Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility… a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade… has monsters half so horrible and dread. Scrooge started back, appalled.”

The reader is appalled too. Nothing in the tedious sentimentality of A Christmas Carol prepares you for Dickens’ sudden, shocking denunciation of child poverty, personified as a boy called Ignorance and girl called Want.

Dickens was writing from personal experience. He went to work in a factory making shoe polish when he was 12, after his father was jailed for debt (the rest of the family joined him, apart from Charles). Here, and later as a reporter, he saw the conditions we sometimes still refer to as “Dickensian”.

What about today? According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labour – one in six children in the world. Often they are exposed to dangerous chemicals and machinery, and various forms of physical and psychological abuse.

Children in rural areas and girls are the worst off, especially girls working as servants.

Lack of education helps condemn children to poverty. Dickens even saw it as the worse of the two conditions, with the Ghost warning Scrooge “…most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Erasing that writing is the second of the UN Millennium Goals “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”.

However, according to the latest UN update (from 2008, before the recession) 58 out of the 86 countries that have not yet reached universal primary education will not achieve it by 2015. And as for child labour, the children most likely to drop out of school or to not attend at all are girls, those from poorer households or children living in rural areas.

Almost all of these children are in developing countries, but UNICEF also looks at the well-being of children in 21 OECD countries (not enough comparable data is available to include the others).

The countries are ranked according to six dimensions: material well-being; health and safety; education; peer and family relationships; behaviours and risks; and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being, giving a total of 40 separate indicators.

The Netherlands heads the table of overall child wellbeing, ranking in the top 10 for all dimensions. However, no country features in the top third of the rankings for all six dimensions (though the Netherlands and Sweden come close).

Research featured on yesterday’s OECD Factblog suggests that child poverty is increasing in OECD countries, but isn’t receiving the policy attention it deserves. We’ve moved on from the days when Scrooge could point out that there were prisons and workhouses to tackle the problem of poverty, but with a combined GDP of forty trillion dollars for the OECD countries, we could do much better.

Useful links

Growing Unequal: Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries

Society at a glance 2009 contains data on poverty among children

A Christmas Carol e-text

Patrick Love

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