Confronting poverty in our backyard

Rina Kuusipalo (Finland, AC 08-10)

Students at Atlantic College always talk about being trapped inside a sort of “AC bubble”. It often does feel that contact with the outside community is awfully minimal, for example if you don’t actively follow a news item, say something as gigantic as the ongoing financial crisis, you might well find yourself completely sealed from its signs and effects here, in our cradle of comfort, apart from the odd shop that closes in Llantwit Major, our local town. It is of course understandable, considering the busy schedules of staff and students, that there simply isn’t the time for more interaction with our surrounding country and its people, but it is, nevertheless, a shame – especially since so much needs to be done, and since our purpose of being here so heavily leans on the mission of “compassion and service” and “action and personal example”. Wales might be a part of one of the most prosperous countries in the world, according to some indicators, but, quite alarmingly, has some of the worst poverty statistics in the developed world. These statistics reflect the hushed inequality here, in what seems to be, from my perspective, still a quite a class-based society. Every third child in the UK lives in poverty, and every tenth in severe poverty, sustaining on average on £19 per day. Furthermore, the social situation in Wales, on its own, is in fact comparable with some of the poorest countries in the European Union, with its GDP per capita only 82% of that in the UK as a whole.

Personally, I came to understand these statistics and their consequences only recently, and certainly not through arriving and departing at the flamboyant Heathrow airport and then perhaps visiting the confines of central Cardiff and London. I came to understand them partly through my project week, and partly through being in Social Service, perhaps the only college service whose primary function is interacting with and helping the community of people outside the college. The project week I spent teaching Year Three in a primary school in a fairly impoverished area of Barry, a historically working class town in Wales; an experience which echoed the array of social issues arising from poverty in the UK. One boy, only seven years old, told me excitedly about his granny’s 60st birthday; then casually added that he only wished his mother hadn’t had a drug problem, so that he wouldn’t have to celebrate the occasion alone with granny, with mom in heaven. Fragments of stories like this weren’t wholly uncommon as the children probably felt like telling these kinds of things to someone other than a family member. The school had, however, done well in encouraging the students to express their feelings and you could read poems by the older students posted on the walls: slightly disturbing poems about dysfunctional families, bullying, loneliness, and deprivation.

The history of inequality and poverty in Wales dates back to the English colonialism and suppression of Welsh sovereignty and economic independence, which is still to some extent the case, and to Thatcher’s economic policies in the 1970’s, which brought down the dominating coal and metal industries in Wales, resulting in mass unemployment and economic inactivity, as it took a long time to recover from such a shock to the economy. Also, If you asked the elderly Welsh couple I visit for service, the money from the industries never went to the pockets of the common people in Wales in the first place, rather to England, and Wales is still classified an exceptionally low pay economy. Now, although Wales has developed other alternative industries, unemployment remains an issue with a rate of 10% for young adults, a dispiriting start for a life, combined with the high dropout rates of teens from education.  Bridgend, close by, is known by every student at the College for its high, nationally recognised suicide and teenage pregnancy rates, yet apart from a few social service sessions, mostly we go there for shopping.

The kind of outreach work that the Social Service does could be much deepened and extended. We students are more than eager to get a hundred of ourselves to Cardiff to protest for the cause of global justice in Palestine, but when it comes to the ideal of starting with local, we are still somewhat lacking in action and our knowledge of the surroundings. Much more could be done, given the indispensable resource of such a diverse group of students who are willing and able. To me, there seems to be a public sensitivity towards poverty in the UK: because the country is developed, it is as if there was no excuse to be poor – no excuse to be fortunate at birth. Especially now, with the gloomy effects of the economic recession underway, people are going to face increasing unemployment as companies seek cheaper solutions. Youth in particular will face dimmer employment opportunities when they enter professional life, wages might drop even lower, people will experience more depression and mental problems as a result, children will be born to these families and receive bad nutrition and exposure to discouraging factors as result of poverty, and public services will be economically more strained in taking care of these children, the disabled, the unemployed, and the elderly – so if we claim, at times like these, that there is not much for us UWC students to do service-wise in a developed country like the UK, we should shrug off our presumptions, and act.

– United World College Student Magazine –

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