Tag Archives: poverty

Commercialmass is coming

The greenest thing you can do is simply consume less. Buying more sustainable stuff is still consumption and still has an impact. Our planet can’t afford to have us replace our fossil fuel transport with electric cars, or our plastic packaging with some other packaging. We consume too much, and imagining that we can carry on as we are and just make some slight changes isn’t going to work.

We have to slow down. We have to own less. We have to buy less, and that will help us considerably in throwing less away. Of course for many people, that’s not even an issue. For people who can’t buy enough food reliably, and who can’t afford to heat their homes, over-consumption is not the problem.

We do have a problem with cheap goods that won’t last being the only option for the poor. When you buy something cheap and badly made, you tend to pay a lot more for replacements than ever you would on one good, long lasting thing. Take the cost of a moon cup or re-usable pads against buying cheap, disposable sanitary products every month. Or buying cheap clothing that wears out within the year, versus buying something more substantial that will last a decade. It is not on poor people to fix this situation. If we are to have social justice and sustainability, we need to tackle how expensive it is to be poor, and how much unnecessary waste is caused by that. No one should be so poor that they can’t live sustainably, but the minimum wage won’t give you those options.

We’ve been sold the idea that owning more is good. We see it in terms of status and entitlement, social standing and self worth. Those are emotive things and hard to unpick, but on the other side of it is the simple fact that we are destroying the only planet we have.

We’re heading into the season of obscene overconsumption. Over the coming weeks we will all be encouraged to eat far more food than is good for us, drink more alcohol than is wise, buy throwaway clothes – like the wretched Christmas jumpers. We’ll be encouraged to buy more stuff for people who don’t need stuff, and buy paper to wrap it in so we can throw that away afterwards. We will be encouraged to kill a tree, or buy a plastic tree substitute and fill our homes with shiny plastic rubbish to feel ‘festive’. Many of us will put on a great many extra lights and increase our energy use for good measure.

Commercialmass has already begun, and the shops are filling with it. Which makes this a good time of year to give some serious thought to what you, and the people around you actually need. It’s a good time to remind each other that we all need clean air, and none of us need the oceans to be choked with plastic. We need living trees and we do not need wrapping paper. We do not need to send tons of uneaten leftovers to landfill or even recycling, while other people go hungry.

If you can afford to exchange gifts, you probably don’t need them. If you can’t afford them, you certainly don’t need to go into debt trying to keep up. Give less. Give thoughtfully. Give responsibly.


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.


Clothes, poverty and identity

Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.

Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’.  I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.

I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.

To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.


Talking about poverty

The stories in western cultures go that wealth is deserved and poverty is the consequence of laziness or other failings. This makes it difficult to talk about experiences of being poor, because there’s always the fear of being judged, blamed and thought less of. This in turn makes it harder to challenge those dominant narratives about what wealth and poverty mean.

In practice, your best chance at being rich is to be born into a wealthy family. It’s not actually about personal excellence, skill or merit for the greater part. It is the accident of your birth. There are of course exceptions, but on the whole, wealth begets wealth.

If you are born into poverty, you may be clever enough and skilled enough to work your way out – people do. But, not everyone does. We have many studies from psychology that demonstrate what happens to rats growing up in impoverished environments and with poor diets. None of it bodes well for your average rat, or, by reasonable extension, your average human. Exceptional people can thrive regardless of where they start from, but a system that requires everyone poor to be exceptional clearly isn’t fair or reasonable.

Most households are only one serious problem away from disaster. A sudden job loss, a serious illness, a bereavement, the failing of a key bit of kit… and from there, debt, and difficulty and spiralling into increasing trouble from which it is every harder to break out. Poverty is often a consequence of sheer bad luck. However, if we blame people for their poverty and misery, those of us who are doing ok can hang on to the belief that our virtues keep us safe. We can pretend it won’t happen to us… right up until it does.

People who have never experienced poverty can have some funny ideas both about how it works, and who is afflicted by it. I’ve been in too many conversations about the undeserving poor, the feckless, careless, doing it to themselves, should try harder, shouldn’t have had so many children… Words from comfortable people who may not even be aware of how they are inclined to blame the poor for poverty. And yes, of course some poor people make bad choices – people at any income level do that. We judge the person with a million pounds of debt far differently from how we judge the person who doesn’t have a tenner for food this week.

