Tower Hamlets: growing up poor in the borough with a missing ‘middle’

Tower Hamlets food back Pic: First Love foundation

Tower Hamlets is one of the UK’s most unequal boroughs. The borough has a far higher proportion of high earners than elsewhere in London yet, almost half of Tower Hamlets’ children grow up in poverty – the highest rate nationally.

While child poverty in the borough has fallen in the last decade, the government’s current austerity regime risks raising the number of children living in poverty again.

Kellie, 32* lives in Bow with her partner and children, Leanne, 5 and Jack, 9 months. Her partner was suspended from his job following a criminal conviction, and is still waiting for a new Disclosure and Barring Service check to be processed before he can go back into paid work.

Kellie is currently on maternity leave with reduced wages. The family live below the poverty line, but get by on Kellie’s maternity pay and state support.

Kellie is also due in court for a second case that looks set to reduce her already limited access to her teenage son, Liam, who was removed from her five years ago by social services. Liam has been in the care of a close family member, but Kellie has no access to him. With no legal aid available to her, and no money for lawyers’ fees, Kellie will be defending herself in court again. “The child I had is long gone,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Kellie says the family just about manages financially for now. There are no luxuries, but the bills are paid. But that has not always been the case. Last year, the family had to turn again to Tower Hamlets food bank after their benefits were halted. Expensive credit was another lifeline.

“When we on the food bank, we survived with payday loans,” says Kellie. “And Leanne’s piggy bank got raided more than once.” But although Kellie’s benefits were later reinstated and the family stopped attending the food bank, their previous struggles with food continue to affect Leanne. “She’s very protective of her food in the school hall still – if anyone touches it, she flips out.”

Kellie is also concerned that long-standing health issues may affect her return to full-time work. She worries about a lack of support from her employer and is anxious about the future. “I didn’t go back to work when my son was nine months old and go to university at the same time in order to live off benefits,” says Kellie.

“My mum lived off benefits with us children. It’s not what I wanted for my children, but everything seems to be made so difficult to try and stay in work and do things the right way”.

While the complexities of every circumstance of child poverty are unique, poverty itself is not. 2016 Britain is the fifth richest economy in the world, and a place where child poverty is widespread. The experience of poverty for families with children is particularly distressing.

“Families will do anything to avoid getting into a situation where they need to use a food bank,” says Child Poverty Action Group’s Martin Williams, who provides welfare advice at Tower Hamlets food bank. “It’s not uncommon that when I see people at the food bank they start crying. Particularly, if you have got kids, the stigma of not having enough money to be able to feed them yourself is something that really hits people.”

While child poverty in the UK rarely means absolute destitution, it is still harsh. It could be a mother who breaks down in tears in front of a welfare adviser after pawning her daughter’s favourite Christmas present to buy basic food, or sitting at home in the dark over the weekend to save on the electricity bill. It is often crippling amounts of anxiety-inducing debt.

While nationally, 25 percent of children grow up in poverty, figures from the End Child Poverty Campaign reveal that in Tower Hamlets, it is 44 percent – rising to 49 percent in other studies. That means almost one in two children live in households with an income less than 60 percent of the national median – less than £1,703 a month for a two-parent family with two children before housing costs.

Such high rates of child poverty in Tower Hamlets and the East End generally are not new. The construction of Canary Wharf in the borough in the 1990s has done little for the poorest. Today, Tower Hamlets is one of the most unequal places to live in the UK.

Many of the things that may contribute to making a family poor such as health issues, discrimination, or a lack of skills, are also likely to make someone less successful in a competitive job market. “Work isn’t always a route out of poverty,” says Alice Woodhuysen, London campaigns manager at Child Poverty Action Group. “Many of the jobs people have are low paid, part-time, insecure or zero hours contracts”. At least one quarter of children in poverty in Tower Hamlets live in families in-work – a rise on previous years.

Tower Hamlets, like many inner London boroughs, also suffers from a lack of genuinely affordable homes, high childcare costs and lower maternal employment. Less than 30 percent of homes in the borough are deemed affordable, and overcrowding, which affects one in six households, is particularly acute due to large family sizes and high rents.

An additional recent factor that is worsening the situation for poor families is the erosion of the social security system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that the number of children in relative poverty will rise from 3.6 million to 4.3 million by 2020 as a direct result of government tax and benefit decisions made since 2010. “The [welfare] system is becoming a problem now because it no longer offers a level of income that enables people to live above the poverty line,” says Marc Francis, a Tower Hamlets councillor with Labour. “The benefit cap is the principal driver of that.”

A particular concern in Tower Hamlets was also the potential introduction of a minimum council tax payment in early 2017, which if implemented would have ended the 100 percent council tax support scheme in the borough. Following petitions from residents and NGOs, the mayor agreed not to implement the minimum payment for this year.

Yet even a properly functioning benefits system cannot lift families above the poverty line due to the way the system is conceived. Through his work, Williams has helped many people with benefits issues and made a significant difference to their lives. However, working to iron out issues in the functioning of the benefits system is not the same thing as ending poverty. “Any family who is on out of work benefits falls well below 60 percent of median income so that’s your starting point, which means that’s to say for those that aren’t in work, the benefits system maintains them below the poverty line.”

There are also families in poverty in Tower Hamlets whose situation cannot even be mitigated through welfare advice. These include asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, including those with children, whose immigration status precludes them by law from receiving benefits.

Indeed, the experience of asylum seekers and poor migrants in the borough is one example of the complicated intersection between child poverty and other issues such as disability, racism, domestic violence and discrimination. Tower Hamlets is one of the UK’s most diverse boroughs – one third of residents are of Bangladeshi-origin and almost three-quarters of the borough’s 69,000 children have English as an additional language. People from ethnic minorities are however, 64 percent more likely to live in poverty.

Fortunately, the borough is also home to many organisations tackling, or at least mitigating, the experience of poverty. Denise Bentley is CEO of charity, First Love Foundation, which manages Tower Hamlets food bank. The food bank probably only sees 100 people a month (a fraction of those in need) however, this is because of the comprehensive service the food bank provides, which also includes welfare advice and helping people address the root causes of their poverty. “It’s not just a straightforward food bank, but also a way to help people with complex issues,” says Bentley. While not everyone in need is lucky enough to be referred to the food bank, Bentley says that the advice and support provided alongside the food, means that two thirds of those that are referred, do not need to return again.

For Bentley, reducing people’s barriers to work and creating opportunities is key. Just a few moments down the road, the sight of nearby glittering Docklands through which London’s wealth churns, gives rise to mixed emotions when it comes to finding long-term ways out of poverty.

While some might revile the financial hub as a symbol of everything that is deeply unfair about modern Britain, Bentley, a former City worker herself, is more positive about the possibility of tackling poverty through partnerships with big business and others in the borough. “The way out of poverty is work, but with the right pay and good childcare,” she says. It is about “squaring the circle”, says Bentley, so families can afford to live – and thrive – in Tower Hamlets.

Yet, even though child poverty does not have to an inevitable fact of wealthy societies, poverty looks set to worsen if austerity continues to replace empathy. “I fear that we would still have this conversation in 20 years time but there’s no reason to,” says Williams. “The reasons that exist for poverty at the moment can be done away with – better paid jobs, good childcare that’s free, and a benefits system that responds to people’s needs in and out of work. There’s no reason to see what we see.”

*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.

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