How the Young Poor Measure Poverty in Britain: Drink, Drugs and Their Time in Jail
WYTHENSHAWE, England — Wandering the streets after dusk in this endless housing project, the five teenagers said they were not troubled by the turns their lives had taken so far. Not by the absent fathers, the mothers on welfare, the drugs, the arrests, the incarcerations, the wearying inevitability of it all.
“When you live in Wythenshawe, you don’t expect any better,” said David Williams, a 17-year-old who says he dropped out of school at 14, is high much of the time, steals when he can and has been arrested too many times to count. He was not posturing. He is not a gang member or a hardened criminal seeking street cred — he was simply giving the unsentimental facts.
The housing projects in Wythenshawe (pronounced WITH-en-shah) represent an extreme pocket of social deprivation and alienation. But the problems here — a breakdown in families, an absence of respect for authority, the prevalence of drugs, drunkenness, truancy, vandalism and petty criminality — are common across Britain.
And while Prime Minister Tony Blair has made addressing poverty and so-called antisocial behavior one of his main priorities, his critics say there is little to show after 10 years in office and a blizzard of new programs.
In February, Britain scored at the bottom among 21 industrialized countries in a Unicef report that used 40 indicators, like relative poverty, health and family relationships, to measure children’s well-being. (The United States was next to last.)
Last year a paper published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive study group, concluded that Britain’s young people were the worst-behaved in Europe, spending less time with their parents, drinking and fighting more, and trying drugs and sex earlier than their counterparts across the Continent.
Sociologists, politicians and children’s advocates have argued endlessly about why Britain’s youths are so troubled. Drinking is part of it: consumption among youths who drink has been rising steadily for 20 years. British youths are ranked the third-worst binge drinkers in Europe, behind those in Denmark and Ireland. In a survey last year, 25 percent of British 15-year-olds said they had been drunk more than 20 times in the previous 12 months.
The Institute for Public Policy Research report said, too, that young Britons’ tendency to spend time with their peers rather than with adults was robbing them of even basic social skills. In Britain, 45 percent of 15-year-old boys spend most of their evenings out with friends; in France, the figure is 17 percent.
“Because they don’t have that structured interaction with adults, it damages their life chances,” said Nick Pearce, the institute’s director. “They are not learning how to behave, how to get on in life, as they need to.”
A third factor is the growing gulf between rich and poor in an increasingly affluent society. According to the advocacy group Save the Children, although Britain has the world’s fourth-largest economy, it also has one of the worst rates of child poverty in the industrialized world, with 3.4 million children, more than one in four, living in poverty, and about a million, or nearly 10 percent, living in severe poverty.
With poverty comes crime and violence, much of it committed by youths against youths. In 2003, the public policy report said, 35 percent of British children aged 10 to 15 were victims of crime; the figure increased to 59 percent the next year for children from deprived areas.
Defending his record, Mr. Blair said recently that 700,000 children had been raised out of poverty since he took office in 1997. “I do not believe there is a general social breakdown,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, the existence of a persistent underclass of “severely dysfunctional” families “who are shut out of society’s mainstream.”
These people, he said, are neither helped by the extra money the government has invested in social programs, nor affected by new law-enforcement measures intended to address the antisocial behavior that people across Britain identify as one of their biggest concerns.
Mr. Blair’s government has introduced a bevy of directives aimed at stopping activity that disrupts neighborhoods — vandalism, petty thievery, harassment, even persistently loud music — but does not necessarily warrant criminal prosecution.
The orders forbid youths, say, from going into certain neighborhoods, meeting with certain people, going into town without their parents, staying out past a certain time, harassing their neighbors.
But Wythenshawe has its share of residents seemingly immune to government intervention.
“Every kid here has nought to do,” said David Williams, the local youth. “Everyone does crime. Everyone’s got no money. They live in council houses and are on benefits, and the mums don’t have money to give the kids, and so they go stealing. Everything of value, you have to bolt down.”
