A serious Thursday blog for once, and not one from the recycling bin / filing cabinet… I wrote this a few months ago for a local charity’s newsletter, but they wanted something with a bit more of the feel good factor! I meant to post it then but forgot, until I stumbled over it while looking for something else. As you do…
It’s easy when thinking about the massive growth in food bank charities over the past couple of years to get bogged down in the politics involved and the inequality of the austerity measures that are driving that growth. On the one hand it is good and necessary to consider those aspects of poverty, but on the other doing so can distance the policies from the victims by representing them as statistics rather than as disenfranchised human beings.
In a war zone terms like collateral damage are used, but it seems wholly inappropriate to think of the casualties of poverty and unemployment in 21st Century Britain in that way because there is no war (other than the socio-economic one into which they’ve been press-ganged as canon-fodder) and because they are innocent of any crime and represent no threat. They are simply people who cannot find gainful employment offering a decent living wage in a society where jobs are scarce (in many areas pretty much non-existent) and where ‘top-up’ benefits being accessed by huge numbers of poorly paid workers fail to lift earnings above the poverty line. There are, of course, many other factors to be considered – homelessness, disability, age etc – that make that struggle to find work (or access benefits) even harder, but in real terms, and though the hardships involved may be exacerbated, these are just variations on the same theme.
The impoverished and unemployed, then, are not statistics, but real people like you and me, who, for whatever reason, find themselves struggling on a daily basis with levels of poverty and deprivation that seem unconscionable when viewed in relation to the overall wealth of our society and the earning potential of the fortunate few.
Many years ago, when working in the care industry, I participated in an exercise that tried to put the experience of many disabled people living in residential care into context. I and others attending the conference were asked by the speaker to make lists of our top ten ‘favourite’ things, listing everything we considered important for our psychological and emotional wellbeing. The lists included obvious things like friendships and family, but also encompassed personal pleasures like music, art or sport as well as personal property and possessions. We were then asked to choose one item to strike out, and to imagine never again having access to that particular favourite thing. Many in the group found making that choice difficult. It took them quite a while to choose what they could manage to live without.
After making our choices several members of the group were asked to talk about the items they had erased and to describe the impact it would have on them if that loss occurred in real life. For some, that proved quite emotional.
Then the speaker asked us to choose a second item and cross that off our lists…
The exercise lasted around 90 minutes, with each loss and the impact of that loss explored and discussed at every stage. By the time we got to the ‘top five’ and people were losing their homes, their families, their friends etc many were really struggling. I recall two people at least leaving the room in tears.
It is no exaggeration to say that experience of loss at that level is a reality for many disabled and elderly people who find themselves living in residential care, and it is also no exaggeration to say that there is often a diminishment of personal liberty and self-determination that deepens and intensifies that sense of loss. Cutbacks in social welfare funding, both nationally and at local authority levels, can only make that situation worse.
If we look at the effects of poverty and long-term unemployment in the wider community the similarities are self-evident; over time every positive aspect of the lives of those living on the breadline will be eroded, along with the few opportunities they might have to escape the poverty trap that has closed around them. Additionally, while it might appear on the surface that those in the wider community would have more personal freedom and autonomy, does the fact that they can move (relatively) freely mean anything if they have nowhere to go, very little to do, and lack the financial means to do it? If freedom can be defined as a ‘lack of restraint’ is the barrier of financial poverty any less restrictive in real terms than the barrier of social isolation, or are they two sides of the same coin?
While hard for some to imagine, poverty can hit almost anyone. Redundancy at work, ill health of self or other family members, bereavement, bad business investments – there are numerous life-events that could turn the fortunes of any one of us upside down. In such circumstances people can and do lose their homes, their savings, their opportunities and aspirations, and, if the implications of the life-events are long-term, possibly even their friends, families and loved ones too as relationships they’ve previously relied upon crumble under the pressure. Individuals or whole families could find themselves very quickly (and surprisingly easily) reduced to levels of poverty they had never previously imagined possible in the UK, trying to eke out benefits that don’t even come close to covering the physical essentials (clothes, heat, food…), let alone the personal items which have – in a society that is increasingly judgemental about what people own, what they buy and where they buy it – become intrinsically linked with self-identity and personal esteem. Struggling to come to terms with such dramatic life changes isn’t simply a process of readjustment; there are very real issues of grief and loss attached to such upheavals.
Prejudice surrounding poverty is rife in the UK today, offering those who have plenty limitless opportunities to make value judgements and pour scorn on those who do not. Gainsaying arguments about mobile phones and colour televisions are used to justify levels of demonization and hatred that would be unacceptable if levelled at other sectors of the community, with those spouting such bile never stopping for a moment to consider the implications of the spiritual, social and psychological poverty that underpins all aspects of life on the breadline. Whether talking about the successful business-person who has been broadsided by life events or a third generation benefits claimant living on a sink estate in an unemployment black-spot, is it really so difficult for some to imagine how, in this society that places so much emphasis on possessions, ownership of a ‘good’ TV might become a priority for those who have nothing else to feel proud, or happy, or hopeful about? And is it in any way reasonable to begrudge them that?
Food banks in 2013 are a necessary evil and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It is equally likely that, save some colossal global disaster even worse than the financial one we are currently undergoing, we will never see full employment – or anything coming close to it – again. Those are the political realities we are living through. How we respond to those realities as a society is still up for grabs, but if we (you, I, the people of the UK…) want to change things then we have to acknowledge the human cost (rather than the statistical cost) of poverty and stop seeing benefit claimants as non-people and ‘scroungers’ and ‘wasters’. After that, all we have to do is convince our political leaders to do the same, and the rest, if compassion, decency and empathy have any real role in the 21st century, will take care of itself.
Poverty is a political issue; prejudice, intolerance and greed are matters of individual conscience. The fact that you are reading this [charity name removed] newsletter suggests you already know which side of the fence you feel most comfortable on. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your support.