I’ve experienced poverty. I’ve managed to keep afloat – which I think was a mix of luck, judgement and discipline. I’ve had those days when I wished I could get so drunk that I no longer felt anything. I know why people might do less than responsible things to try and escape from the misery of their own lives – if only for a while. Grinding misery does not facilitate the best short term thinking.

The Haves get their stories about poverty – for the greater part – from the media and from others who have plenty. We won’t get a cultural shift without those who have enough better understanding how poverty works. So I keep trying to talk about it. I keep asking people if they have ever had to choose between heating and eating, and what they imagine that might be like. I will challenge assumptions about all the luxuries the Haves are convinced the Have Nots are able to get with universal credit. I’ll keep talking about the shopping implications of poverty, and the stress and mental health implications. I hope by doing so I will also make it a bit easier for other people to tell their stories.

A great deal of poverty is invisible, because the stigma attached to it makes it much more appealing to hide the problem and pretend you are ok. Can you tell if the person you are looking at has been able to afford decent food this week? You can’t. Do you know whose debts have spiralled out of control? Who is selling their stuff on ebay to pay the electric bill? Of course not. And if you treat poverty as the deserved consequence of personal failure, who is going to tell you otherwise?


Eco Justice

Sustainability and economic and social justice all naturally go hand in hand. Any project that doesn’t deal with all of these areas together may be setting itself up to fail.

There are two major sources of pressure on the natural world. One comes from the greed of people who have far more than they need and will destroy environments to take more. That’s what we’re seeing with oil extraction, fracking, palm oil plantations, industrial fishing practices, rather a lot of mining – anything where big industry goes in and clears out what’s valuable.

This happens not only at the expense of the environment, but also to the detriment of ordinary people living in the afflicted landscape. People may be persuaded in the short term with the bribe of jobs and money, but it is they who will deal with the flammable water, the flooding that comes from deforestation, the soil degradation and all the other long term consequences of big industry destroying the landscape. It is important to recognise that people who have been bribed and lied to about the implications are not wholly responsible for where that leads.

The second major pressure on ecosystems can come from the aftermath of the above, or be generated by war, climate change or other such challenges. People in desperation simply trying to survive become locked into unsustainable practices that further deplete the land and the wildlife. Environmental damage caused by hungry people can only be tackled if you also deal with the hunger.

We have a nasty habit of thinking in terms of nature as human-free and protecting landscapes by either ignoring the people in it or taking them out. It tends to be the poorest and most vulnerable people who are treated this way. If we want long term environmental solutions, we need the people in the landscape to be part of it, not something to drive off.

Both sides of this damaging process need dealing with. We have to curb the greed of people with far more than they need. We have to reduce the desires to consume of people who already have a decent standard of living. We have to help those who have little or nothing to live at a decent standard in a way that will work for their local environments. While there is any significant belief that those with great piles of resources are entitled to what they have and those with nothing deserve nothing, we won’t be able to sort out the way human activity impacts on the planet.

We need to find ways of being that allow us collectively to live within the planet’s means. We need to question the idea that it’s acceptable for many people to starve while a few have grotesque excess. Justice for the environment goes hand in hand with justice for people. We have to replace our long out of date feudal thinking that has the rich few at the top of the pyramid and the deprived many at the bottom, and create for ourselves social structures that are much more equitable. To preserve our environment and keep it fit for human habitation, we have to live more cooperatively, and more equitably.


Greener Christmas – give something useful

Here’s an option for making Christmas a bit greener: Give people things they can use. Give them food and drink, clothes, toiletries and useful or essential things that they are missing. Make sure these are things that keep well, and they will be used and none of them will be abandoned to landfill.

We are subjected to a lot of messages that useful things – such as socks – are terrible presents. A proper, glamorous present costs a lot more and has less utility. Children don’t want warm clothes, they want a plastic toy based on a TV program. Allegedly.

This is a great time to provide people with nice things they wouldn’t necessarily be able to fund for themselves. Think carefully about what the person you are buying for might need – so many people are living in poverty at the moment; small useful gifts are much more valuable than things of no utility in this context.

Also think about how to tackle the issue of gifts with any friends or family members who might struggle to afford it. Offering not to do Christmas can really take the pressure off. The gift of not driving someone else into debt is a huge one, and well worth considering.

