British children are by far the fattest in Europe (three times as many of them as in France are truly obese), and even among the fattest in the world. A very high percentage of them never, or only very rarely, eat a meal at a table with other members of
their family – or perhaps I should say household. Indeed, there is often no table at which they could eat such a meal if it ever occurred to anyone to provide them with one.
When I entered such a home – as I often did as a doctor – I discovered no evidence that cooking had ever taken place in it, beyond reheating of prepared food in the microwave. The children did not so much eat meals as forage or graze, more or less ad libitum. One of the most elementary forms of civilised social intercourse was therefore alien to them.
Meanwhile, down the road, there were Indian shops selling fresh vegetables so cheap that you could hardly carry away all you could buy for £10 – the cost of 30 cigarettes. It goes without saying that the homes of which I speak were plentifully supplied with flat television screens, some of them as wide as the sky, and almost always illuminated.
The pattern of child-rearing in Britain is all too often that of a toxic combination of overindulgence and neglect. First a child is bribed into silence, or at least minimal compliance, by being given what it wants; then, when it is old enough to demand rather than request, it does so. A higher proportion of parents in Britain end up frightened of their own children than anywhere else known to me – I never saw it in Africa, where I lived for several years. And it is not only their parents who are frightened of them: who these days dares to tell children to behave themselves in a public place? Old people shrink away from them in fear; I have not seen this in other countries.
About a fifth of our children leave school unable to read or write fluently. This is not the consequence of poverty: on average, at least £50,000 will have been spent on their education. No doubt bad schools, bad teachers, and bad teaching methods have a part to play. But it cannot be easy to be a teacher of children whose parents, or parent and latest lover, will take the child’s part in any disciplinary dispute because of their egotistical belief that anything that emerges from them must be above reproach....
By the end of his childhood, a youngster is considerably more likely to have a television in his bedroom than a father living at home. The combination of family instability and a vulgar, celebrity-obsessed, low-IQ and all but inescapable popular culture (of which, incidentally, the BBC’s website for home consumption is clearly a manifestation), means that British children lead the western world in many forms of self-destructive as well as unattractive behaviour.
But none of this is poverty, properly so-called: it is squalor, mental, emotional, moral, psychological, cultural and often, as a result, physical too. But to call it poverty is actually to make it worse, in so far as it misidentifies the problem and fosters the very culture of dependency that brings so much of it about in the first place.
The point that material "poverty" is less the problem here than a kind of cultural degeneration is well made and rings true. But that is a problem that runs deeper than the "culture of dependency" to which Daniels makes reference, and the solution is not as simple as reducing benefit payments.