by Jon Kuhrt (first published by the Christian Socialist Movement in 2008)
If we care about poverty then we must be prepared to talk about family life
I believe in higher taxation for the rich. I believe private education to be morally wrong. I marched against the Iraq War, and for Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History. I have spent ten years working with homeless people and now work to help develop community projects in poor neighbourhoods.
Why do I feel the need to list some left-wing credentials?
Because I hope it will avoid me being written off a closet Tory when I say this: that our neglect of the family is the biggest factor in failing to combat poverty and social injustice in theUK.
We have to face the reality of the crisis in family life that is unfolding in communities up and down our country – and to do this we have to break the powerful taboo that exists in liberal circles today on this issue. We have to mention the F word.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) recently published a key report, following an extensive survey of the public on what are the key ‘social evils’ of the day. The high level evils identified by the public were: a decline of community, individualism, consumerism and greed and a lack of values. And what was the first specific factor identified as lying behind these issues? The decline of the family.
The reality is that our ‘whatever is right for you’ culture and our consumerist approach to values will always impact the poorest communities hardest. Whether it’s in the unfolding tragedy of formerly abducted Shannon Matthews in Dewsbury or in the weekly horrors of teenage gang violence across the country we are continually seeing the effects of our reckless approach to commitment and responsibility. Youth crime, low self-esteem, anger and violence are not simply determined by material poverty. They are like destructive weeds which grow rapidly in the soil of dysfunctional family life. Whatever other misgivings we have about them, many on the left instinctively know that David Cameron and The Sun are onto something real when they talk about ‘Broken Britain’.
The reality is that the social and financial costs of dysfunctional families are spiralling endlessly. This libertarian agenda will not last. The elephant in the room is causing too much damage for us to ignore it for much longer.
Understanding the reality of poverty
While we might privately admit that it has been the love of our parents and the security of our upbringing is the most significant influence on our life chances, the importance of family life has been radically undermined in a way unprecedented in history. Liberal concern for choice and freedom has morphed and hardened into a libertarian denial of reality.
I spent ten years working with homeless people and much of this time was spent managing emergency hostels for young people in central London run by the high profile homelessness agency, Centrepoint. Day after day, highly damaged young people walked through the doors needing accommodation and support. Most of the young people we worked with lived in a world warped by deprivation, drugs, self harm, prostitution, violence and low self-esteem. But underpinning all of these issues, one factor towered above all the others – that so many of these young people had not experienced a loving family with two parents. This was the single, most consistent thread that we saw on front line. Day after day, we would hear young people telling stories about their dysfunctional families – too often through violent, neglectful or completely absent fathers and mothers who just could not cope.
Despite this consistent story emerging from the front line, Centrepoint’s policy and campaigns department would never speak out about issues relating to family life. Expensive research and impressive reports were produced every year urging the government to do more about benefit reform, housing rights for and the lack of joined up thinking in government. Ministers lined up to visit us all the time and Tony Blair even addressed our 30th Anniversary. But all this time no one really dared mentioning the F word. Just as I had found when studying Social Work as an under-graduate, it was families that were the real taboo.
Ultimately, ignoring the role of family in social issues is a failure to understand the nature of poverty. Too often our understanding of poverty focuses on the material and ignores poverty of relationships and identity. Poverty is not just about low-incomes just as homelessness is not simply about houselessness. Homes are where you grow up in relationships of vital importance and build a strong secure identity. Too many young people are growing outside such environments and the flow of young people ending up vulnerable on our streets will never be abated by building more hostels or developing more and more elaborate ‘strategies’. Fighting poverty without addressing the issue of family life is trying to fill a leaky bucket.
The rapidly changing face of our family life in the UK means that we facing a situation unprecedented in history. It is as significant as the swift urbanisation in the nineteenth century during the industrial revolution. As then, it will be the poorest who will be hit hardest by a failure of moral leadership. Just as Lord Shaftesbury and others fought for years against the prevailing orthodoxy regarding child labour in mines and factories, we must stand against the injustices caused by family breakdown, parental absence and neglect.
Commitment, fidelity and strong families are not anachronisms from a previous age. They are pivotal to our nation’s health. They are more important than our economic strength. This is particularly important for Christian Socialists because we must be brave enough to challenge across the accepted political boundaries if we are to be faithful to the gospel. It is in the synthesis of personal and public responsibility that we will re-discover the power of both the gospel and a renewed political vision. For in reality there is no contradiction in being left wing and pro-family – it simply needs us to be honest and brave about what is really happening in our communities. As Christian Socialists we have to dare to mention the ‘F’ word.