Built just after World War II to house Britain’s poor, the projects here are now a series of neighborhoods covering 10.9 square miles and taking in more than 66,000 people. In its four most deprived neighborhoods, some 30 percent of the residents of working age are considered “economically inactive,” neither holding jobs nor looking for them. Close to half have left high school without passing the exams needed to graduate. Almost half the town falls within the poorest 5 percent of communities in England.
Racism is not an issue: nearly 95 percent of the residents are white. Weapons here run more to broken bottles and knives than to guns.
Nor is Wythenshawe particularly run-down or forbidding, as housing projects go. Most residents live in two-story single-family houses whose small yards out front give the area a vaguely suburban air. Under programs encouraging private ownership, more residents are buying their own homes.
A public-private partnership aimed at regenerating the area has invested some £30 million ($57 million) in community facilities in the past three years, said Angela Harrington, the manager for regeneration in South Manchester.
Things are improving in the town center and in the eastern part of town. But in the rougher areas, there is still a sense of chaos outside the residents’ front doors. After dark, the streets belong to the young.
Bringing home her groceries recently, Jane Leach, a 46-year-old caregiver for the elderly, described a typical weekend evening on the small grassy area that serves as a park of sorts between two rows of houses on her street. The youths start coming after 6, she said, dozens of them, boys and girls, mostly in their teens. They get drunk, take drugs, harass the residents, steal cars, urinate and defecate in the gardens, smash beer bottles on doorsteps, fight, pass out.
When she tries to intervene, Ms. Leach said, the youths yell abuse at her. When she tells them to get off her car, they tell her there is nowhere else to sit. Recently, youths slashed every tire on 12 cars up and down the street, she said. When her partner was smashed in the face by a 14-year-old, Ms. Leach said, the police took 45 minutes to respond.
“They’ve got no respect at all for anybody,” she said.
The street is subject to a so-called dispersal order forbidding young people to congregate in groups larger than three or four. But the police have told her, she said, that it is better for the youths to be in one place so they don’t rampage separately through the neighborhood.
On one occasion, an officer said she was loathe to step in because there was no one to back her up, Ms. Leach said. “I said, ‘Who do we have to call — the army?’ ”
When children chronically miss school, many localities require their parents to attend parenting classes, sometimes threatening them with prosecution if the truancy persists. Families with problems that run through the generations can in some places qualify for regular home visits from workers who teach them the basics of daily life: how to make sure everyone gets up on time and has breakfast; how to cook and sit down to a meal; what to do when a child misbehaves.
Under a new program, a handful of the most troubled families in some areas, including Manchester, are removed from their homes and placed in residential facilities, along with other problem families, where they are taught skills and the structure to cope with family life and the world outside. The programs have a high success rate for those who take part, but they are very expensive and labor-intensive, reaching only a few families.
In Wythenshawe, David Williams and his friends, out after dark, spend much of their time wandering the streets.
They said they had put their vandalizing and terrorizing days behind them. “That’s kid stuff, something I did when I was 10 or 13,” David said. Sometimes they go to a friend’s house, where they have been experimenting with various forms of rap and garage music that they post on their MySpace Web page.
They said they did not see their families much. Dinner is usually bought from a local chippie, a fish-and-chips shop. “Half the time you don’t really know where your mother is,” said Jeremy Taylor, 17. He said his mother preferred him to be out of the house, saying she needed the peace and quiet.
Another 17-year-old, who identified himself as Moe, said that when he was 10, his father left and now lives in another part of Manchester. Moe added that he recently spent four months in prison for burglary and that it was not so bad: he saw it as almost a home away from home. “I knew a few people there who helped me,” he said.
As they talked, they were joined on the sidewalk by 18-year-old Darren Buckby, identically dressed in the ubiquitous street uniform of a warm-up suit and hooded jacket, but almost an exotic figure here: he has a job. He works as an electrician for, of all things, the police department.
(He also has an antisocial-behavior order issued by a police officer he irritated one day, he said. The order forbids him to go down a particular street in the neighborhood, but he said he had never bothered to abide by it.)
The job takes him away from the streets where he grew up, but not far enough. “I would love to move out of Wythenshawe,” he said.