Tag Archives: poverty

Stay warm with a jumper?

As the UK faces electricity price hikes that will push many into fuel poverty, advice for staying warm abounds. Far too much of it is coming from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. The ‘just wear a jumper’ solution is a popular example of this. Without understanding how poverty impacts on people, we aren’t going to prepare well or help each other.

A jumper keeps warmth in, it doesn’t heat you. That works ok in cool temperatures, when you are moving around, or when your body can burn calories for warmth. Food prices are going up. If you can’t afford to heat or eat properly a jumper is of little use. The colder it gets, the less those extra layers can do to help you. In very cold conditions, the body distress over hours of being cold is immense. I’ve been there. People can and do die of hypothermia.

If you can’t afford heat, you are probably also going to struggle with the costs of doing laundry, which of course requires heating water. A jumper is a large item to wash. Even if you are really careful about trying to keep it clean, after a week or so of being worn all the time, a jumper will start to smell a bit cheesy, and then increasingly cheesy. If you think hand washing clothes in cold water is going to solve this, it isn’t. You don’t get clothes as clean in a cold wash, and this is punishing on your hands when your environment is cold. I have done it and I do not recommend it.

Then you have to get the jumper dry. Good luck doing that without using energy in a cold home that is already damp because that’s what happens in cold conditions. If you cannot dry your clothes fast enough they will rot – can you afford to replace them? If it takes 2 days to dry a jumper, it will smell like a wet dog. You might be able to hang it outside, but winter weather is notoriously bad at drying clothes.

The old ‘wear an extra jumper’ trick works much better with an open fire – which is something older people are more likely to have experienced. An open fire may not make your home super-warm, but it does tend to make for a drier home, and you can stick your laundry in front of it. I’ve done this too. It’s not optimal, but it is workable.

If you’re making fires and keeping them going and hand washing laundry then this of course is cheaper in terms of money. It’s expensive in terms of time. Back when this way of living was more normal, it was possible to run a home on one income. It’s not technically possible to fund a contemporary household through work while also doing as much domestic labour as an early twentieth century housewife. 

I’m all for re-skilling and using slower and less energy-intensive ways of doing things. But, you have to be set up for that. You certainly can’t do it alongside a host of other labour intensive things, and you can’t do it if you are ill or in pain. Wringing out a massive wet jumper by hand takes quite a lot of effort.

We need to resist these suggestions that the problem is people not trying hard enough and not being willing to put up with some discomfort. Cold, wet homes are a nightmare. Modern build isn’t designed for you to live how your great granny did. The extra jumper causes as many problems as it solves.

Poverty, food and transport

Something that is often overlooked when talking about how poverty leads to hunger, is the role transport plays in all of this. If you have a car and can afford to travel a few miles, you can access food that is better value for money. You can bring home those big bags of veg, the cheap tins of soup, the multi-buys and the other clever things that will help you stay on top of your food budget.

Buses are rare to nonexistent in many places, unreliable and they cost money. If you can use a bus, you are still limited with your shopping in terms of what you can carry in your hands and on your back. It makes it much harder to stock up or to take advantage of better prices on bigger packs.

If you walk or cycle to shop, then where you can go depends entirely on how far you can walk or cycle while carrying a load of shopping. Do you have decent waterproof gear? How good are your shoes? Do you even have time for a five mile round trip to the supermarket? Add in small children, or disability, or having to do multiple jobs and the pressure mounts considerably. This may mean you’re stuck with whatever is within a few minutes walk of your home, and the odds are that will be as limited as it is expensive. 

Being in poverty can be a lot more expensive than being affluent. The impact on your food choices, and the cost of your food if you can’t afford transport, can be huge. Being clever with your budget only becomes possible when you have access to enough resources.

What are the Druid issues here? Justice is the most obvious one, as I try to push back against the ways in which we blame people living in poverty for being poor. There’s also an issue of the connectedness of things – how we structure towns and cities, the assumptions about car use in where the resources are, and the implications of inadequate public transport. I think it’s important to flag up the way people who have to walk are often ignored and forgotten. 

The Cult of Jobs

In theory, jobs are the answer to poverty, and to the rising cost of living. ‘Get more work’ our government tells us here in the UK. We are encouraged to move into better paying jobs, work more jobs and work more hours. It’s preposterous when you stop and look at it. Time is finite. We do all have to sleep. No one should be asked to work all the hours there are so as to be able to afford food.

It is true that automation and the cunning use of computers will result in fewer jobs. Checkout work is a case in point here. I see people online talking about how we should not use self service checkouts because it will cost jobs. However, I’ve done checkout work and can vouch for it being low paid, tedious, that you get a lot of abuse from customers, and that hauling things over a bar code reader is not intrinsically rewarding. How much better the world would be if those of us who can did that work ourselves and we didn’t require so many people to do it for us.

