February 18, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

An old sea dog, an artist, a composer …. and babies

In 1740 Hogarth presented his portrait of Captain Thomas Coram to the Foundling Hospital, one of his many art works he gave in his long association with the Hospital. Thomas Coram who went to sea at 11 was a self-made business man, who had been campaigning for London’s foundlings since the 1720s. On his daily walk into the city he saw the bodies of abandoned babies by the road, destined for the dung heaps, and in 1737 he petitioned George 11 who was well disposed to the plan to found a refuge for destitute and abandoned children. In 1741 the Foundling hospital received the first 30 healthy babies under two, one can only imagine the desolation of mothers who left their babies and the utter despair of mothers who were turned away. Many left tokens which were recorded against each child in case she could reclaim her child. Thomas Coram left his considerable fortune to the Hospital and lived on an annuity sponsored by friends.

The musician/composer was Handel who in 1749 offered a benefit concert to the Hospital, and in subsequent years his oratorio Messiah was performed annually as a benefit until his death in 1759. In his will he left a score and parts of the work to the Hospital, to enable them to continue with the Messiah concerts, as performing parts would not be easily available. Handel’s house at 25 Brook Street is now a museum (Jimi Hendrix lived at number 23) and the current exhibition is “Charles Jennes the man behind the Messiah.” Jennens wrote the librettos for many of Handel’s works.

Philanthropy has a long history, providing additional and alternative support in many areas of life, but it is now returning as an essential feature of the 21st century. Volunteer organised food banks to provide food to those who cannot to afford to buy were first set up in the US in 1967. But an estimated 44 million Americans receive the US Government food stamps too; between 25% and 40% of which are spent in Walmart, while many Walmart employees’ wages are low enough for them to receive food stamps. Estimates to the number vary widely, Walmart is the bête noir of America, but this is a way for companies world wide to externalise their costs. Since the 2008 financial crisis there has been a big increase in food banks in Europe; previously UK food banks have been philanthropic activities mainly to distribute food to homeless people and hostels, but they are now becoming a life line for those who would not have thought they would ever need such provision. State support, which has been regarded as a feature of a democratic and civilised society, is increasingly being replaced by voluntary action.

There is considerable concern about poverty as governments impose austerity measures which hit those on low incomes hardest. The Child Poverty Act 2010 requires the Government to produce child poverty strategies that run through to 2020 and are refreshed every three years.

The Act sets four challenging UK-wide targets to be met by 2020. These targets are based on the proportion of children living in:
• relative low income – target is less than ten per cent
• combined low income and material deprivation – target is less than five per cent
• absolute low income – target is less than five per cent
• persistent poverty (length of time in poverty) – target is to be set in regulations by 2015.

The Government has been consulting on new measures of poverty, aand Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, the lead consultant on the UK’s contribution to Unicef’s Child Well-Being report, said he believed that the government was “trying to move the goalposts” at a time when child poverty was increasing rapidly.
He described the consultation document as the worst paper setting down government policy direction he had ever read, questioned whether it was written by civil servants and said it read more like it had been “plagiarised from a right-wing thinktank tract”.

He said civil servants had been working for the past 40 years on developing accurate poverty measures, but the document had ignored previous work by the department on the subject as well as ignoring work by academics in the field. The new approach would not work because it attempted to “combine all sorts of things that are the consequence of poverty or may be even be the causes of poverty, but are not a measure of child poverty”.

Child poverty has long term implications. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2010 report “Poorer children’s educational attainment: how important are attitudes and behaviour?” found that, “Children growing up in poorer families emerge from school with substantially lower levels of educational attainment. This is a major contributing factor to patterns of social mobility and poverty.”

Professor David Barker’s research showed for the first time that people who had low birth weight are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes. This is now widely accepted, and in 1995, the British Medical Journal named this the “Barker Hypothesis.” It has led to a new understanding that chronic adult diseases are “programmed” by malnutrition in the womb. While there are a number of reasons for low birth weight, it is a feature of maternal poverty and/or poor nutrition. Child poverty is not just a moral issue, it has a medium and long term economic impact too.

Baroness Ruth Lister will give a lecture on 20 February in which she will explore ways in which some poverty activists are deploying a discourse of human rights in order to stake their claim to power and to recognition as well as redistribution.

Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories. John Wilmot (2nd Earl of Rochester, 1647-80)

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