childfairstate

4in10's new Strategy Manager, Katherine Hill writes her first blog on why poverty is a human rights issue.

The right time for rights

The modern international human rights framework was born out of the chaos and trauma of the second world war. In the 1940s when the global community stood at a crossroads asking itself which way next, one response was the UN Declaration of Human Rights which sought to codify a set of universally held values: freedom, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy.

Over the past year this human rights framework, which to many in 21st century Britain had felt remote and was perceived by some as only benefitting groups at the margins of society, has become central to all our lives. The Government has been forced to take decisions which have curtailed our rights. The right to private and family life, the right to protest, the right to practise religion, have all been restricted in order to protect the right to life. Opinions about whether the correct balance has been struck between these rights have varied and many will argue that at points it has been wrong but the widespread acceptance of human rights as the right language for having the conversation has been striking. It has put those universal values centre stage once again.

As we look to the future, the challenge is shifting from protecting the right to life to the question of how we rebuild lives and livelihoods. That conversation again needs to be conducted firmly in the language of human rights and be rooted in the values they embody. It must be not only about civil and political rights, but also about how to protect the right to food, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to education and the right to play. These rights are referred to as economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights and they are protected in international law in treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR). Protection for them in our domestic law is weaker although that has begun to change in some parts of the UK; Scotland has recently become the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes many ESC rights.

What has been clear for a long time and has been brought into even sharper focus by the pandemic is that our economic and welfare systems are not upholding these rights for everyone. The shocking child poverty figures published this week (25th March) are testament to the fact that too many in work do not receive a wage that provides an adequate standard of living and that the safety net which should protect this right for those not in work and in low paid work is broken. The result of this failure is that children and their families are denied the freedom and dignity that others enjoy.

The good news is that in some quarters the language of values and rights are already very much part of the conversation. Children England's Child Fair State young leaders are well ahead of the game and have done inspirational work, reimagining the welfare state in a way that put values back at the heart of the system. The original welfare state was developed in the same era as the international human rights framework but was not an overtly rights-based system. If we are to emerge from the pandemic a more equal society, free from child poverty, it is time to put that right.


My views on inequality and the upcoming London Mayoral Election by Alex Bax

Alex Bax, Chair of My Fair London has written a personal blog with his views on inequality and the upcoming London Mayoral Election.

Inequality in London almost doubled in the 1980s. It has stayed at this high level for the last thirty years.

We now have more billionaires than any other city in Europe, and more than another point in our history;

5% of Londoners own 50% of the wealth of our city. 50% of Londoners share only 5% of the wealth between them;

Homelessness has increased by 150% in the last ten years;

Child poverty has tripled in the last 40 years.

With the impending London election, now is the time to ask our mayoral candidates to make a commitment to reduce inequality.

In the foreword to his last manifesto, Sadiq Khan, London’s current mayor, said ‘For a child growing up on a council estate today, London is not the city of opportunity that it was for my brothers, my sisters and me.’  He is absolutely right, and the biggest underlying change that has made today’s London a much, much harder place for young people to get on, is the incredible increase in inequality that we have seen since 1979. To create a London that works for ‘all Londoners’, we must begin to reverse that 40 year drift to the extreme levels of inequality we all live with today, and the many small, medium and large insults that such an unfair society inflicts on every one us.

What we achieve in life is partly a function of our personal ambitions and interests, our capabilities and enthusiasms. But all our personal endeavour takes place in a context.  The harsher the context in which we live the harder it is for personal qualities to overcome circumstance. A very unequal society, where money has become the defining characteristic of worth, is a very harsh environment for us all.  Gross inequality makes it harder for every Londoner to live a full, free and fulfilled life. It makes life harder for the middle classes and for the poor, it most harms the chances of people at the very bottom, and even the rich are not immune from its impacts, as they retreat behind gates and security guards. If London’s mayor is to deliver on that promise to young Londoners growing up today, they must tackle inequality.