We could use technology to get rid of boring, repetitive, soulless jobs. We could even stop with the nonsense that jobs and more work are the answer to poverty. It’s interesting to note that in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) exactly the same argument was being made by the bosses and politicians in the story and that the author was clearly not persuaded. More than a hundred years later, jobs have not saved people from hunger in the UK.

Jobs themselves are not a solution to poverty. More hours working equate to a lower quality of life. Paying people a living wage for the work they do would be a better place to start. We could afford to question our whole culture around work and working, because increasingly it makes no sense and leaves too many people disadvantaged. We can’t keep trying to grow our economies into more just arrangements – it’s not what capitalism does. We can’t afford the damage relentless growth causes and our planet just can’t take any more of it. Increasingly the Cult of Jobs looks like a death cult that urgently needs replacing.

Blaming the Poor

There’s nothing new about blaming the poor for poverty. To my knowledge, the same ideas have been doing the rounds in the UK for as long as anyone has been keeping notes on such things. It is (we are told) the fault of the poor for being lazy, careless, making bad decisions, drinking, smoking, having too many babies.

Somehow it is never the fault of the rich, who claim to be rich thanks to their own merits. The relationship between riches for some and destitution for others is something we have never talked about enough. Wealth is made by extracting profit. The choice to pay workers less, and charge them more is very much part of how capitalism works. Having the power to decide how much a person is worth, and how much they should be charged for essentials – food and shelter – is a decision that remains in the hands of the powerful. 

When there are more people than there are jobs, it is easier to keep wages down. Desperate people are more likely to accept appalling and dangerous work conditions. 

Lately I’ve seen the rich blaming the poor for food poverty on the basis that poor people don’t know how to cook. Never mind the cost of the resources you need to cook – a cooker, a fridge, utensils, saucepans… it’s no doubt also the fault of the poor for not knowing how to whittle their own spoons and make an oven out of clay. It is also, we’ve been told, the fault of the poor for not just getting better paying jobs in more lucrative careers. Yes, clearly that one’s on poor people too and I’m sure we can all see how we just need to try harder.

Making people responsible for things they have no power to change is a revolting thing to do. But then, admitting that hunger could be eased, that homelessness isn’t inevitable and that there is no moral virtue in working people to death would have all kinds of implications. The people with the power to make change are seldom inclined to give up their power for the sake of being nice to others, more’s the pity. 

Perhaps the biggest fight around all of this is convincing people that they should be better treated and that they do not deserve the ways in which they are made to suffer. The impact of blaming people for their own misery is that it makes it harder to push back and demand better. This is not an accident.

Talking about poverty

I’ve been in the room when people who were clearly comfortable talked about ‘the poor’ and it was invariably an uncomfortable situation for me. Conversations about ‘the poor’ tend to involve talking about poverty itself as though it is intrinsic to certain people; an unavoidable, natural state, to be bemoaned or to be pitied.

Some of us are economically disadvantaged. There’s no greater indicator for wealth than being born into an affluent family. Some of us are disadvantaged by poor health, neurodiversity, race, gender, sexual identity, learning difficulties, lack of opportunity, exploitation…

That some people live in poverty has a great deal to do with the choices made by everyone else. Poverty should not be considered as solely the responsibility of those who find themselves economically disadvantaged.

As this is an issue I write about a lot, I’m thinking at the moment about how to sharpen up my own language use. I need to change how I talk about being poor and the implications of poverty to make it more explicit that poverty is not something I think most people afflicted by should be held responsible for. I’m going to talk more about being economically disadvantaged, because I think that’s more useful.

For me, being on the bard path means a dedication to really thinking about language. I’m constantly trying to improve. I’m alert to the implications of how we use words and phrases and I’m constantly trying to do a better job of using words – to be more accurate, and to be more just.

Poverty is not sustainable

Living lightly, cheaply, sustainably and comfortably is easier to achieve in the UK if you aren’t poor. When you don’t have much money, there are a great many things you won’t do because they cost too much – which can reduce your carbon footprint compared to other people’s. But there are also a lot of things you can’t do to be more sustainable.

If you rent, you can’t insulate your home, or get solar panels. You can’t upgrade the windows to be more energy efficient, you may be stuck with inefficient heating systems and white goods with poor energy ratings. Making your home more efficient is not only a way to be more sustainable, it can save you money. A well insulated home doesn’t cost as much to heat.

