Tag Archives: poor

What does poverty look like?

You can’t see it, not reliably. Not if you don’t know what to look for. Many working people are in poverty. Many young people trapped in expensive renting situations and unable to get mortgages, are struggling with poverty. For many, it’s not where you end up all the time, just something you fall into the month there’s an unexpected bill or a setback. A person can have a good coat and not be able to afford to eat this week.

Our stories about poverty are often othering. They’re about people who are not like us, who live in almost Victorian conditions that they have brought upon themselves – it’s a mad sort of story, but there we are. People horrified by refugees and homeless folk with mobile phones, because they don’t fit the story. People oblivious to the folk around them who are marginalised, because when you sound educated, you don’t fit the poverty story.

We need to be kinder to each other. If we put down our assumptions about how poor people look, dress, and spend their time, we might more readily see what’s around us.


What you do for the least among you

I went to a Church of England primary school many years ago. There were a lot of assemblies about Christian values and how we should help others. Child-me used to wonder how you could tell whether you were the person who should be doing the helping, or the person who should be helped. Weirdly, no one really got into that. The reality is that proportionally, poor people give a higher percentage of what they have to helping others and supporting charities.

All too often, it’s the poor, the sick and the needy rallying round to help the poor, the sick and the needy. It’s the depressed comforting the depressed, and the survivors looking after each other. It’s the disadvantaged having to speak up to get into the room, not being offered a place at the table. All the while those who have most, do least.

As a child who already knew they were not a Christian, I found the message of care persuasive. I could see why we might have an obligation to care for those worse off than ourselves. It’s a good message, regardless of who or what you believe in. And yet, we have so many people who pay lip service to Christianity who seem to have missed this fundamental message. People for whom poverty equates to sin and wealth to merit in the eyes of God. People who missed the bit about Jesus hanging out with the poor and the prostitutes.

I have huge respect for the Christians who express their faith by volunteering at food banks, getting out on the streets as night pastors, and all other such moves towards doing the needful things.

I think we need to talk more about who needs helping, and how, and why. Otherwise, that ‘help the needy’ can turn into ‘help the deserving poor’ which turns into ‘these poor people brought it upon themselves and don’t deserve help.’ These lines of thought fail to make the connections between trauma and substance abuse, between lack of opportunities and criminality. If we don’t talk about who to help, we don’t talk about systematic poverty. The wealth of your parents remains the best indicator of your own wealth, or lack thereof, in life. The system is rigged.

In the UK, Christianity still dominates our culture and values. If that was the Jesus-centric love thy neighbour sort of Christianity, we’d be fine, but it’s not. There’s a habit that certainly goes back to the Victorians of requiring the deserving poor to be meek and humble. You should be deeply grateful for whatever crumbs you get. You should be sexually abstinent, sober, clean. Your rags should have been carefully washed and mended. You should look properly poor and downtrodden, but not in a way that could cause offence to your ‘betters’. You should not be angry with your lot, or resentful, or speaking out, or rebellious. This whole line of logic is still with us – every time a refugee or a homeless person is criticised for having a mobile phone. Every time poverty is blamed on drinking and/or smoking. Every time we talk about young mothers getting themselves pregnant. Every time someone decides that a human being in crisis does not deserve to be helped.

I don’t particularly care what deities, if any, you believe in. But I do care about your values. I care about the deeply flawed culture we’ve inherited. We need to change our stories.


Pauper arts

art gearThe twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.

Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.

The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.

The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.

What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.

If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.

In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.

What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.