You’ll Never Live Like Common People
The following piece was first published in the New Statesman on 6 March 2013
I get extremely annoyed at governments pontificating on how poor people can help themselves. “Tough Love” involves two concepts; moving from a place of understanding and compassion while setting realistic boundaries. It does not come from a cold hard place of judgement and superiority. Politicians appear to get off on “tough”, while ignoring the “love” aspect. Practically every sentence uttered on the subject betrays a total lack of understanding, based as it is on the assumption that all one needs to escape the poverty trap is a get-up-and-go attitude.
Contrast measures such as the 45p top rate of tax with the demise of tax credits, the capping of benefits with the refusal to cap grotesque bonuses, the imposition of a bedroom tax with the refusal to consider a mansion tax, and a pattern of medieval disconnect between the ruling class and the reality of peoples’ lives emerges.
I was homeless from January 2009 to April 2010. Through a combination of circumstances – a landlord not returning a deposit, a spell of illness, a bad break-up, a change of job – I ended up destitute. I couldn’t claim benefits, as I was working. I was turned down for help with housing as I lacked a “sufficient local connection”. I slept in a smelly sleeping bag in a rat-infested cupboard of the office in which I worked.
I had always espoused socialist sensibilities. I had always been sympathetic to those less fortunate than me. But the basic economic concept of Scarcity was academic construct rather than unforgiving reality. The fact is that I had never truly understood poverty until that January day. I thought it was having little in the fridge or raiding the jar for coppers at the end of the month or not being able to afford basic things for your home. Then I experienced having no fridge, no jar, no home, nothing.
The overwhelming shame and self-recrimination that went with my feelings of failure, meant that most of my friends were unaware of my situation. The few to whom I did reveal it, would invite me round to see me, but really to feed me. I would appear at their door without a bottle of wine; their birthday parties with no card. Soon we settled into a silently negotiated truce of avoiding each other.
Being poor is very expensive; it sucks you underwater and holds you there. Working in central London means you have the non-choice of crippling travel costs or overpriced bedsits. Small local shops are more expensive than big drive-to supermarkets. Electricity and gas meters are dearer than direct debits. Payday loans attract interest a hundred times higher than personal bank loans. Six bad pairs of shoes that fall apart after a month cost twice as much as one good pair that will last for years.
During my homelessness, I showered at the public facilities in King’s Cross station at £3.50 (later rising to £5) a pop. I saved 20p coins all week and took my clothes to an expensive launderette on a Sunday. I estimate I spent around £2,000 on such basic hygiene during that time; much more than I needed for a deposit and first month’s rent. But I had no choice. I couldn’t afford for work to catch on. I woke up at six every morning, went out through a side alley, showered, shaved, dressed and came back pretending to “open up” for people waiting outside the building. Dissembling was my full time job; being ashamed my hobby.
I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.
Whenever the “poshboy” or “cabinet of millionaires” charge is levelled at the government, voices rise in defence; even intelligent voices: this is unfair, it’s class war, ad hominem, their background does not invalidate their views. They miss a fundamental point. An individual view on solutions to any particular problem is not invalidated by the bearer’s background. However, lack of understanding of the problem can render it ill-informed. It is not a war on accountants to say that they are not the best placed group to make medical decisions. If homogeneity of background means that a group collectively lacks experience in a particular matter, then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is not the right caucus for solving the problem.
Talking of a difficult period in her life, a friend recently said: “Things wear out and you can’t afford to replace them. You wear out and there is nothing to replace.” Poverty is another country. It exists like an alternate reality in parallel with the rest of society. With time, humility and openness, empathy may develop. But let us not kid ourselves – an MP can visit poor estates from a position of comfortable plenty; all the visits in the world cannot replicate the experience of living in such hopelessness. He is merely a rich tourist on a depressing safari in a queer land.
The poor are no longer content to die romantically of tuberculosis, while the kindly rich visit to offer broth and advice on thrift. Their lives cannot continue to be reduced to Jane Austen novelettes. If the government is serious about solving the problem, they must be listened to and understood.