Rich London, poor London – a tale of two cities

What would Charles Dickens, born 200 years ago this week, make of Britain’s inequality in the 21st century? wonders David Hewitt.

Garry Knight under a CC Licence

As Britain celebrates the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, born 7 February 1812, his works have arguably never been more popular. Book sales are soaring, big-budget TV adaptations are drawing in millions of viewers, and specially themed exhibitions are being held in museums up and down the country. At the same time, it could also be argued, the central themes of his works have never seemed more relevant.

Driven by his own experiences of childhood poverty, the writer rallied against inequality, using his work to bring attention to what he regarded as some of the key social issues of his time: childhood poverty, rising inequality and high levels of unemployment. Given that these very same issues still dominate the news agenda in modern-day Britain, it’s only too tempting to speculate what Dickens would have made of London today. Is the city, heralded as the finance capital of the world, still home to children living in ‘Dickensian’ conditions on the margins of society?

‘My guess is that Dickens would be surprised at today’s level of inequality’

Certainly, the situation has improved since the Hungry Forties, as the 1840s were known, when children were quite literally starving on the streets of London, or else living miserable lives in workhouses or as child prostitutes. As Alex Werner, curator of the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London, notes: ‘Unemployment benefit, old age pension, a national health service and compulsory education for all children would seem to Dickens a great step forward from what he had experienced during his lifetime in the Victorian period.’ Nevertheless, he adds, “my guess is that Dickens would be surprised at today’s level of inequality.’

That Dickens would be surprised is, in itself, hardly surprising. In a year when London is to host the Olympics – at a reported cost of up to £24 billion ($38 billion) – and with a select few in the banking sector continuing be rewarded with substantial salaries and bonuses, levels of relative child poverty in England are worse than they are in every other developed country in Europe. Quite simply, even the briefest of looks at London in 2012 reveals a tale of two cities.

A socially segregated country

According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty (ECP), four in ten (or 650,000) London children now live in households where there is just £10 ($16) per person per day to cover everything, including utility bills. In Tower Hamlets, the local authority set to host the 2012 Games, 52 per cent of children live in poverty just a stone’s throw from the riches of the City, while in the borough of Islington, the figure stands at 43 per cent. Compare this to child poverty levels of just seven per cent and five per cent for the constituencies of Prime Minister David Cameron (Whitney) and his deputy Nick Clegg (Sheffield Hallam) respectively and the image you get is of a socially segregated country where children living in the capital are being disproportionately damaged by poverty and inequality.

Levels of relative child poverty in England are worse than they are in every other developed country in Europe

Moreover, despite the rhetoric of politicians, prospects for many of those at the bottom rung of the social ladder look set to get bleaker rather than brighter as they are hit by a perfect storm of economic challenges. Just recently, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated the number of children living below the poverty line will rise by 800,000 by 2020. And again, it will be those living in London who will suffer worst from a combination of rising unemployment, increased living costs and welfare cuts.

London poverty 1837: Oliver Twist

El Bibliomata under a CC Licence

Already, charities working with local communities within London have seen a marked rise in families making use of soup kitchen and food banks. However, a return to the realities of Victorian London, when Dickens and his contemporaries could not have failed to see poor children on the streets of London, is unlikely. Rather, campaigners warn, severe poverty can manifest itself in different ways and can often be hidden. So, while some children with live in obvious squalor, others may look like they are fine, even though their parents are struggling to buy food or clothing. Others still could be racking up significant levels of debt on credit cards or payday loans while managing to keep up the appearance of getting by.

A lost generation

However it manifests itself, childhood poverty can cause lasting damage, both to individuals and whole communities. Just a few days after his 12th birthday, with his father struggling under the weight of the family debts, Dickens was sent to work in a shoe polish factory on the banks of the Thames. ‘It was wonderful to me,’ he would write, ‘how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.’ It is this ‘casting away’ of a whole generation of Londoners that many charities fear will be the ultimate result of rising levels of child poverty in the capital. ‘Living below the poverty line can trap children into a cycle of poor performance at school and reduced job prospects,’ explains Sally Copley, UK head of poverty at Save the Children. ‘Education is the best route out, but at every stage there is a huge divide between how those from poor backgrounds perform in relation to their peers.’ Moreover, early years poverty has also been linked with a range of mental and physical health problems, again exacerbating the problem and casting the future of whole generation of Londoners aside.

London poverty 2011

Chris J under a CC Licence

Rather than being simply an observer of London in his day, Dickens was also a campaigner for change, believing that, through his journalism, novels and stories he could be a force for good by encouraging his readers to think about those less fortunate than themselves. ‘In some cases, he was trying to persuade government to intervene, for example in relation to poor housing, sanitation and education,’ says Alex Werner. ‘In other areas he was hopeful that wealthy people would contribute generously to charities to help and alleviate the condition of the poor.’

However, while relying on the wealthiest few to have their own Ebenezer Scrooge moment and act according to their conscience is all well and good, many campaigners believe that the government needs to take the lead. Just as the Coalition government’s policies are driving an ever-widening wedge between the richest and the poorest, it is Westminster that needs to take the lead in addressing both the root causes of child poverty and the social and economic inequality that exacerbates it, they argue. ‘It is wrong that more than one child in four lives in poverty in the seventh richest country in the world,’ says Sally Copley. ‘Obstacles like high childcare costs, high energy prices and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage make it hard for parents to provide for their children as they should. Tackling these three areas would help the goverment to meet its target of ending child poverty by 2020.’

David Hewitt is a London-based freelance writer.