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?