Sunday, 5 December 2010

People do not choose poverty

I went to a conference in Manchester yesterday organised by the Church Action on Poverty. It was a worthy affair but as someone in work poverty I have a feeling that some people do not just get it. Take the assertion that poverty is more than just lack of money. Excuse me? Poverty is primarily about the lack of money. Lack of gelt, spondolies, brick, dosh whatever you want to call is central to the issue of poverty. For without money a person is excluded from the main functions of life. Life is always a series of choices, do I spend a fiver on the gas or do I use it to buy one or two provisions. But I was struck by the five words that one of the delegate uttered which should be seared on the brain of every legislator that wishes to tackle the issue of poverty who think that being poor is a deliberate act. "People do not choose poverty"

Some years ago I wrote a piece based on an essay that the 19th century writer William Hazlitt wrote called on the Want of Money. I have now updated it because my particular circumstances have not changed since I originally wrote it in March 2007.

Hazlitt wrote

It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport - you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniencesHazlitt’s image of being in a foreign country is exactly right and probably magnified nearly 200 years on. Hazlitt could not have imagined the consumerist society where your social status is determined by the latest fashion you wear or the last gizmo you have acquired. I was thinking of this during a conversation I had at a Party I was invited to when one of the middle class guests made a presumptive comment about everyone being able to access the Internet; I believe that they are 13 million Britons who do not. I suspect the majority of them will be on low incomes. He was also correct about the being made to look ridiculous comment as well. A few months ago I saw a young man pay in copper at the checkout of the Coop in Picton St in Leek. He paid in the coin of the realm but it was a protracted affair. After he left he was subject to mockery by the women in the queue as well as the shop assistant.

The intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap, this unwelcome interval constantly recurring, however shabbily got over, is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description. I may attempt (this Essay is not a fanciful speculation) to enlarge upon a few of them.

I fall into the category of working poor. There are many of us in Britain today. Research published recently by IPPR points to more than 6 million people- over a fifth of all employees were paid less than £6.67 an hour in April 2009, this is the equivalent of £12,000 a year for 35 hour working week.

What a luxury, what a God's-send in such a dilemma, to find a half-crown which has slipped through a hole in the lining of your waistcoat, a crumpled bank-note in your breeches-pocket
Again, I know what Hazlitt means here. I found a five pound note in a coat pocket the other day. It made my day! Not as good a day as finding a tenner on the floor of Gents in a craft centre on the Wirral a few years ago or another blowing down a street in Leek.. I am of the opinion that the divide that Disraeli, writing about 20 years after Hazlitt, illustrated in the novel Sybil, of two nations the rich and the poor is as palpable today and is widening. However he made be wrong in one regard, now there exists as wide a gulf between the poor white population and the poor ethnic minority population, there may be present more than two nations. The paradox is that there is a school of thought articulated by the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party John Prescott "that we are middle class now".

It is among the miseries of the want of money, not to be able to pay your reckoning at an inn - or, if you have just enough to do that, to have nothing left for the waiter; - to be stopped at a turnpike gate, and forced to turn back.
I had to go to the Dentist earlier in the year. It was a NHS dentist but the bill came to £46. I had nothing in my account. I mumbled an apology to the Polish receptionist and presented her with a post-dated cheque. The real misery of being in want of money is not doing the things I enjoyed in the past

I like going to the Theatre. I have not managed it this year. I love orchestral music but the only concert that I have seen was a free concert that the RLPO gave in September. I have been to two Stoke City matches only because a friend could not use his season ticket. The holiday I have are usually down to a relative financing them.

And when things they are very difficult to replace. When the washing machine broke down and I do not have the resources to fix it although it is compensated by the regular trip down to the laundrette and it can be a lively social gathering down there. I had a chat with an old codger about watching the antics of the Sunderland footballer Len Shackelton at Old Trafford at a memorable post war match. It is probably sounder as far as the environment is concerned as well.

Oh! it is wretched to have to confront a just and oft-repeated demand, and to be without the means to satisfy it; to deceive the confidence that has been placed in you; to forfeit your credit; to be placed at the power of another, to be indebted to his lenity; to stand convicted of having played the knave or the fool; and to have no way left to escape contempt but by incurring pity.
The greatest bugbear of my own position is to feel under siege and to live in a perpetual state of apprehension that the phone call or the knock at the door will be a bailiff or a collector. I have stopped answering the phone. I dial 1471 after it had rang to discover whether it is a debt collector’s number. Sometimes I answer the phone and politely inform the person that I am absolutely skint and that I am seeing the local CAB and it is all in their hands.

God bless the CAB and damn the eyes of the local District Council who want to resort to the use of bailiffs at the earliest opportunity. I have never met them as all negotiations have been through the agency of the advice bureau. I feel a sense of burning rage at the regressive nature of the Council Tax and if I had the nerve feel like burning down the offices of the Council Tax Collectors- a la Captain Swing rioters

To feel poverty is bad; but to feel it with the additional sense of our incapacity to shake it off, and that we have not merit enough to retrieve our circumstances - and, instead of being held up to admiration, are exposed to persecution and insult - it is the last stage of human infirmity.
Getting out of this situation dominates my waking hours. I work part time and earn £6.12 an hour working flexible hours and try to eke out a living by writing the occasional article on history for the local newspaper. It takes me 3 to 4 hours to write a 1500 word article, I get paid £70 I do some part time teaching and hopefully that might develop. I have a ghost walk in Leek which is sporadic. I apply for other jobs. I am in my 50s and lose out each time to younger people. I went for an interview where there was one other candidate and lost out. I am always told that my interview technique is excellent, which is extremely galling. It cost me £50 to catch the train down to Oxfordshire to chase up a potential franchise with a company of biography writers. They treated me to a meal in a country pub but nothing was gained. I apply for grants for start up companies for the over 50s to be informed that they have run out of money. Fortunately by inclination I am a stoic and I battle on.

I am not the only one and I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a local café who is in the same predicament. Winning a tenner on the Lottery was the cause of celebration in her house the other week.

To be in want of it, is to pass through life with little credit or pleasure; it is to live out of the world, or to be despised if you come into it; it is not to be sent for to court, or asked out to dinner, or noticed in the street; it is not to have your opinion consulted or else rejected with contempt, to have your acquirements carped at and doubted, your good things disparaged, and at last to lose the wit and the spirit to say them; it is to be scrutinized by strangers, and neglected by friends; it is to be a thrall to circumstances, an exile in one's own country.
Hazlitt is as true now as when he penned the essay in 1827. The poor are generally despised and mocked in Britain today. How else can you account for the success of Little Britain an opportunity for two public school types’ two rich kids to make themselves rich by mocking the poor and the vulnerable? The saddest thing is that the poor often join in the laughter that is so purposely directed at them. I say that we need to fight back and at the centre of any campaign is to address the low pay culture of the area. We need to work , for example, for a Living Wage. As I see it the problem is not too high benefits it is low wages that have bedevilled North Staffordshire.