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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK
The postcode trap

Steve Bradshaw
BBC Panorama reporter

How the postcode on your address can affect your opportunities and what it means for children like Kurt

Reporter Steeve Bradshaw with Kurt
What Future For Kurt?
Sunday 23 October 2005
22:15 BST, BBC One
He's a joy to interview. He runs with the question. You can hear the click as his brain engages.

"We may be poor but we can make it through the world," Kurt says intently.

"What's that mean, Kurt?"

"Well," he explains, "it means you die when you're supposed to die. Not like really poor people who die of hunger."

What is unusual is that Kurt is only seven. Although not that unusual; there are plenty of other bright, sassy kids on the Rowner estate in Gosport, Hampshire. Turn the camera on and you are asked by an older kid, "So are you here to do the anti-social behaviour film? That's the one they usually do round here."

In fact we are here to film what the government has called "postcode poverty" - the syndrome that may condemn kids like Kurt to a life of under-achievement, just because of where they are born. And it is not just the government - listen to Conservative leadership candidate David Davies, you'll hear a similar refrain.

Where you live affects how healthy you are, your school grades, your income - and, though I have never seen figures to prove it, probably your self-esteem.

The malign influences of growing up in the wrong neighbourhood can persist, recent work has suggested. A study published by National Statistics this autumn showed that "Social class of parents has a strong influence on children thirty years later."

And the Sutton Trust earlier this year suggested that Britain has recently been a less socially mobile country than most other Western nations they studied.

Of course there may be something circular in the notion of postcode poverty - happy shiny and successful people may well choose to live in the same areas, a kind of neighbourhood "assortative mating".

But what the figures do suggest is that your postcode is a significant determinant of your life chances. And whereas adults may sometimes be able to cut and run, for kids there is clearly no chance of doing so. Hence our decision to make a film based around a seven year old.

But what the figures do suggest is that your postcode is a significant determinant of your life chances
Steve Bradshaw
The government has declared it wants to end postcode poverty - to make sure nobody in Britain will be significantly disadvantaged by where they live. It even set a loose deadline of a decade or two - due to expire by the time Kurt is in his early twenties at the latest.

But stop there for a moment. People have been seriously disadvantaged in Britain because of where they live for, surely, forever. So can the goal of ending postcode poverty ever be realistic, let alone on this extraordinary and perhaps Quixotic timescale?

The government has - contrary to some headlines - slowed the rise of income inequality right down. Despite the overpayment shambles, tax credits have helped many low earners like Kurt's family. The minimum wage has helped some families too. Child poverty has been reduced, though the outlook is more uncertain than the record so far.

But being born under the wrong road sign is a different and perhaps even more intractable problem.

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute points out (after studying British postcode poverty) that the solutions may bring significant problems of their own. Giving individual kids more opportunity may just mean the brightest leave the neighbourhood, depriving it of their energy and talents.

While pumping money into more local schemes does not necessarily address the market issues that help cause poverty in the first place. And knocking whole neighbourhoods down could merely create a diaspora of the poor - or move violent "problem families" into unwelcoming or even hostile communities.

Still Kurt's family are not violent, are hardworking, and Kurt's dad has stopped his old drug habit. There are many people on their estate in Rowner trying their best to make the existing community work. And all this is happening in prosperous Hampshire, with the particularly attractive village of Alverstoke right next door - only a postcode away. A solution must be possible - because kids like Kurt can do more than just make it through the world.

If they do not, we will all be poorer.

Panorama's "What Future For Kurt?" is broadcast on Sunday 23 October 2005 at 22:15BST on BBC One and online at bbc.co.uk/panorama where it will also be available on demand following transmission.

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