Poverty tends to cause feelings of shame and inadequacy, so it can make it very hard to say ‘I can’t afford to buy you a present’. If you are in a better position, take the initiative here. Start those awkward conversations. Give the gift of caring about other people’s situations.


Who are we trying to help?

Here in the UK, it seems to me that we design our social structures, systems and paperwork in exactly the wrong way. To give an example – I’ve been married twice. Ahead of marriage you are asked questions to establish that you are allowed to marry – not related, too young, here illegally and suchlike. There is nothing in this about your legal consequences. There is nothing for people who are entitled to marry, really. Pre-marriage bureaucracy is about stopping people who aren’t allowed to marry.

Moving to the UK to marry has similar issues – the paperwork and process takes a long time and is incredibly stressful. The whole system revolves around keeping out those deemed not entitled, or marrying under false pretences. The system has not been designed to serve people who are apart and want to be together.

Welfare systems are designed in the same way – the emphasis is on keeping out those who aren’t entitled, not helping those who are. These are systems that leave people hungry for weeks – and that apparently is less of a problem than the idea that a few people get a pittance they weren’t supposed to have.

We build our systems to try and keep people out. We build our systems with more eye to fraud than to need. As a consequence, we have systems that are unkind and that do not help the people they are ostensibly there to help. It is a case of priority. Our leaders, and certainly some percentage of our population is more interested in punishing than helping. We pile stress and misery onto people who are in trouble and we treat them like we assume they are faking it. This is neither good nor kind, and I do not believe it is in any way necessary.

Imagine how different the world would look if we all organised differently. Imagine systems whose priority is to get help to people who need it, with as much speed and inherent dignity as possible.

Imagine a world in which we did not obsess over the small scale frauds that might be possible for the poor and instead cared more about massive scale tax avoidance and the crimes and abuses of power carried out by the rich. In terms of cost to the economy, benefit fraud and things of that ilk are tiny considerations. Tax avoidance is massive. However, poor people with no power are much easier to go after for crimes of any sort, and they are seldom the people responsible for creating the systems and priorities in the first place.


The downsides of small space living

I’m in favour of living in small spaces – or at least, in spaces that aren’t significantly bigger than you need. I’ve spent the last seven years mostly living in small spaces, and it’s taught me to be disciplined about what I keep and to think carefully about what matters to me.

Small space living is often depicted as an affectation of people with more money than sense, moving into improbably small caravans and tiny dolls’ houses. The reality of living in small spaces is that it is often a direct consequence of poverty. You take what you can afford, not what you need. Yes you can sleep two children in a small bedroom – but you can’t provide them both with quiet, personal study space.

One of the consequences of living in a small space is that you can’t stash things against all eventualities. You may not, for example, have anywhere to put wellington boots for everyone. You may have nowhere to put a snow shovel, or to store things for summertime play and relaxation. You may have nowhere outdoors in which to enjoy those summer things anyway. Spares, extras, foul weather stock-piles – these are the things a small space makes impossible. Most of the time that’s fine, because you can have the things you need most of the time. But, for those times when the extras, spares and emergency kit would have been good, you are more exposed.

Small space living often means that you can’t pick up things on offer. If you don’t have a lot of kitchen space, or a big freezer, then supermarket offers aren’t for you. Opportunities to save money by bulk buying aren’t for you if you’ve nowhere to put things.

At the moment, we’re a three person household in a two bedroom flat, and none of those rooms are large. There is one communal space that is living room, dining room, workspace for me, art studio, and study space. There are many things for which a private and dedicated space are a real advantage – for spiritual practices and meditation, for quiet work and study, and of course for writing. A writing cave, where it’s just you and everyone knows to leave you alone is a real asset. It’s also a luxury I can’t afford.

Small space living is, without a doubt, the greener option. It uses less land, requires less heating, and does not encourage us to own a lot of stuff. If only there were free to use spaces where a person could go to read, or meditate – but those are in short supply. Churches are locked in the day, often. Libraries are closing. It would be easy to live in smaller spaces if we had shared spaces we could use as well. But, we live in a system that is geared to private ownership, and to paying for every way in which we might access public space.


Winning at winter

For the second year running, winter is not being the awful, miserable grind I have previously found it to be. Depression and anxiety are with me, but they are at bearable levels. Some of that is about progress I’ve made with my head. Rather a lot of it has an economic angle. Some of it has a social angle. So, here’s the list of things I’ve identified that are helping me win at winter rather than being crushed by it.

