“They [the benefits tribunal] made me feel like a criminal, but I’ve done nothing wrong.” (Maria)
“My son felt humiliated in public by the lack of respect shown him by the jobcentre.” (Sally)
“My bank called time on my debts and we had to survive on crisp sandwiches. My wage doesn’t keep pace with prices. Most weeks I struggle to make ends meet.” (Margaret)
A new report released on 17th April tells the stories of 20 people across the UK who are struggling to make ends meet, to support their families and to retain their dignity and self-respect, in the face of grinding poverty and real hardship. Their experiences are a painful and timely reminder of the impact that poverty and inequality has on ordinary families in Britain, in 2015, made so much worse by the ‘skivers versus strivers’ rhetoric that demonises, blames and divides people. The report challenges these negative attitudes, relentlessly promoted by some politicians and parts of the media, and asks whether this is the sort of society we really want to be.
Our Lives is written by a group of women who have lived and worked for decades with people in poverty. We came together in response to an article about poverty during the 1940s, written last year, by Bob Holman, from the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow. In it, he drew attention to Our Towns, a report that was commissioned in 1943 to examine the causes of urban poverty, revealed as a result of the mass evacuation of children and their mothers from towns to rural areas during the Second World War. Bob was a war-time evacuee with his sister and mother and vividly remembers what it was like. He argued that we needed a similar report, today, exploring the impact that poverty has on people’s lives and on their aspirations for the future. He challenged us to write it – Our Lives is the result.
As Julia Unwin (Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) says in her foreword:
“This (report) gives a clear, unflinching account of the state of our nation, and does so in ways that illuminate, and humanise, the dry accounts of trend data. Taken together, [the stories] give a picture of life that is harsh, and difficult, perpetuating inequality, and reducing potential. Complexity threads through all the contributions. The complexity of lives bedevilled by poverty, facing constant jeopardy and requiring enormous skill and diligence just to survive. But it is also the complexity of the myriad systems built up over decades, originally designed to support and enable, but now too frequently presenting simply another layer of challenge.”
Bob launched the report on 17th April, in Newcastle, with the authors. He reflected on the lessons for all of us from the stories we have gathered:
The poor are not to blame – they are often grappling with complex issues, linked to lack of food and housing, disability, mental and physical health problems, low and insecure wages, that most people would find daunting.
Colin is 23. He was in care as a child, where he suffered abuse. He had no lasting relationships, turned to drug misuse, got a girl pregnant, and now lives in a tower block with no friends. After paying his bills, including money to support his child, he has £30 per week for everything. He is in debt. He has done work experience, mainly unpaid work. With little education, he has little chance of getting a job. Reading is hard for him and job forms a real problem. He hasn’t got a computer so can’t apply online. The system blames him but, in fact, the system has failed him.
Benefits are too low for a decent life style – existing and proposed cuts to the nation’s welfare bill leave people unable to care for their families, with no resources to deal with an emergency, an unexpected problem or expenditure that most of us take for granted.
One of the authors helps run a food bank. A mother had managed to feed her 3 children but couldn’t afford their school clothing. She felt she had to buy it, so they wouldn’t stick out as different, but had to approach the food bank for help.
Family life is getting harder – politicians talk about the importance of ‘family values’, but without enough money the strain on families is enormous.
A woman who tells her story has been a care worker for the elderly for 20 years. Her latest post is a zero-hour contract. She says: “The other Sunday I worked for six hours but only got paid for three, and this means I’m paid less than the minimum wage.” This is because she doesn’t get paid for time travelling between homes. Her husband works full time on a low wage. She continues: “At the end of most months our outgoings are now bigger than what is coming in.” And life is hard: “Planning my work around my kids is incredibly difficult. I want to be there for them but at the same time I can’t afford to turn down work when it is around.”
Poverty is seen as something to be punished – how we treat people in poverty today feels like a return to the Victorian workhouse. They are stigmatised and made to feel ashamed. Parents are fearful that their children will be removed from them. Staff, whose job is to help people, feel under increasing pressure to apply punitive rules.
Chris was on Job Seekers Allowance (getting £8.20 a day). He arrived 10 minutes late for an appointment — because of road works — and was told he should have phoned, but he couldn’t afford money for his phone. He lost his benefit for a month, as a sanction. The author who knew him well explained that he lives with and supports his mother who has chronic arthritis and has had hip replacement operations. The loss of his money meant they had to go to the food bank. These punishments are now common – over a million in Great Britain in 2013.
The authors of the report think it is time for people to take a stand. We want to use the stories to raise awareness and counter the myths about ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’, to highlight the struggles people face behind the dry government and academic statistics, and to challenge local and national politicians to say how they will give people in poverty a voice in shaping their proposals for change.
Tricia Zipfel, one of the authors, says:
“This report goes beyond election policy statements of promises or threats. Poverty affects us all – those who experience it and all who should be working to eradicate it. We hope that this report provokes indignation and inspires people to work for a better, fairer, kinder society – the sort of society we want to be.”
** Download the report here: http://www.ryantunnardbrown.com/publication/