The Sock Blog (or why Cameron should STFU about #PoorKids)


I tweeted a cry for help on Twitter this morning:

The woman (for it will be a woman) who finally invents self-pairing socks will have my undying gratitude.

The response was immediate and the replies interestingly gendered. The women (I’m guessing mainly mums) came back with a range of suggestions of variable utility.

Persuade everyone to wear odd socks; tights; wash only one size at a time and buy only one colour; buy ‘pairwithaspare’; go sockless.

Nearly all the men had more or less the same idea…*

Get all black ones, innit?

What was clear from the replies was that men (mostly) expected to be responsible only for their own socks and for them the solution was simple. The women were, like me, looking after a whole family of socks for feet of various sizes and had to obey a range of sock laws imposed by institutions and individuals alike, which meant that sock-pairing was a recognised challenge.

The ‘all black, all the time’ solution works only if everyone shares the same shoe-size. Other solutions are scuppered by school uniform regulations, by children insisting on growing all the time, by families sharing hand-me-downs, by girl socks and boy socks being different, by itchy elastic being a curse for some and barely noticed by others.

Let’s be clear, it’s not that I’m incapable of pairing socks, it’s simply that I resent the time I spend doing it when I could be doing other more interesting or more useful things. It was a silly tweet, with silly answers, and I’m glad that no-one came back with the suggestion that I shouldn’t have children, if I couldn’t deal with pairing their socks.

* Though a special mention goes to @richardblogger for the suggestion of linking socks together with elastic like children’s mittens. The entertainment possibilities are fantastic!


Last week the BBC aired ‘Poor Kids’, a documentary from children’s perspectives about growing up in poverty. The online response was passionate. Many people couldn’t believe that in a ‘first world’ nation in the 21st Century there were children living like this. Those of us who work in children’s services will have seen homes and lives like this before, but for many viewers this was a first exposure to lives they could hardly contemplate. Twitter was lit up with demands that ‘everyone should watch this programme’ or with suggestions that people give to children’s charities.

Not everyone’s response was so full of compassion though. Some acknowledged how sad they were to see such bright, spirited children in such terrible conditions but: ‘you know they’ll be terrifying in 5 years time’; others considered the programme to be ‘leftwing propaganda’; another remarked ‘I know I’m not a parent yet, but some parents aren’t very good at it’ – as though poverty and parenting difficulties were two separate things, or bad parenting caused poverty, rather than poverty (and the causes of it) making parenting very much more difficult. Even the film-maker, Jezza Neumann, says in this blog that he asked some questions about the decisions families made that he was embarrassed to have asked once he realised what lay behind them. Why would a single mum who could barely feed her children keep a dog, indeed?

Like the less-than-helpful sockpairing suggestions from those who have only ever had to pair (or not pair!) their own socks, advice about how to deal with parenting or poverty, let alone parenting in poverty, is pretty weak when it comes from those who don’t have relevant experience themselves. But at least the sockpairing suggestions came from a good place. David Cameron is something else. He searched really hard (I’ll bet) and failed to find any compassion at all. Using that mouthpiece of hateful, reactionary attitudes, the Daily Mail (see safe, istyosty link below), he warned ‘feckless parents who expect to raise children on benefits’ that he was seeking to ‘change the values of the nation’:

As tweeter @MediocreDave put it so eloquently:

Only David Cameron could see a program like #PoorKids and think the solution is that those children should never have been born.

The idea of ‘affordability’ of children may make sense if your sense of your future includes being a homeowner, having a stable job, being able to afford a pension etc. It’s a nonsense if you spend your time in a revolving door from one low-paid job to another, or odd jobs between extended bouts of unemployment, if you don’t imagine you’ll ever live in a house, let alone own one. 

The Parenting Obstacle Course.

Parenting is full of joy, but it is also made up of tasks as thankless as sockpairing but a good deal harder and more time-consuming. I am blessed with a partner in work, a good job myself and good physical and mental health. And still, when I listed, this morning, the 18 additional things that need doing for and with our children in the coming week, on top of the usual shopping feeding, watering, washing, dressing, packed lunches, homework etc. it looked like a mountain of work. For some people I know with long term health problems sorting the laundry may be all they are physically capable of doing in a day. And that’s on a good day. These families are surviving with so few resources, so little help, such little respect granted to them from those of us who have so much. We should admire their ingenuity, their courage, their stoicism. We should be championing their rights, their dignity, their entitlement – yes, entitlement – to financial and practical support, instead of calling them names and scapegoating them because politicians, economists and bankers took a gamble that failed. or because we’ve internalised a set of Victorian values about the deserving and undeserving poor.

