CHARLOTTE HUGHES describes the isolating and immiserating experience of the poverty trap
WHAT is poverty, and does it define us? As an anti-austerity campaigner, I often get asked this question. People ask me if I can define it. In reality it’s very difficult to define.
There are three definitions of poverty in common usage, those being absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion.
Absolute poverty is defined as having the lack of sufficient resources with which to meet basic needs. Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the average income. But how does poverty define us?
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation there are more than a million people living in poverty in the UK. I’m sure that figure is lower than the actual figure due to the level of people finding themselves without work etc rising everyday.
They say that 184,5000 households have experienced a level of poverty that has left them with no choice but to resort to charities for essential items and shelter.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also says that three-quarters of people living in poverty go without meals and half can’t afford to heat their homes.
These are some very basic statistics, but what does living in poverty mean to those living in poverty?
I live in poverty, I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think that it has ever left my side except for a very brief moment a long time ago. So I can speak from experience. I live in an area that is one of the poorest in the country and a lot of my neighbours live in some kind of poverty.
Poverty can be very restricting and isolating. It defines how you can travel and relate to others.
Socialisation is limited to mainly your local surroundings or your own home. Public transport is expensive and is often off limits. Walking distance is often as far as you can go. So you often only see your local area and your own home and slowly you begin to isolate yourself.
You might stop talking to people because you feel ashamed that you are poor and you certainly don’t want to be reminded that you are.
You avoid certain people and places. It’s easier that way because it numbs the pain. This very often starts a cycle of depression and illness, often from a very young age.
The media bombards the public with advertisements and television programmes promoting a richer, happier lifestyle. At the same time, it promotes the scrounger rhetoric with programmes such as Benefit Street.
Discrimination against the poorest in society has never been this bad. We are branded “scroungers” or “fraudsters” and single parents and immigrants are treated with hatred and disgust.
I see this a lot while helping benefit claimants in the course of my campaigning. No-one bothers to ask what their story is — they are given a label.
When you live in poverty, debt becomes your worst enemy. High rents, the bedroom tax, council tax, sanctions, benefit delays and low wages all ensure this.
Charity shops become your best friend — that’s if you can afford them. Food and heating become a priority. Often it’s a choice between either heating or eating. It’s a tough choice because both are equally important.
Poverty defines your every move. Children grow up knowing no different but the gap becomes clearer the older they get.
As they get older they will soon grow to accept name-calling and discrimination.
The media has done an extremely good job of turning neighbour against neighbour. People can’t just snap out of it and find a job that doesn’t exist.
Every day I’m reminded of the film Cathy Come Home. I have a daughter who lives with her partner and children in a privately rented house.
The house is very damp. It floods all the time, but the landlord refuses to help. She can’t move because she can’t afford to pay the £1,000 deposit upfront.
She doesn’t have a guarantor and she owes rent from her previous substandard flat which was a housing association flat.
She manages, though. She keeps the damp to a liveable level. She lives in relative poverty. She says that she is lucky to have a home, and she is right, but no-one should have to live like this.
Sadly, it’s not unusual. It’s commonplace. But it shouldn’t be.
People are trying to get by. It’s not easy and the unemployed and those who are working are stuck in the same situation.
I say that we will soon be back to the 1930s poverty levels, but I fear that it will be more like 19th-century poverty levels.
Poverty does indeed define us. We might try to deny this, but it has defined my life and it will continue to do so.
I urge the public to use compassion and kindness instead of hatred and discrimination.
After all, thousands of people across Britain are only three pay slips away from being flung into poverty. It can happen to anyone.