Poverty: the real story?

A new report tells the stories of 20 people living in poverty, struggling against the odds – as well as hardening attitudes and a lack of understanding of their lives – and calls urgently for change.

Picture credit: Daniele Zanni

Sally’s unemployed son Chris lives with her in the Midlands. They both live on benefits. Sally is an activist with an anti-poverty organisation. Chris was sanctioned for being late for an appointment with his private sector Work Programme advisor. Road works slowed the bus down, and he had run out of credit on his mobile so could not ring to let them know. The decision by the Jobcentre to sanction him was taken on the basis of DNA – ‘did not attend’. He won his case on appeal – but only a long time after Sally had supported him on her benefits for the month he had no Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Jenny has long-standing health problems and severe learning difficulties. She has managed her benefits money well for many years. But recently she has been under pressure from her bank because of an overdraft, taken out years ago by her former husband, for which she is now liable (though she never used the account herself). The overdraft was small originally, but it has crept up over the limit and now incurs interest as well as fees and penalty charges. Over the years she has asked how she can settle the debt but no one has suggested she close the account to arrange a repayment plan. She is now getting advice, but the bank wants its money back.

These are just two out of twenty people’s stories from a new report, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015. The report was written by a group of women who have spent most of their lives living and working closely with families and communities grappling with poverty. We wrote it as a result of a direct challenge issued by Bob Holman, an ex-academic activist from Easterhouse, in an article in The Guardian.

Bob drew our attention to a 1943 report: Our Towns: A close-up. It was written by eight women members of the Hygiene Committee of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare, who tried to explain the living conditions and family lives of children from the East End and elsewhere who had been evacuated to better-off homes. Amongst those children was Bob Holman as a young boy. Their report acted as a wake-up call for politicians and the public, contributing to greater understanding of poverty and the development of post-War social policies.

Bob challenged eight named women to undertake a similar task today. And I joined them. Because – as Julia Unwin from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it in her Foreword to the report – I wanted to ‘illuminate, and humanise, the dry accounts of trend data’. And I wanted to help convey the message that attitudes to people in poverty are the biggest obstacles to positive change.

Of course we also wanted to convey in the report the harsh impact of austerity on the lives of those who were already struggling, and several of the stories do that. One describes Alice’s situation.

Alice lives with her two children aged 5 and 8 in a three-bedroom council house. She has no formal qualifications and has difficulty reading and writing. She would like to work with children. She says she was just about coping before but is now increasingly in debt and stressed. She feels harassed by Jobcentre Plus to show she is actively seeking work. But she is also liable for the ‘bedroom tax’ because the children have a bedroom each. And she also now has to pay some council tax which she did not have to pay before the recent changes.

The ‘bedroom tax’ is a well-known reform, which means that tenants in social housing considered to have rooms additional to their needs find their housing benefit cut. But there has been less publicity about the changes to council tax benefit. The government devolved this to local authorities, whilst simultaneously cutting the amount (and protecting pensioners and some others from cuts). So working age people on benefit have been hit by the equivalent of the poll tax in many areas. But unlike the poll tax, no compensation whatsoever has been given in benefit levels. This should be denounced as the scandal that it is. But unlike the poll tax, this is a local issue and its impact differs from area to area, making it harder to campaign against.

A fair hearing

We also wanted to show, however, that this is not only about coalition government policies. The first story above, about Sally and Chris, demonstrates the all too common experience of people in poverty, that they are not respected by public officials. Until the appeal tribunal – at which they said they at last got a fair hearing – Sally and Chris felt their side of the story was not believed.

And Jenny’s story above shows this is not just about public officials. It was the bank in her case that showed not the slightest understanding of her life and situation. Other stories in the report profile private sector organisations that profit from the difficulties faced by people in poverty. Alice herself buys most of her household goods from a well-known private company, paying weekly so that she is effectively leasing it at extortionate prices: a (better quality) washing machine from a high street supplier would be less than half the price. She has to take the bus to town each week to pay off her debt – and the staff are aware of the children’s birthdays, so constantly tempt her to spend more.

You could dismiss these stories as anecdotal, and in a sense they are. But they were gathered together by a group of women who, as Julia Unwin says, between us ‘bring decades of experience and commitment’. We know these people and many others who are struggling to make ends meet, and doing so against the odds – with great resilience and endurance.

We got together to write the report with a sense of urgency. The infrastructure of welfare state support is under attack; social security is deemed to be too costly; and the lack of knowledge and understanding of the daily struggles many families face means that bridging the gap in an increasingly unequal society is becoming harder.

Our Towns, the 1943 report, reminds us that radical achievements are possible even in austere times. We hope these stories will prompt readers to ask whether this is the kind of society we really want to be. We hope that, alongside statistics and academic reports, they will act as a wake-up call to help inspire action, including and involving people living in poverty themselves in shaping proposals for change.

The eight women challenged by Bob Holman were Tricia Zipfel (community development and social policy worker), Jo Tunnard (founding director of a family rights organisation), Josephine Feeney (children’s writer), Audrey Flannagan (manager of a food bank), Loretta Gaffney (Citizens Advice Bureau worker), Karen Postle (social worker), Frances O’Grady (General Secretary, TUC), and Sally Young (chief executive of a voluntary sector organisation). Fran Bennett wrote this article in a personal capacity.