The pain of poverty: does income matter?

Why was it painful to attend the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty on Monday?  Why do some politicians find it so hard to accept that poverty has got anything to do with a lack of money?

Sitting in a packed Committee Room 8 of the House of Parliament on Monday evening, it was painful to hear some of the firsthand testimonies of what it is like to live with poverty on a daily basis.  Kayleigh, one of the ‘stars’ of the BBC2 ‘Poor Kids’ documentary, spoke with immense dignity about the reality of being brought up by a father who has been unable to find work for the past ten years, and the sense of stigma, and the painful choices of what to go without that this entailed.  Brian Woods, from True Vision and producer of the documentary spoke of the wider challenges that Kayleigh and the other ‘Poor Kids’ faced.  Captain Jonny Smith of the Salvation Army in Southwark told us of a conversation with the friend – who can’t him to chat on the internet after school, because his mother has to turn the electricity off to save money.  Judith spoke of having to go without food to be able to afford to take her daughter to visit University.

But what was even more painful – in spite of all this – was to hear Maria Miller, Minister with responsibility for Child Poverty seemingly in denial that poverty was anything to do with a lack of money.  It was painful to hear Maria claiming that if a mother had to turn off the electricity to save money it was somehow a result of her own failure at money management than a basic lack of income.   Why is it that people in poverty are somehow, ultimately, always made to carry the can?

Of course, poverty is about a lot more than money…  More than 20 years ago, the seminal ‘Faith in the City’ report made this clear:  “Poverty is not only about shortage of money.  It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity.  Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart”

Even when virtually all the evidence points to a lack of money being at the heart of poverty, why do politicians (and many others, it has to be said), continue to deny this fact?  And why do Ministers want to steer the debate away from the elephant in the room:  The growing inequalities of wealth and income between rich and poor in the UK?

To be clear, I’m not denying Maria Miller’s sincerity or integrity as an individual – it was clear from the meeting that she passionately cares about tackling poverty. Nor would I wish to decry that the Government is committed to tackling child poverty or social mobility.

So why do politicians persist in denying that the lack of an adequate income is at the heart of poverty?  Here are a few possible explanations:

Firstly, it is simply ‘easier’ to put the persistence of poverty down to some moral (or other) failure on the part of the poor than to look for any deeper causes.  If only they could manage their money better; if only their aspirations could be raised; if only they could be weaned off their dependencies on drugs, alcohol – or welfare; if only they could strive harder to find work and to work harder once they have…

Secondly, there is what social scientists would label ‘Cognitive coping strategies’:  Many people deeply want to believe that the ‘way things are’ is based on some essentially reasonable ‘natural order.’ As Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered, people make assumptions about the virtues of those with high incomes and the vices of those on low incomes in order to justify existing inequalities.

Third: In an age of austerity, when Government simply doesn’t have the money to spend (or instinctively believes in smaller Government) it is much easier to believe that income transfers don’t matter.  When money is scarce, it is simply more efficacious to focus on ways of tackling poverty that don’t involve spending money.

Fourth, is the fact that most politicians have never personally experienced what it is like to struggle to make ends meet – and simply can’t make the leap of imagination involved in understanding what that involves.  If you have never had to count the pennies at the end of the week, or go without in any real sense, can you really understand that choices that those in that situation have to make – food or bills; school uniform or rent?

Or lastly – maybe they are right?  Maybe money doesn’t matter.  But try telling that to Kayleigh, Judith – or thousands like them who struggle with the daily battle to make ends meet…

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2 Responses to The pain of poverty: does income matter?

  1. Very well written Niall, I have shared it, thanks for publishing – Graham

  2. agewait says:

    The Centrality of ‘things’

    My dear, and trusted friends and all those who support Church Action on Poverty I want to thank you for the dedication and the genuine voice you give to so many folk who are now simply categorised, labelled and dismissed as ‘failures’.
    The eloquence and dignity with which the Faith in the City’ report clarified poverty is about a lot more than money is now lost on the softminded disengaged polished professionals addicted to lipservice and self-wisdom. There are none so blind or deaf than those who do not want to lsten or see that:

    “Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity. Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart” (F.I.C. Ch.9.P195).

