One of the biggest problems with poverty in our country is that the majority of people have never suffered from it. People read about it, sometimes sympathise with it, sometimes dismiss it because in their world poverty doesn’t exist. The facts are frequently distorted by the populist media, which caricatures poor people as feckless scroungers who waste the generous benefits they are given by an over-generous government which rewards those who choose not to work for a living. Of course, there are those who abuse the system – I should know: I spent my entire career working in the field of benefits – but it is the blackest of black lies to suggest the lazy, feckless and fraudulent are in the majority.
The facts, as supplied by the Joseph Rowntree foundation are as follows:
- Child poverty in Britain has been on the rise since 2011/12 as David Cameron’s Conservative government in which some Lib Dems had jobs imposed austerity which impacted mostly on the poorest people in society.
- 4.1 million children are now in poverty, an increase of 500,000 in the last five years.
- 4 million workers are now in poverty, an increase of 500,000 in the last five years.
- In work poverty is increasing faster than employment, with working parents suffering the most.
I would like to ask one simple question: do we really care?
I know what it is like to be poor. I know what it is like living in a home where my mother had to choose between eating and heating. We had no food stored in cupboards or anywhere else. What we ate that day was what my mother was able to afford just as the shops we closing and just before the offcuts of meat and the remaining vegetables were put into bins. Because of my mother’s heroic efforts, I never realised we were different from everyone else we knew. It was only later in her life that she told me the desperate, upsetting stories.
My paternal grandparents lived in a small terraced house with no bathroom and an outside toilet. Their only form of heating was an old coal fire in the backroom. They washed in a tin bowl/bath in the kitchen. I never thought it odd until I went to their neighbours’ houses at Christmas. But it still didn’t register how poor we all were.
Without making direct comparisons, I have seen enough during my life to convince me that nothing much has changed. I am immeasurably in a better position, living in a modest house with mod cons such as heating and a fridge and I swear that every day I thank my lucky stars, whatever that means (nothing, obviously). Through work, I discovered a world where there were many, many people living lives that looked like mine as a child and in many instances far worse. So, why is there so much poverty in our green and not always pleasant land?
If I knew the definitive answer, I would not be an unsuccessful blogger. However, we know it’s a combination of:
- Education and the lack of it
- A society in which it matters more who you know than what you know
- Low wages
- A broken housing market
And on and on. And on and on because we have chosen, as a society, to allow these things to happen. We elect politicians and vote for political parties who maintain the status quo. We do so, quite often, because we are all right (Jack) and when we close our doors when we get home from work, we close our minds, too.
The costs of poverty rest not just with who suffer from it. Society pays the price for the choices we, through the politicians we elect, make. And the price of inequality is a big one when you merely deal with the outcome rather than the symptoms and causes.
I have accompanied people to food banks, have got to know people who choose when to heat and when to eat, have seen their lives destroyed and even ended by drug use, have resorted to crime to alleviate their poverty and/or to pay for drug habits. And let’s not even start on the costs of poor mental health.
The actual numbers shame our nation but meanwhile the media in general and the BBC in particular focuses relentless on anything but poverty.
“I’m not poor, my family isn’t poor and my neighbours aren’t poor” is not a convincing counter-argument to the rise in poverty, nor is it sufficient to blame the poor for being so poor. It’s out there all right, away from the twee middle classes dining out on Prosecco and haute cuisine and bubbling away in their hot tubs. It’s a class war, but not as we know it, because we now have a significant ‘underclass’, who are usually in work.
Visiting a food bank for the first time was a chastening experience. If you deny the existence of poverty, even mass poverty, then visit one, even volunteer to serve in one. I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.