Clothes made from natural fibers are usually better quality and longer lasting than synthetics. However, your budget might not stretch to them. If you live in an impoverished area, your nearest charity shops are unlikely to offer you sustainably sourced bamboo fabric skirts or hemp trousers. Being able to buy good quality second hand clothes depends a lot on where you live and the perceived demographics of the area. You can end up buying a lot of cheap, throwaway things that don’t last – which is expensive for you and for the planet in the longer term.

The loose food store, the farmer’s market, the veg box and so forth might well be entirely out of your price range. 

Growing your own food isn’t an option if you live in a flat and do not have a garden. Allotments aren’t available to everyone and can be tricky without a car. Growing your own food is not a free activity, there are setup costs, and costs in terms of time and energy required. If you’re new to gardening, there can also be the cost of failing to grow food.

Living cheaply in a green way is easier if you can make the upfront investments – the solar panels, the electric bike, the vegetable garden, the high quality clothes. It’s also easier to be a minimalist if you can afford to buy exactly what you need and aren’t having to make do with what you can cobble together. It’s easier to live lightly if you have time to think about your options and aren’t running round grabbing whatever will get you through the next few days. Thinking time is a luxury that seldom goes with poverty.

Being poor is hard work. It doesn’t reliably leave you with the mental, emotional or time resources to lovingly repair things, cook nutritious meals from scratch or tend to a veg garden. Sustainable living must not simply be a hobby for those who can afford nice things, and that can’t happen without some radical social changes.

Inside the comfort zone

The edge of the comfort zone is reputed to be the most productive place. It doesn’t mean you could, or should aspire to live there. And yes, pushing your limits can be good and exciting, but if you have to do it all the time it turns out to be relentless and exhausting. There should be no shame in seeking comfort and in wanting to be comfortable.

It is worth asking what comfort means. For me, these are the experiences that give something to us, gently. Comfort is nourishment, it soothes and affirms us. Our bodies need time to rest and recover. Learning requires downtime for us to digest and process. We actually grow more, improve more if we have downtime to consolidate that. None of us do our best anything when we are out at the edges all the time.

Comfort is highly personal and depends a lot on needs. For one person, comfort might be an afternoon of baking. For another person, it might be the ready meal that means you get to eat when you are otherwise barely coping. 

Comforts may take the form of things that look trivial to other people. We should be less judgemental about this. I note that the kinds of things women find comforting – romance novels and soap operas for example – tend to be treated as trashy. Taking comfort in watching sport and drinking alcohol is assumed to be manly and often gets treated with a lot more respect. The pleasures of the wealthy tend to be treated with more respect and admiration – yachts, horse racing etc than the pleasures of the poor – beer, cigarettes TV, etc. We’re far quicker to defend the rights of the wealthy to their planet-killing leisure activities than we are to defend the rights of poor people not to work themselves to death.

We all need time to be lazy. We need time to heal, reflect, regroup, recharge. People whose comfort choices seem problematic from the outside are often people who are suffering from a lot of pressures and a lack of resources. Exhaustion and poverty are going to impact on what you can do to comfort yourself. 

Rather than judging people for their lifestyle ‘choices’ I’d like to see a greater move towards considering what shared resources we have, and improving that. Green spaces, sports facilities, libraries, and cultural spaces can all offer comfort and opportunity, where we invest in that for the benefit of all. We need to recognise that poverty is stressful and that there are consequences. We need to stop treating hard work as virtuous and wealth as a measure of whether you should be working hard.

Everyone needs comfort. Everyone needs rest. I wonder what would happen if we started discussing comfort redistribution, and health redistribution, rather than focusing on money. Perhaps that way there would be more collective understanding of the implications of wealth and poverty.

Listening to your body

The idea of listening to your body comes up a lot around health work. However, I think it’s really important to ask why we might not be doing that in the first place. This won’t be an exhaustive list, do please add more in the comments if you see an obvious absence. Or an unobvious one.

You can’t listen to your body if your body is exhausted but you have to work. Poverty can make it impossible to take needful time off for rest or for recovery from illness.

Your body may require better food, more food, more protein, more fresh fruit and veg. If you cannot afford a better diet, you can’t afford to listen to your body. The same is true for being too cold, too hot, or in a situation of light or sound pollution you can’t do anything about.

You may have been told that you make a fuss, have a low pain threshold, overreact, exaggerate, lie, or that you just want to get out of doing things. You may have been taught to mistrust or disbelieve what your body seems to be telling you. This isn’t easy to unpick.

You may have listened to your body, consulted with doctors and discovered that there isn’t much that can be done to help you. This happens a lot around chronic illness, and you may be choosing to ignore things as being the best way to deal with them. If you’re not listening to your body as a way to stay sane and functional, that’s an entirely valid choice.