  • Better diet and hot food in the day as well as the evening meal.
  • Better heating.

Being cold, and not eating well enough have in the past made me tired, more vulnerable to winter bugs, and just grind me down. In the UK we have far too many people choosing between heating and eating and worse yet, able to do neither. The strain this puts people under is awful.

  • The dehumidifier. No more black mould – a problem of small and under-heated spaces without enough airflow – again this is a poverty issue and widespread. The dehumidifier cost money to buy and money to run, it isn’t an option everyone has. It has also removed the stress of winter laundry, which has been a nightmare for most of my adult life. It is cheaper to buy and run than a tumble drier, more eco-friendly and takes up less space.

Mould in homes causes illness. Damp in homes does properties no good at all, and people no good at all. Chilled, damp bedding does not make for a good night’s sleep. Being unable to keep your clothes clean because you can’t dry it does people no good at all.

  • A social life that doesn’t depend entirely on going out at night.

Winter can be especially isolating. It is physically harder to get out, more demanding and you need more gear – boots, coat, maybe a car. Being able to socialise in the daytime takes a lot of pressure off, as do earlier evening social activities.

  • Getting outside whenever there is sun.

This is good for vitamin D production, improving health and mental wellbeing. It’s also not an option if you have to work in the day or don’t have the outdoor clothes to make it feasible. One of the huge perks of being self employed is being able to structure my day as I please, to a fair degree.

Winning at winter costs money. You need the right gear to be comfortable and well. You need to be able to heat your home, and having hot food has a big impact on morale. There are low or no cost things that can be done with time, energy, ingenuity and a woodstove, but if you don’t have those, it isn’t easy. As winter comes round every year, government strategies that routinely leave the poor and vulnerable unable to deal with it well, are appalling and inexcusable.


Poverty and Nature

Recently, a survey carried out by a washing powder company suggested that some 60% of parents don’t want their children playing outside because they don’t want them getting dirty. Clearly, given the outfit paying for the data, there’s scope for bias here. However, it got me thinking. The knee jerk reaction is to see misplaced parental prioritise, or laziness, but there could be another explanation, and that explanation is poverty.

Washing and drying clothes costs money – electricity, cleaning products, water, some means to dry. You’ve got to have enough clothes for the child that they can change while you deal with suddenly dirty clothes. You’ve got to buy that clothing, or source it from hand-me-downs. Further, there’s nothing like being out in nature to risk tearing and damaging your clothes, which is a problem if you can’t afford to replace them. And if that wasn’t enough, being outside for much of the year in the UK requires extra kit – waterproofs, wellies, extra warm things, more socks… if you have no money to spare, these are pressures you can’t necessarily manage.

Then there’s the question of accessing nature. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to live somewhere green. Big tower blocks with areas of grass around them do not nature playgrounds make. So you have to travel someone and to do that, you need to know where to go and to be able to afford to get there. Again, these may be luxuries that just aren’t available. Children in poverty are known to have less access to outdoor recreation, and are less likely to have bikes and other outside gear.

Back when we lived on the boat, my son went to a running club after school. They ran in all weathers, but he didn’t. It’s fine to come off a field filthy and soaking wet to be bundled into a car and back to a hot shower, a tumble drier, a massive supply of towels. It’s quite another thing to be filthy and soaked with a mile to cycle home, and nowhere really to dry anything when you get there. I expect the woman running it thought I was being a wimp, making a fuss. She pointed out to me that running is an all weather sport, and I didn’t feel equal to explaining to her the practical implications of living on a very small boat.

I recall a parallel story about urban archaeology exploring the contemporary archaeology of homeless life in Bristol. Homeless people came to watch and share information, but would not dig because they had little scope to change or clean their clothes and could not afford to be wet or filthy. It’s a similar issue. It is easy, safe and comfortable to get cold, wet and dirty when it’s quick and uncomplicated to sort that out afterwards. Not everyone has this option.

There is a known correlation between parenthood and poverty. There are increasing numbers of children in poverty in the UK. If we’re worried about children accessing nature (and we should be!)then simply blaming parents isn’t the answer. The problem of getting dirty may not be about middle class fussiness at all. I suspect it’s something else entirely.