Posts Tagged ‘families’


round about a pound a week

January 25, 2009

i’ve finally tracked down a new copy of Round About a Pound A Week from the marvellous Persephone Books, and spent a very enjoyable evening reading it on Friday. Written in 1913 by the Fabian Women’s Group, it tracks the lives of the ‘working poor’ of Lambeth in minute detail. The project came about as the result of the Fabians deciding to investigate the impact of additional grants for food being given to families upon the birth of a new child. Actually, the book itself hardly dwells on the impact of this specific measure, instead looking at housing, relationships and food (Maslow’s basic needs – there wasn’t scope for much beyond them for these families). The over-riding message is of the impossibility of living on such tiny wages.

So much struck me about this book that I can’t fit it all into this one post. So for now, two things in particular stand out that challenged the assumptions around poverty in 1913, and that remain deeply pertinent today. First, Maud Pember Reeves (the principal author) ridicules the doctors and officials who suggest that women need to be educated about the wonders milk can do for their kids. Women knew this all too well – but managing the household budget when it was so meagre made it an utterly unrealistic choice. Women were already going without – as, often, their children were too – and there was no room to cut spending on other items to purchase milk.

Second, Pember Reeves notes with interest that almost every family in the study put a notable sum of their weekly budget into the burial club. Rationally, this seems crazy: much better to spend every penny possible on keeping the children alive in the first place. But, she notes, the ‘disgrace of a pauper funeral’ meant that £11,000,000 every year was paid in pennies by the poor to the burial clubs. Pride was in operation here and the book takes issue with the middle class moralisers who refuse to see the importance of a decent burial. I am sure that the usual stuff the papers cover about trainers, big TVs and the rest is something of a modern-day equivalent.

The working poor that Pember Reeves studied remain a woefully invisible part of our population today. The equivalent of a 1913 pound is roughly £370 a week now, or £19,250 a year, according to the IFS. Meanwhile the official poverty line is set now at £332 a week for a two parent, two child family. Half the kids living in poverty have parents in work, and our study of ‘Just Coping’ families in Kent indicates that up to a sixth of the kids living there experience conditions that, while unrecognisable to the children of the 1913 study, are still characterised by terrible housing, miserable environments, limited and unhealthy food and deeply unstable or unrewarding work for their parents.

The book didn’t stop at describing the lives of the families – although simply that description, in such detail, had a massive impact on the social reformers and politicians of the day. The study also made recommendations that influenced policy around child benefits, free school milk, and health visitors. I think it’s time to do another study like Pember Reeves’…


tv does social commentary, again

January 16, 2009

after my housing meeting (see below) I thought I should have some light relief. So, naturally, I decided to watch a documentary about teenage parenthood. Actually, it was fantastic – yet another example of really well made TV, that explores the issues without sensationalising or damning its subjects. Kizzy was thirteen when she had Caleb, and the programme followed her progress from heavily pregnant through to a young mum growing in confidence and determined to make things work for her and her son. The film is happy to leave its viewers with a mixed sense of hope and sadness for Kizzy, rather than dragging us to a firm conclusion. Great stuff. You can watch again here.

Which reminds me that I really want to watch The Tower, a documentary I missed the first time round about life in a Deptford high rise before the council sold it off to private developers. It was filmed over the course of three years and sounds right up my street. Thanks to A, who worked on it, for drawing it to my attention. Here’s a little introductory clip:


more presentations

December 22, 2008

I’ve been a bit slow on the blog writing recently – I’m bursting with stuff I need to write down but the last couple of weeks have been quite a blur one way or another. At least one reason for this is a round of presentations that have dominated the last few days… so here are some slides about ethnography and policy that Robin-the-anthropologist and I used at the annual Social Research Association conference:

And here are some that I used to speak to the National Foundation for Education Research about our work on ‘just coping’ families in Kent.

And finally (phew!) here are some ones I used at an Innovation Catalyst event about how to communicate and influence local councils when you’ve got an innovative project on your hands…


just coping: low income families

October 21, 2008

OK, so I’ve finally worked out how to upload files to this blog, so am taking the opportunity to put up the report I did earlier this year with the wonderful Robin, founder and director of ESRO, on the lives of low income families living in Kent. You can download it here. It was one of those projects that I found deeply interesting and very challenging. Last night I found myself talking about it again with C, who has just read it for a report she’s writing.

In particular we were discussing how little we know what to do with people who exist in the category our report describes – ‘just coping’ – people who are not in serious need, but whose lives could be turned upside down by just one small crisis. Families who are just coping are often invisible in every way. They are invisible to formal public services – they actively avoid social workers, for example. They are invisible to the world beyond public services too: the families we met had very small informal support networks to rely on in times of need.

If invisibility is one striking feature of the families we met, gender dynamics was another. Poverty and old age are notably gendered in how they are experienced. Although public policy has become deeply concerned with fatherhood in recent years, actually it is the mums who are under tremendous pressure to keep some semblance of family life going in the face of huge challenges like overcrowding, poor housing and violence. How we support those mothers, many of whom are coping with a form of low-level depression, is surely as important as how we re-engage fathers as active members of the family?