There are times when ignoring your body is vital. Dealing with addiction, or trying to break out of it requires you to ignore what your body is telling you. Changing your eating habits can mean ignoring what your body says. Overcoming anxieties can mean pushing back against the messages your body gives you. Some of the ways in which we are broken mean that we cannot trust our bodies to guide us. It’s hard work having to fight your own body, but sometimes that’s necessary for healing and recovery.

How we relate to our bodies isn’t just a personal matter. It’s held by a social context that can put all kinds of pressures on us. How many people are unable to eat properly because of the social pressure they feel to be thin? Not being able to rest, and not getting enough sleep are issues framed by working lives, social lives and often a technology-driven anxiety that makes us feel we have to be available to people all of the time.

It is good, often, to listen to your body. Sometimes it is essential to ignore your body. It helps to know what you’re doing and why. Some of these issues simply can’t be handled at the individual level and require cultural change, so it’s also really important not to blame or shame anyone who might be trapped by circumstance, and by what capitalism does to people. Not everyone can break out on their own.

Mental Health Awareness

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the things I wish to make people particularly aware of, is that for many people, mental health problems are not some kind of tragic accident. There are people for whom wonky brain chemistry is to blame, but for many of us, mental health problems have causes.

Trauma causes mental health problems. This should be pretty obvious. Consider (or look up) the figures for domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Have a look at some of the definitions of borderline personality disorders and ask how those might relate to traumatic experience.

Work stress causes mental health problems. You can’t run people like machines and expect them not to break down. Inhuman work practices (Amazon, I am looking at you) destroy mental health.

Poverty causes mental health problems. Firstly because poverty and insecurity are immensely stressful. Secondly because if you are poor, you’ll have less access to resources that might help you. There will be no money for sport and fitness – activity often being recommended to help with mental health problems. You’re less likely to have a garden or to be able to access green space. Your poverty diet will undermine your physical and mental health. You may be socially isolated as a consequence of poverty. In societies that punish poverty, your self esteem and confidence will be harmed by the stigma of being poor.

If you are disabled, your long term condition may well also be undermining your mental health. Further, being physically disabled radically increases your chances of being in poverty, see above.

We have seat belts and safety rails, lifeguards, firemen, laws about smoking, workplace health and safety to reduce accidents. We take the protection of bodily wellbeing reasonably seriously. We don’t have the same attitude to mental health. We treat it like an individual problem, and not like something that could be damaged by the crimes and negligence of others.  We treat poverty as a personal failing, not a societal one.

Please be aware that mental health problems are not tragic accidents suffered by the unfortunate few. It’s not weakness, or lack of resilience. Unless we take stress and poverty seriously, we’re going to make ourselves ill. Until we deal with abuse in our societies, we will make people ill. When we shame people for being poor, we promote poor mental health.

Internalised capitalism, actual poverty

I’ve been seeing a meme doing the rounds that identifies a set of experiences as internalised capitalism: Feeling guilty for resting, self worth based on career, putting productivity before health, believing that hard work leads to happiness, feeling lazy when you can’t work and using busyness to avoid your needs. It struck me that this can be as much about poverty as it is about capitalism.

If you are comfortably off, then you might be able to avoid these feelings. But, in reality most people are a paycheck or two away from total disaster. One big, unexpected bill can throw most people into difficulty. If anyone depends on you, then that’s a lot of pressure to be under. So you work when you’re ill, because you have to try and stay ahead to keep you and your people safe. There is no job security anymore, no certainty, nothing much you can count on to help you if things go wrong, in too many parts of the world.

The more poor and insecure we are, the more tightly we are tied to all these things. The more reason we have to fear poverty, the more obliged we are to internalise the capitalism and sell ourselves to survive. Capitalism is not a system that creates wealth for all, it is a system that thrives on poverty, and fear of poverty. It would be nice to be able to avoid internalising that, but the more vulnerable you are, the fewer options you have.

Capitalism doesn’t work for most of us. Things that really need doing – growing food, caring for the sick and vulnerable, raising children, looking after the land – don’t actually pay very well. The best way to make money in this system is not by working, but by using the money to make money. The most successful capitalists at the moment seem to be the disaster capitalists who are able to play the markets and make money out of things going wrong for everyone else. Capitalism does not feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless, or safeguard the environment. At which point it seems fair to ask what use it is.

The work we do should be meaningful and useful. There is no shortage of that sort of work that needs doing. Identifying with our work, in a context where our work is making things better, would be fine. No one should have to fear the consequences of not being able to work. No one should have to work when they are ill. No one should spend their time mostly exhausted. Human systems should work for the vast majority of people involved in them, not a small minority.