The epicentre of UK child poverty is in Birmingham, where children in 81% of families are affected, says a disturbing new report
Jim Thompson has just been told that there’s no chance of an increase on his £90 loan from the Social Fund. “There’s 35 quid left to last us another seven days,” he says. By “us” he means himself, his pregnant, unemployed girlfriend Jan Mason, 27, and their 12-month-old baby, Michelle. Thompson slumps wearily over the railings at the side of Ladywood community centre in inner-city Birmingham. Then he straightens up and, for a moment, he looks the part of a 25-year-old former soldier who has served in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia.
“I’d rather starve than let them go hungry,” he adds with a defiant gesture at his family. “We might be short of money, but we’re not short of love.” Certainly, Michelle doesn’t look short of care and attention. But she will grow up in the constituency pinpointed last week as having a higher proportion of its children living in poverty than any in the UK; 81% of families in the area are struggling, which directly affects some 28,420 of its children, according to figures from the Campaign to End Child Poverty.
Thompson was doing comparatively well until three weeks ago, when he lost his job laying carpets for a hotel chain. “They’re not fitting out any more hotels until the economy picks up,” he says. Next week, he might – just might – get the redundancy money he has been promised. Meanwhile, the rent is due on the family’s two-bedroom flat in a nearby tower block.”Then all I’ve got to find is the money for food, electricity, milk and nappies,” he adds bitterly. “I’ve been to umpteen building sites trying to get labouring work, but the construction firms are cutting back as well.”
So Thompson and his family become another statistic. The constituency’s unwelcome reputation is based on a 45% jobless level, combined with another 36% receiving working tax credit to bolster meagre incomes. This part of Birmingham is no longer packed with factories offering comparatively well-paid work. The local government ward of Ladywood, a largely 1960s-built estate, butts right up against the canal-side apartments and restaurants of the city centre. Not far, indeed, from the International Convention Centre where the Conservative party conference gathered last week. Yet the government that Tory leader David Cameron blames for what he calls “our broken society” has invested hundreds of millions in a parliamentary constituency that includes not only the ward and the city centre itself but also inner-city Aston, Nechells and parts of Handsworth.
However, its neighbourhoods have turned into what Jenny Phillimore, from the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at Birmingham University, calls “microcosms of super-diversity”, with constantly changing populations. “Yes, the government had put a lot of money into regeneration, but, at the same time, Ladywood has become a reception area for immigration,” she says.” The poorest people come here because there’s a lot of cheap, rented social housing.
“We’ve found Kurdish and African families with nine and sometimes 11 people living in two-bedroom flats. Those who are here legally are starting to bring their families in, but they’re not entitled to any public funds. Without money for uniforms or bus fares, they’re not sending their children to school.”
Meanwhile, among the settled population, there’s a high level of dropping out from an education system on which children depend for qualifications for any but the most menial jobs.
Kenneth Jeffers, 55, a former education minister in Montserrat, came to Ladywood soon after a volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island in the 1990s. He spends much of his time at the Sky Rainbow Foundation, which tries to raise the horizons of black youths. “In the Caribbean, our children’s learning curve starts to improve after the age of 11,” he says. “Here, it seems to peak at 11 and then start to decline.” Jeffers wants to set up exchange deals between schools in Birmingham and the West Indies.
As it is, plenty of children are too frightened to leave their corner of Ladywood. The gun violence plaguing the area is largely based on postcode territorialism. Former social worker Udel James, 50, holds a photograph of her nephew. A fresh-faced black boy, he was shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
James’s response is to set up One B Outreach, running a minibus to occasional residential weekends in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. To these youngsters – white and Asian, as well as black – it’s as remote and exotic as the Caribbean. “There’s a lot of tension at first,” James concedes. “But, by the end of the weekend, they’re all asking: ‘Why do we have to go home, miss?'” It’s an understandable question in the circumstances.
• The names of Jim Thompson and his family have been changed at his request