this to assume that sexualised child products are capitalism cashing in on paedophilia - sexual abuse is about the mindset of the attacker rather than the appearence of the victim, and the one indisputable factor about children which makes them attractive to paedophiles is the one factor you can’t change - the fact that they are children.

    That said, I can’t say I am thrilled at the prospect of my children growing up in a society where the female body is dominantly viewed as a product. It’s the impossible dream, but I want my daughter to experience her body as just that, her body, not something reified and fetishised in a million different places and a million different ways. If you look at the stats, the vast majority of women - even or perhaps especially women who all around them would see as measuring up well against the norms for beauty - are uncomfortable with their bodies. More UK women diet than don’t, and that’s before you look under the surface of that to eating disorders, where you move beyond disastisfaction to loathing. It’s not just to do with what the media presents us with, but it’s a part of it. 

    I can’t see how enforceable the reforms are. How will they ever control what is on the TV, on the internet, in the shops, in the age of the internet and illegal sweatshops? If there was some sort of universal package available for parents to censor the internet and TV for their children it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. I don’t think stopping shops from selling sexualised children’s clothes will achieve much though I’m not sure I can be bothered to defend the rights of the capitalists to produce and sell these items. I’m not sure how the divisions would be made, either - what makes one slogan inappropriate and not another? Where is your cut off - mini high heels seem to have been mentioned and while I don’t think they are something I would buy for my daughter (much as we begged our own parents back in the 80s) there is a difference between these and say a miniature thong - isn’t there? It’s all a bit confusing.

    There does seem to be a lot of outrage in the comments of the articles I’ve seen so far. I don’t think many of the measure are particularly draconian or Stalinesque, though I’m not sure how effective they will be. I AM a bit suspicous in the sense that there is a very real possibility in the age of Dorries and her ilk that this could be part of a movement towards policing other things - child access to homosexual images (I’m not talking porn here!) for example. That said, some of the changes don’t seem so bad. I’d love to take my children into a newsagent without them being bombarded with sexist images of women and if there is a brown bag policy, who is it actually depriving? The magazines are still available for the people who want them, after all, it’s not an outright ban proposed. It seems similar to me to the smoking ban - people who want to smoke can still do it, they just have to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with other people’s freedoms to not be exposed to smoke.