‘We must listen to children if we’re really going to tackle poverty’
The experiences of children in poverty should guide our approach to tackling poverty, argues social policy analyst Rys Farthing in the latest of our exclusive articles compiled as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report.
Children and young people have the highest rates of poverty among any other age group in the UK, yet their unique experiences and ideas for change are all too often overlooked. Poor quality housing is no exception. It makes decent childhoods difficult to experience, in a way that we can only really understand by listening to children and young people.
“I cry everyday, and I have dreams of me having a house, and sometimes, when I’m in the toilet of my school, I cry. I don’t like living in a flat. No one likes living in a flat. I lived in a hostel when I was little, and now I’m living in a flat. What’s my next step? Living in another flat? I just want a house, that’s all. It’s not really that much to ask.” (12 year old who lives in a one-bedroom flat with his family)
Actively including children and young people in the debates and discussions about solving our housing crisis has two key benefits. First, democratically, children and young people have the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect them. Including them realises this right and ultimately helps tackle the political marginalisation that young people too often experience. Second, participation in general, including youth participation, has the capacity to produce better, more effective policy. Including different experiences helps create a better knowledge base for informed and ultimately effective action.
To try and realise the capacity of youth participation, between 2010 and 2015, I worked alongside young people from low-income neighbourhoods across England. Right across the country, housing concerns came up time and time again. was a central issue in the lives of every group I spoke to.
Poor quality housing reduces the quality of life for young people in different ways. Many mentioned faulty (or lack of) heating. One young woman spoke of “having no privacy” because she shared her bedroom with three older brothers. Another young man described the boredom and indignance of living in crisis accommodation his entire life, having known nothing other than the one room his entire multigenerational family shared. Another said if she had a magic wand she would wish to sleep forever because she can’t sleep properly with her two siblings in the same room. Another young woman spoke about constantly getting detention in winter because she was unable to dry her uniform in her damp apartment in time for school. This often led to her being late for school, facing detention and damaging her relationship with her teachers to boot.
There’s also an aspect of inequality to the problem of housing. The children and young people I spoke to were acutely aware that better housing existed, and that they lived in worse housing than most of their peers. Sometimes their peers went out of their way to make sure they were aware of this:
Benjamin, 11: “Sometimes my friends start bragging on about where I live, like how “you live there, I live here, why can’t you get a decent house like me, like you can’t get your own room you can’t get your own privacy”….
Pe, 11: “When our friends come to our house, they never come back”.
Benjamin: "They’ll be like, “when you get a new house, I’ll have a sleep over there”.
They were also acutely aware that where there was competition for scarce housing resources already privileged people beat them to it:
Tasmin, 15: “I think only some areas of (our neighbourhood) are improving, but what I’ve realised with those areas, they’re called the guppies, you know, guppies are like the white, young... Ummm”
Basmah, 15: “What’s guppies?”
Rys: “Yuppies? Young, up and coming is what it stood for? So people like, errrmmm… me. White, young, middle class...”
Tasmin: “They end up getting those new houses more towards the central (City) side of (our area) like (main street) and all of that, rather than your mum who’s been on the waiting list for like 10 years. Do you get it?”
Saba, 15: “My mother’s been on it for 13 years actually”.
Housing was not a zero-sum game between local residents; rather quality housing was an actively diminishing resource in the eyes of these young people. Moreover, they all believed their housing situations would not improve. If things continue as they are, there is no hope for them, and even less for the children they might have:
Tilly, 17: “Yeah, I think like, what’s it gonna be like when our kids are 16? They will be living in mud huts in (local) Park.”
Keila, 18: “Yeah, I know! Seriously.”
But amidst their anger and despair, they were desperate for change and all too willing to be involved in developing solutions to their housing problems. As part of our work together, each group developed a list of policy asks for local and national politicians and housing topped the list in almost every area. Broadly, they wanted:
- ‘bigger’ houses so families would no longer be ‘crammed in’
- more ‘affordable’ homes, so families weren’t financially stressed
- more accessible housing for people like them, via reduced ‘waiting times’ on council flats and an end to building housing just for ‘yuppies’
- better quality with more insulation to tackle the cold and damp
Young people are thinking about local solutions. In East London, for example, the young women I spoke to called for specific interventions to generate supply in the area, including the compulsory purchase of under-occupying houses so they could be shared with over-occupying households, a requirement for houses left empty for a year to be rented out, and for fried chicken shops be converted to homes … to tackle the twin concerns of over abundant of fried chicken shops in their area and a lack of space for affordable housing.
These children and young people were also extremely keen on telling their stories and sharing their ideas with decision makers and to be involved in deliberations around fixing their local housing crises. They petitioned their local MPs, met with local councillors, joined scrutiny committees and penned letters to their local paper. If we’re serious about creating a truly effective and democratic solution to the housing crises, I would urge anyone who is thinking about tackling housing poverty, and poverty in general, to both consult and actively involve children and young people in developing their solutions – you will end up with better interventions, and a better society, as a result.
What difference would make to you if your family if housing were cheaper?
“Well I think it would be better on me. I think my confidence would be better as I would have my own space and perhaps have some privacy because, like, I’m nearly 16 now and I think it’s about time I had my own privacy. Also, having more money for ourselves would mean I could have better facilities such as a computer, printer and day to day equipment which will be important for my studies. Also, the conditions of the rooms could be improved with the extra money we have, it gives us a chance to re-decorate the rooms and make it look more appealing for friends and family.” (15 year old girl)
Rys Farthing is a social policy analyst.
This article was written for the Webb Memorial Trust and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report and is part of a series of articles we will be running in the coming weeks.