A wealth of international evidence shows that more equal societies have more social mobility.  This is partly because the shape of more equal societies, the steepness of the social and economic gradient, is less.  Each step up, or down the ladder is smaller, and because status anxieties are less, moves up or down are less psychologically difficult. We only have to look at the make-up of the current British cabinet to see how easily privilege begets privilege.  The London housing market is a great illustration of how the ladder of advantage is being pulled up behind those lucky enough to have bought their home in the past. Today a young Londoner without the ‘bank of mum and dad’ faces a far harsher future than the young Sadiq Khan. Inherited wealth is back, and the privilege it brings is back too.

When Sadiq Khan was growing up in the seventies and early eighties London was a far more equal city. His formative years came at the end of a 60-year period during which Britain had become ever more equal. Since 1979 the gap between rich and poor has returned to levels not seen since before the First World War.  1970s London was not a perfect society, racism was endemic and gay rights non-existent. However lower levels of economic inequality meant young people were more likely to feel they could get on. With narrower economic gaps between people mutual respect and a sense of belonging was stronger.  As inequality grew through the 1980s these ‘felt’ possibilities diminished, and at the same time the practical supports that any fair society should offer to people lower down the social scale were gradually eroded. Today, a family like Sadiq’s, with a bus driver as the main earner, would be incredibly fortunate to get a council flat.  They would more likely live in private rented accommodation on an insecure lease, and little Sadiq’s education would have been interrupted by his family having to move house several times, and probably change school. His bus driver father’s pay has stagnated over 40 years.  The increased wealth and productivity of the economy has been taken by the top 10 and top 1% of earners. Today Sadiq’s family would be in receipt of tax credits to help them make ends meet and would probably claim housing benefit to bridge the gap between their household income and the rent. As the children grew up and moved away the bedroom tax might force Sadiq’s parents to move again.  Instead of the rent the Khan family pay going to a local authority, to invest in more housing or other services, today that tax payers’ money most likely goes to a private landlord through housing benefit.  Frequent moves will have stressed Khan family relationships, and may also have made it difficult for his parents to send young Sadiq to the school of their choice, especially if richer neighbours have used their housing equity to move closer to a school that claims better results.

At school, status anxiety and a more competitive environment will have increased Sadiq’s chances of developing a mental health problem in his adolescent years, and the growing ‘social distances’ between social groups have made it less likely that young Sadiq has a group of friends from a range of backgrounds. Youth clubs, libraries, other public services accessible to all, but most useful to those with the least, have gradually been cut.  For a young man from an ethic minority living on a council estate in south London to stay out of the way of gangs (where poor young people attack each other over the pettiest of sleights or perceived threats to social status) is a real challenge.  One bright spot is that sustained investment in London’s state education system, with a focus on leadership and the quality of teaching, that started in the late 1990s, means that London’s schools do buck the trend nationally in raising the attainment of lower income children.  However, if young Sadiq does well at school and wants to go on to university to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer he and his family will face the prospect of a mountain of student debt.

Of course, for the real Sadiq his late teenage years and early adulthood played out during the 1980s, the decade that saw what was probably the most rapid increase in inequality that Britain has ever seen. The most corrosive, pernicious effects of inequality take time to have an impact so perhaps the young Sadiq Khan, his family and community in South London, continued to benefit from the high point of equality that was Britain before 1979.

Today’s young Londoners, especially those living on council estates, face a world far less generous, and far more unequal than those of Sadiq Khan’s generation. Living in a highly unequal society exposes young people to chronic social stress. This in turn acts to dysregulate key biological systems in our bodies (cortisol levels for example) leading to increased life-time chances of a wide range of long-term health conditions and psychological problems. Being exposed to high levels of inequality is seriously toxic, and just like air pollution it is all around us.

The deep inequalities in our society set the scene for the lives of today’s young Londoners. Fairer societies have lower levels of crime, greater social mobility, lower levels of obesity and mental illness, higher levels of trust and higher and more fairly distributed life expectancy.  But high inequality is also a political choice. The UK has been far more equal in the recent past, and is far less equal than many other successful developed economies. I challenge the new mayor to recognise the harm inequality does to the city and put economic fairness at the heart of their programme.