‘Think You Know About Britain?’

Children play on a burned-out car in Benwell, Tyneside, north-east England, where 40% of seven-year-olds live in poverty, according to a new study Photograph: Ted Ditchburn/North News & Pictures

July 28, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Danny Dorling is a professor of geography who has dedicated his career to exposing the deep social costs of inequality. This book is his first for a general readership, coming a year after Injustice, a detailed distillation of 20 years’ research into the effects of neo-liberal economic policy on Britain’s social fabric.What is most valuable about his writing is that it is angry, rather than indignant. You are asked not to wring your hands but to examine the relationship between your place in society and the place in which you live, and in so doing to recognise that there are winners and losers, rather than the deserving and undeserving.

The richer the area you live in, the easier your path through life will be; the poorer it is, the harder it will be. No longer can a majority of areas in Britain be described as “average” – that is, with a broad mix of people doing different jobs and earning a range of incomes. Areas are diverging in character, both socially and economically. Divorcees, for instance, tend to move to the coast, for cheaper housing.

The only significant way in which we are becoming less ghettoised is by race: black and Asian people are now less likely to be concentrated in cities or in poor areas of towns than they once were. Otherwise, we are more trammelled by postcode than ever, which leads to “nicer” areas becoming even more desirable, and therefore more attractive to people who can shell out to get away from undesirable people and areas.

In Dorling’s view, our understandable desire to make our lives easier, wherever possible, leads us collectively to place greater pressure on parts of our social and geographical infrastructure than is necessary. “We now only have a shortage of housing in Britain,” he writes, “because we share out our stock so badly – we have never had as many bedrooms per person as we have now.”

The shortage of suitable housing for all the people who need it causes prices to rise in the private sector, which in turn leads to waiting lists increasing in the public sector. Successive governments have restricted the building of new social housing for essentially political reasons, forcing many people into owner-occupation when they can’t really afford it.

A lack of suitable housing near to suitable jobs, at a time when government policy has undermined public transport and promoted the car, has caused us to clog up the roads by commuting to jobs that will pay our higher mortgages. What we need to start doing, Dorling argues, is to “point out repeatedly how precarious we have made our lives” and to ask “if there were not a better way we could arrange our affairs”.

That would require all of us to start demanding more of our governments than to tell us things they think we want to hear while doing things we didn’t vote for. For us all to be equally equipped to do so would require each of us to have a voice that will be heard, whether we’re piping up from above the fourth floor of a tower block (one instance where you are more likely to be ghettoised by race) or from rich rural Oxfordshire.

For our towns, cities and villages to become as socially mixed as they were back in the mid-1970s, from when all markers of inequality in Britain began to rise, nearly 2.5 million of us would have to move – poorer people to richer areas, and richer people to poorer ones. This shows how many people have won or lost, more dramatically than was possible before 1979, under the new rules of the “property-owning democracy”.

Dorling believes that knowledge is power: that if we have the facts, then we will act on our unease and seek to live lives that are a little less pressured and fearful. “For this country to change for the better,” he concludes, “we must all get to know it better.” If you need to be persuaded of such a case, there is no better book to read.

This review of Danny Dorling’s ‘So You Think You Know About Britain?’ was written by Lynsey Hanley and first published in The Guardian Saturday 23rdApril 2011. Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An Intimate History is published by Granta Books.

The government-sponsored Millennium Cohort Study has tracked 14,000 children born at the start of the century to build a picture of how family circumstances determine a young person’s education, health and happiness in Britain. The latest findings are from two years ago, when the children were seven years old.

The London University’s Institute of Education researchers found that despite governments having spent billions to eliminate child poverty since 1999:

• Almost one-fifth of seven-year-olds live in severe poverty – homes where the total income, including benefits, is less than £254 a week [this is an average among those surveyed]. The average income for families in the study was £563 a week, say researchers.

• Almost three-quarters of children whose parents are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin live in poverty – homes where the total income for a family with two children is under £330 a week. This is largely because of high unemployment rates for mothers and fathers, the researchers say.

• Just over half (51%) of black seven-year-olds and just over a quarter of white seven-year-olds live in poverty, with three-fifths from these groups in single-parent families.

• Seven-year-olds are most likely to live in poverty in the north-east (40%) and least likely in the south-west (22%). The figure for London was 36%.

• Just under 7% of seven-year-olds living in poverty do not have two pairs of all-weather shoes, according to parents. Just under 50% do not get pocket money.

The researchers interviewed the parents of the 14,000 seven-year-olds. They asked them to place themselves in one of 18 categories corresponding to their weekly family income. The interviewers also measured the children and gave them a questionnaire to complete which asked them how happy they were. They accounted for how many children were in each home.

The number of children living in poverty is likely to be rising, said Professor Heather Joshi, the study’s director.

“Our study captures how things were in 2008. This is not encouraging for child poverty today because worklessness is the most common indicator of poverty and our unemployment rate has gone up since then. Poor housing, low levels of qualifications among parents and low family income tend to be the key indicators of disadvantage.”

Mothers who had given birth aged 19 or younger and parents with no qualifications are heavily over-represented in the fifth of families living in severe poverty, while older mothers, who had given birth in their thirties, are over-represented in the richest fifth, where the weekly income averages £1,134. Scottish seven-year-olds are slightly more likely to be living in affluence. Welsh children are slightly more likely to be in poverty.

Just over half of mothers without any qualifications are in the poorest fifth, while 32% of fathers without qualifications are in this group. More than half of the mothers and fathers with postgraduate qualifications are in the top income group.

The researchers focused on the UK’s most-deprived neighbourhoods but adjusted the weighting of their findings to reflect all parts of Britain.

Meanwhile, the study also found that just over half of the seven-year-olds – 55% – live with married parents in England. This rises to 61% in Northern Ireland but falls to 53% in Scotland.

The mothers of the seven-year-olds were asked to place their children’s behaviour in one of three categories: normal, borderline and or serious behaviour problems. About 12% of children in single-parent families and 15% of children living with a step-parent were described as having serious behaviour difficulties. This is compared with 6% for children living with both of their birth parents.

For a sobering article on the growing North- South health divide, click here.