One great analysis of how families in poverty survive, why they live as they do, and the relentless logic that propels and compels their ingenious (if disapproved of by politicians) solutions is the SILK report ‘Just Coping’ (from the Social Innovation Lab for Kent):

It’s 114 pages long, but deserves reading every bit as much as Poor Kids deserved viewing. Put aside your sockpairing and other chores for today and have a look. It will be more interesting and more useful than most other things you could think of to do.

Changing the world, a child at a time.

Something else that moved me this week was this blog from @HeardInLondon “Some things bereavement has taught me“:

I was reading it sitting next to two of my children, and was really struck by the notion of them as ‘Gene Ambassadors’. As HeardInLondon realised with great honour that she is her mother’s representative here now, I realised, with great pride, that these children would one day be my ‘Gene Ambassadors’ in this world.

I am someone who likes to think I’ll change the world one day. I realised with surprise that by bringing these children into it, I already have done. I wouldn’t deny that pride, that joy, that honour, to any other human being, just because they have less cold, hard cash than I do.

Changing the world, for all our children.

There are great children’s charities out there, and I wouldn’t pick a fight with anyone who watched Poor Kids and thought they should give more to a children’s charity. But understand that charity is not the answer. Too many people vote for parties and policies that entrench inequality and social disadvantage; too many people vote against sensible and compassionate policies that would lift children out of poverty through supporting their families. Too many people vote in their own self-interest alone, believing the lies and the scapegoating of others, and then, when confronted with what that means for vulnerable children – who have no vote, remember – drop a few extra pounds into a charity box and think that covers it. 

Next time you’re told a lie about the fecklessness of poor families that have more children than they can afford, remember which newspaper and which party told you that lie. And don’t buy that paper, or vote for that party next time.

Together we can change the world for all our children.  



6 thoughts on “The Sock Blog (or why Cameron should STFU about #PoorKids)

  1. Let’s not forget that there is a problem with a benefits trap, that minimum wage is so low, and associated travel costs, child care costs, etc are high, that it can mean that work does not pay. So reform is needed. But the problem is that the government benches are filled with people who believe that people *choose* not to work. Well, I wonder if they know what it is like to live off benefits? Could they do it? (I remember, years ago, that Michael Portillo had his Road to Damascus moment after living with a benefit claimant for a week as part of some TV programme he was making.) Cutting benefits is not a solution. And, of course, without hundreds of thousands of new jobs created, how can people get off benefits?Thanks for the link to the SILK report. I will try and give it some time. Your points about charities is important. It is a very American attitude that *you* decide what social programmes are supported by donating to charity. There’s a very strong American attitude that the government should not decide. Under this government, we are moving in that direction. The problem, of course, is that some charities are more popular than others. Breast cancer charities get lots of money, bowel cancer charities much less. Should the public’s attitude that breasts are more important than bowels be a basis for how much research is carried out on these conditions? Charities that support children do well, but what about alcoholics, drug users, the homeless? How big is our society; is it big enough to include *everyone*? This is why I think that tax-funded social programmes are much fairer. As to sock pairing, well, my 19 year old daughter has always worn odd socks. We have even had comments about it at parents’ evening, but to be frank, school is about education, not about your ability to pair socks. (I take your point about different sizes. But at the moment in our family we have a spread of foot size, so pairing by size is easy. My partner and our daughter have similar sized feet, but they don’t care if they swap socks.) The elastic trick was very useful when my daughter was a toddler. Even now, she would forget her head if it was not attached tightly. But does that matter? Of course not. It’s what’s in her head that counts.

  2. Hello,I’m from SILK and just wanted to say thanks for directing people to the Just Coping report, and would encourage people to forget sock pairing for a day to give it a read! If anyone would like a hard copy I will happily send, just get in touch Just Coping was a project we undertook in 2008 where ethnographers lived with ‘just coping’ families to see the day-to-day challenges they faced. Following on from Just Coping we have kept in touch with some of the families and have recently finished a report on a project where we have worked alongside and supported the families to set up a community shop called R Shop. The report is available here: are continuing to work with the community to co-produce a timebank, where people exchange skills and volunteer time in exchange for time credits. We see a timebank as a model where people recognise they are assets and see relationships as valuable, where the emphasis is on equality and reciprocity where the community can do things for themselves.If anyone would like to know anymore about our work just get in touch,Demetria

  3. Thank you for the comment Demetria. I thought the original report was a real eye-opener and I keep returning to it in my work. It’s great to get information about an updated report and the further work you are doing.

