There’s still a significant amount of people in this country who believe that poverty is the result of some personal moral failing. That, if only these wretches could find the resolve to dig themselves out of their self-created messes, everything would soon work out for them. It should be no surprise to anyone that these opinions are, almost exclusively, the preserve of people who have never experienced a single moment of hardship in their lives. Such fortune only reinforces their opinion, I work hard, they tell themselves. I work hard, I have money, and therefore hard work equals elimination of poverty.
I’ve got a pretty good idea what poverty feels like. It’s like a sack of coal upon your back that you are never allowed to set down. From the moment you wake to the moment you collapse at the end of the day, it’s slung over your shoulder. Nearly every single decision you make depends upon this weight. Few of these decisions involve anything but difficult choices. Do I put a fiver on the gas meter before I runs out or do I hope it isn’t too cold this evening and buy something decent for tea? Do I get the bus to work or do I pay my kid’s school dinner money? Do I get that toothache sorted at the dentist or do I get my daughter a birthday present? Every day is like this, every single fucking day. And that doesn’t take into account the continual justification you have to make for each of these decisions, to yourself, to your partner, to the woman on the working tax credits helpline, to the bank, to the bloke at the job centre.
Poverty is grim. It stops you from sleeping, it is the unwanted spice in every thankfully sourced meal you eat when the fiscal stars fail to shine your way. It's the hole in your shirt you hope your friends don't notice, the wet walk home when there's no money for a bus. It's the stolen loaf and the Christmas present you wanted to get for your son but couldn't quite afford. I know all of these things and a hundred more and I've got a fucking job right now.
Not the job I’d like, mind.
More than anything else poverty dampens expectations, smothers hopes and crushes dreams. Statistically speaking, if you’re born poor, you’re more than likely going to die poor. It doesn’t matter what talents you have, you’re not going to make it without a huge amount of good luck.
I was the first person in my family to go to university. Without consciously looking for them, I gravitated instinctively to the only other person there who’d been on free dinners. Maybe we recognised something in each other’s eyes or clothes. We were both skinny. Maybe that was it. Our accents were ours, not faked, not exaggerated. We didn’t feel the need to say we were working class. Nobody needed to ask.
Fast forward thirty years and we’re still best mates. Neither of us have made much of our lives. We don’t own our own homes, we cling on to jobs we hate because life has taught us the grass is never greener elsewhere. Speaking not that long ago my mate told me about a conversation he’d had at work with his boss.
“Have you seen I, Daniel Blake?”
“Seen it? I’ve bloody lived it.”
We had a good long laugh at that.
I lost a reasonably well paid job in 2006. I had only myself to blame, I’d launched into an online tirade against a boss who had pushed my buttons once too often. Thinking I’d find something quickly I hadn’t allowed for the first shoots of an economic recession and soon found myself signing on.
There are few second chances for the poor.
Unlike those with the right connections, we go to prison if we stab people. If we lie on our CV, we lose our jobs. We wouldn’t ever get a third or fourth chance.
Living with these pressures day in day out can be difficult. I find it hard and I work full time. Lord knows what it’s like now to be unemployed. In the last five years I’ve been made homeless twice through no fault of my own. I’ve been referred to foodbanks. I’ve suffered depression and anxiety issues. Just as I cling to my job for dear life, not wishing to rock the boat, so I cling to my council flat for the shelter and security it brings my family. It’s in a post-war council block of the kind built by this country in a kinder incarnation, when governments realised that social housing was a necessity rather than a frivolity. It sits a couple of hundred yards from the highest rated state school in the country. From my kitchen I can see the Bristol Channel and the hills of Somerset. It is a beautiful view and one that sooner or later, my local authority will realise it is also one with a high market value. I try not to think about that, though it keeps me up some nights.
I put things into perspective. My ancestors were miners, labourers and factory workers in the days before health and safety regulations. They fought in wars waged on their betters behalf and died in their beds of diseases we can now cure. I don’t have to walk ten miles to source water to drink and I won’t watch my children die of malnutrition.
It is with these perspectives in mind that I suspect Fraser Nelson says “Things have never been so good for the poor.” And even though that isn’t even remotely true, it will be heralded as the fact that justifies the cuts that are still to come.