“Narratives from people who have experienced poverty first-hand are crucial.”
Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland, talking to Project Twist-It
“For the first time that any of us can remember, the safety net is not now the Welfare State but charity – and the lifeline for families in need is not social security but foodbanks.”
Former UK Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, October 20181
The incident at the dance competition is the first memory I can recall of when I felt the sting of other people’s pity and when I think I realised, on a visceral level, that being from a poor background came (though I certainly hadn’t heard of the concept yet) with a stigma attached to it. Being poor or ‘on welfare’ was a source of shame.
Over the years there would be many other incidents that sharpened my understanding of the intersection of poverty, pity and shame. Like realising our first home, the one I lived in until we were re-housed when I was seven into new, public housing, was nothing short of a slum. Our first house had just two tiny bedrooms for eight people, and was perpetually damp. Rats were so commonplace they may as well have been members of the family. (A shovel was kept handy in the living room for when one appeared.) There was no bathroom, indoor toilet or central heating and the kitchen was a makeshift scullery with a plastic corrugated roof. Having a fridge or washing machine was unimaginable. My mum kept it immaculately clean and looking as nice as possible, but there’s only so much make-up you can put on a pig.
As I got a bit older and my dad became unemployed there was the realisation that claiming the ‘dole’ (unemployment benefits) as my father had to do for long periods of time, was a source of humiliation, even within a community where many people were in the same situation. And there was the knowledge that relying on state assistance to get by was not something that everyone had to face and was seen by some people as a sign of parental failure. There was the awareness too that while the food in our cupboards mostly met our daily needs (we had to borrow from neighbours when things got really tight) and that even though we had occasional treats (often paid for by going into debt with loan sharks), this was not how everyone lived.
West Belfast, which was also one of the main flashpoints during Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict1
in the 1970s and 1980s, was among the most deprived areas in the whole of Western Europe2
– but even if I had known this, I doubt it would have made my younger self feel any better about how much we had to struggle or how much shame there was at not being able to afford what others could.
I’d seen enough TV to know that there were people who were well off or rich. I knew my teachers were better off. I’d just never really been anywhere near a wealthier part of town and interacted with people who lived there. I’d never met anybody from that background in any intimate way. Like most poorer families – and this is true today in Britain and America3
– we lived our lives in the poorer parts of town. We didn’t have middle-class friends. But, when I first began to understand that we were looked down upon or pitied by many more financially fortunate people, the undercurrent of shame stayed with me for a long time. I wrote about the looks from the women at the dance competition in my childhood diary. Those looks, and how I was dressed compared to the other girls, stayed with me.
Anyone who has grown up poor will have similar stories to tell: those small or large experiences or encounters that force you to register that your family is not just lacking in material things (as hard as that may be), but that as a kid you are set apart from other children. Maybe it’s your first day at a new school when you look around and realise that the kids whose parents have jobs, or better-paid ones than yours do, have pocket money or nicer clothes. Maybe a teacher tells you that the best you can hope for in life is a minimum-wage job at a fast-food chain and not to set your sights too high. Perhaps it’s watching a parent struggle to make sure there’s enough food on the table or warmth in the room when you have a new friend round whose family don’t seem to have the same financial hardships.
Or maybe you don’t ever ask friends to come to your house because there’s nothing in the cupboard to offer them. It could be that you overheard a conversation where someone commented on how scruffy you and your siblings look or criticised your parents for failing to take ‘proper’ care of you. If you’re female, you may have experienced the humiliation and discomfort during adolescence of not being able to afford sanitary products and having to improvise while spending the day fretting that it might not work.
If you didn’t grow up in poverty, these sorts of indignities most likely will not have affected you, and you will be unaware of the enduring impact they can have on a young person. You might never have thought much about the reasons people end up trapped by poverty or the dearth of opportunities that keep them there. If you have never lived on the breadline, it’s probably difficult to grasp, for example, that for many people, no matter how hard they work at their minimum-wage precarious job/s, they just never have enough to make the rent, eat nutritious food every day, or buy a much-needed new pair of shoes for their kids or a warm winter coat. You might not have thought about what it feels like to have no choice but to swallow your pride and go to a foodbank to stock up on essentials because you don’t qualify for state assistance – or what you do qualify for falls far short of what you actually need to survive and help you get back on your feet. Yet, every single day, people all over the US and the UK live with the gross injustice that is being poor and with the humiliation of being blamed for circumstances beyond their control.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t.
As someone who directly benefited from the structural redistribution in the UK that followed the Second World War including the founding of the Welfare State, affordable council housing, the National Health Service and free school meals, I know that where there is a will, we can provide a springboard to better things for the poorest among us. A fairer, more equitable society where we don’t blame and shame the poor is not beyond the reach of wealthy nations like Britain and America. It’s an honourable, gettable goal.
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
“When I look at the world today, the first thing that enters my head is that I’ve seen all this before. There is no safety for any of us unless we form a society whereby we respect each other. A government should be for the majority of the people, not for the already endowed.”
Harry Leslie Smith, author and anti-poverty advocate, talking to Project Twist-It
The poverty trap: struggling to get by in contemporary Britain
It’s November 2018. Perhaps the most important mid-term elections in a generation have just taken place in the US in one of the most divisive periods in recent history. In the UK, there is chaos as the deadline for a deal to exit the European Union nears, with that country also riven by profound socio-political fissures. But, in the UK, there is one political story that is somehow managing to break through the thicket of wall-to-wall Brexit coverage to muster some significant headlines.1
Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston,2
has just submitted a scathing preliminary report3
on the disastrous impact4
of almost a decade of austerity in the UK on the poorest and most vulnerable.5
Following a two-week fact-finding tour of the UK6
– where he listened carefully to the stories and experiences of people living in financial hardship and who had borne the brunt of the austerity regime introduced by the Coalition government and the gutting of the country’s safety net – law professor Alston, with a track record for holding power to account from Saudi Arabia to the UN itself,7
delivered an unequivocal rebuke of the politicians and policies responsible:
“The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice.”
In a statement almost tailor-made to put the politicians behind austerity and rising impoverishment on the defensive, he said there was a “complete disconnect” between the gover...