  4. When a person comes from money, as both Mr and Mrs Cameron do, the affordability of children is unlikely to ever have been an issue – there has never been the need for financial struggle. The where-with-all has always been there, sitting in the bank, accumulating healthy interest and, consequently, never being significantly diminished by childcare costs or the need to buy several pairs of school shoes on the same day.Bizarrely, it feels slightly wrong to say that, because I do not resent the fact that the Cameron’s financial situation is considerably less precarious than mine. They didn’t choose to be born into money – they just were, as indeed were many others. Until recently, I knew many people like them – comfortably-off families, private schools, big houses, several cars… Most of them probably vote Tory. Undoubtedly, most of them will agree with Cameron’s sound-bite on affordability. To them, it is obvious – if you can’t provide for your children, then maybe you should think twice before having them.Which is, in itself, all well and good. It could be argued that, if a couple are barely keeping the wolf from the door, then perhaps it would be a responsible choice to not have a child until such a time as they are in a financially more stable situation. Feeling generous for a moment, I can imagine that this is perhaps what the PM was trying to suggest – it may be that the reporting, and the subsequent editing, of the article combined to make it sound much more callous than was originally intended.Callously meant or not, there are two problems with it, however.The first is that it speaks to a fundamental failure to understand the very real nature of financial struggle in a family situation. And why should Mr Cameron understand it? The struggle has never been a part of his existence – it is something which, he has been told, other people are going through and, as PM, he is expected to make pronouncements about it – but the very concept of it is completely alien to his entire experience – both as a child brought up in a wealthy family, and as a parent in a very comfortable situation.The second problem is that it fails to address a more urgent problem. Those of us currently struggling financially can decide not to have any further children, but we still need to provide for the ones we already have – children who, if over the age of three, were probably born before the recession took effect and, therefore, born at a time when many of us were NOT struggling. Put simply, Cameron is not allowing for unexpected changes in circumstances caused by governments and institutions, decisions made by organisations beyond our control – it fails to account for the fact that, in life, stuff happens and sometimes, you just have to go with it.Strangely, I find myself repeating the same pattern as my parents. In the North East in the early 80’s, having two working parents who owned their own house, had a car and a colour tv was the very definition of "being posh". My parents believed that if you want things, you have to work for them. Under the previous (most recent) Tory government, they were both made redundant in the same year; they didn’t claim benefits – they used their redundancy monies to set up their own business and worked even harder for much less financial reward. When they lost the business (and the house) during the "boom & bust", we lived with my grandparents in a council house and my dad took a job driving a taxi until we got back on our feet and things eventually improved.My husband and I waited until we could afford it to buy our first house, get married and to have our daughter. We were comfortably-off, both working; my job came with a large flat on-site (I worked in an Independent School) and a school place for our daughter – our main outgoing was my husband’s train fare to work. We thought we might be set, if not for life, then at least till she reached 18. Two years ago, my redundancy brought with it not only the halving of our household income, but also the need to move house and find another school for my daughter. My husband, who was brought up in a very comfortable middle-class household, found it much more horrific than I did – sudden and drastic alterations in circumstances were never part of his life experience. I, on the other hand, consider us to be lucky – we are healthy, happy and educated, possessing a large variety of skills, and we have one decent wage coming in. I freelance when I can get the work, and persuade everyone that things will work out for the best; my husband does his quietly heroic thing of carrying on and working hard – because we don’t know how to do anything other than work hard, hope things will improve, and believe in serendipity.Things happen – like redundancy and homelessness. They can’t always be planned for and they will not be solved by name-calling and blame. They are the result of bad decisions made by governments and organisations, with little thought as to the effect they will have on real people. They are not the result of having too many children. To suggest that such things are, in some way, the fault of the very people they affect most, is divisive, damaging and fundamentally wrong.

  5. I’ve had this open for ages waiting for the time to read it, and I’m really glad I did. I particularly like the idea of children as some sort of ambassadors to the future. Making the world a better place was definitely a big part of my decision both to have children and to train as a teacher – I often have a lot more faith in the next generation than I do in my own, although blogs as thoughtful as this one do a powerful job of persuading me that there’s hope for us yet!

  6. Hey, Mandared, thanks for the lovely comments. I was away for a few days and my feet have hardly touched the ground since I got back, so I haven’t looked at the blog, or I’d have said thank you before. HeardinLondon’s blog certainly made me stop and look at my brood again and remember what we’re doing it for.

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