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Poverty still very much alive... it's just different now


Gary Lightbody

Gary Lightbody

Gary Lightbody

When I was growing up in Rossville Street I thought we were middle class. The people up around Marlborough Road were the most comfortably-off I'd encounter day to day. Some of them had hedges. They were the upper class.

Then there were the homeless, most notably scores of families who had squatted into corrugated huts at Springtown Camp, abandoned by the military after the Second World War and who had little chance of ever having a proper house, not least because they were Catholics. They were the working class.

So I knew a bit about class distinctions, even if my perspective was a little awry. I eventually discovered there were working-class Protestants, I suppose around the same time as I caught on that there was a whole lot of people considerably wealthier than Marlborough folk ever dared dream about. Going to the pictures was an eye-opener.

I think back on these things every time I hear or read a politician or columnist snorting that there's no poverty in Northern Ireland, not compared with other periods and other places and, therefore, not at all. Some of those I have in mind are remarkably youthful to have assumed the musty mantle of Colonel Blimp, harrumphing about the "poverty industry" and them not 40.

There's nothing new there, either. Back when I was edging towards a primitive understanding of the world around me, there was much talk of the hungry '30s, and wonderment how anybody back then managed at all, and contrasts drawn with the feather-bedded life that we were able carelessly to amble through.

I was often intrigued by the mysterious assertion that, "You don't know when you are well-off." I suppose the poor never do.

Poverty is not a matter of absolute standards but of what you naturally compare yourself with. It used to be on our street that anybody who had a fridge was swanky. These days, if you don't have a fridge you're dirt poor.

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So is a child today who doesn't have access to a computer to do homework, or whose family doesn't have enough space for boys and girls over 10 to sleep separately, or enough money to pay for school trips or football togs or a bicycle, or have friends over for tea once every couple of weeks, or to have a week's family holiday once a year - is that child living in poverty?

How many of the marks would a child have to miss to qualify as poor?

The list wasn't compiled by instinct or at random but on the basis of a multi-faceted opinion-poll exercise across Britain designed to identify a consensus on what counts as deprivation - or, to look from another angle, what the general population considers to be the basic necessities for a decent life. This, in turn, provided the starting point for a new study of child poverty in Northern Ireland, Beneath The Surface, edited by Ellen Finlay and published by the Child Poverty Alliance.

The report comprises 10 chapters written by 14 academics. Naturally, some contributions are couched in "academic" language, a version of English almost as exotic as Ulster Scots. But the findings are clear enough, and that's what matters.

Very few children in Northern Ireland lack the most basic necessities - three meals a day, adequate clothing, etc. But, for example, a third of all children are in families which cannot afford an annual holiday, one in six live in houses which are cold and damp. A quarter live in homes where they are deprived of four or more of the basic necessities identified above.

By no means unexpectedly, children in families with "high experience" of the conflict are significantly more likely to lack some of the basic necessities. One child in five is living with an adult or adults with "high experience" of the conflict.

Meantime, in real terms, the income of those in the bottom half of society has declined and continues to decline. And welfare reform looms darkly over all.

The outlook for a considerable section of the next generation and, therefore, for society as a whole, is bad.

In an eloquent introduction to the report, Gary Lightbody looks back on his own growing-up in Bangor, and then around at life today, and sums it up: "Poverty is not just about income, it also means that people are excluded in some way from a standard of living and way of life that the majority regard as acceptable."

If nothing changes, if the trajectory continues, "the struggle in the next decade will be all the greater."

And no doubt there will be some observing the struggle who will explain that there's no reason for any of this strife, there's no poverty here.