    Yet, as those of us who have experienced poverty, through our vocation an in our lives the pervading ignorance, arrogance and greed still peddles the lie that poverty is directly linked with inadequacy. If ignorance is bliss then our parliament, our media, our society is indeed blissful. But, this must not blind us to the committed few who bare the scars of this endless battle, both physically and mentally. Once again the Faith in the City report bluntly informed us that:

    “The exclusion of the poor is pervasive and not accidental. It is organised by powerful institutions, which represent the rest of us. The critical issue to be faced is whether there is any serious political will to set in motion a process which will enable those whose are at present in poverty and powerless to rejoin the life of the nation”. (F.I.C.Ch15 – 15.6; P360)

    I believe we have our answer to this when we consider the vicious imbalance of media coverage, and political propaganda when attacking those on benefits in comparison to the words spilt with regard to the amounts that dwarf such figures when we consider Tax Evasion. The poor, the vulnerable and the disabled are wilfully neglected, betrayed by a system that prefers lies to truth, and exaggeration to facts. The powerless, and the voiceless have been betrayed by the nations unhealthy and dangerous reliance upon being fed lies and wilful ignorance to sustain and support a system of worship for the almighty pound, and the circus of celebrity. False gods indeed! When nations are bankrupt of vision and morality it soon follows that the poor are exploited whilst the bankers reap their bonuses. It is simply the oldest tactic in the book – divide and rule! Blame the victim.

    The Centrality of ‘things’.

    The failure to acknowledge the centrality of ‘things’ has been and sadly remains the major barrier to engaging those who are trapped by such ‘things’, and likewise challenging those who are disengaged from such ‘things’ to realise that: “apathy” is an overused excuse to describe and dismiss those who are trapped by ‘things’ such as an environment that closes in on them, or ‘things’ that overwhelm and dispirit such as when ‘things’ breakdown or get damaged, they remain broken and damaged. Many people are being trapped by their situation and discounted as apathetic, ‘rough & ready’, scroungers, poor, and disadvantaged, is it any wonder that they become ‘excluded’. A sense of self-worth is vital to our lives; too often this is neglected and undermined by a paternalistic approach that reinforces the gap between the ‘helper’ and the ‘helped’. It can lead to a relationship that disables and dismantles self-worth, ‘brick-by-patronising-brick’. Affirmation is the tool to address the needs we find within our communities, not a Victorian-style-charity which keeps the poor, the rough & ready, the scroungers in a prison of benevolent charity. Which serves only to make the ‘helper’ feel good, and the ‘helped’ still dependant. This dependency destroys self-worth, reinforcing a sense of helplessness.

    ‘Things’ like relationships are a crucial part of the human story; doing things, making things, creating things – we live in a world of things, which are made far richer by the fact of sharing them. Completion is within the process of relationships – this is the thing so often neglected when we consider the term social exclusion. People in isolation are robbed of the things that affect their very being – contact, a listening ear, another voice, a sense of the other. Unemployment has a very dramatic if somewhat gradual affect upon the world of ‘things’. Things like the routine – doings things with other people, engaging in conversation, laughing, sharing stories, plans and hopes all of these things are cruelly taken away, and you don’t even hear the door close! Other things like the burden of a severely restricted income, and the cascade of worries this brings – the heating, meals, travel, and clothes. Slowly, but surely your story becomes restricted, a sense of being surplus to requirement negatively reinforces the sense of becoming invisible. Life becomes a battle against ‘things’ – the washing machine breaks down, and remains broken, the settee becomes worn and remains worn, clothes too, whole sections of the story are closed down. Forget any notion of or idea of holidays, or away days or shopping, cinema, or going to football matches – outrageous price ensure segregation from such events. Hobbies cease – even going out becomes a drag, the world closes in on you. Confidence and competence become strangers to you, silence smothers your opinion, a sense of being surplus to requirement accompanies the gradual tiredness to your clothes – who’s listening anyway? Unemployment, ill-health, disability are formidable barriers but even these cannot hope to fully explain the deep hurt of being categorised, labelled and dismissed. Poverty distorts the relationship between you and all the former things of your life. ‘Things’ trap you instead of release you. Under constant siege by the ignorance of the disengaged that prefer Labels, damn labels. They pontificate totally unaware of their own softminded conformity to being wise in the own eyes and in the eyes of the crowd. They have no conception of just how patronising they are with their simplistic notions and determined ignorance that denies any notion that all folk, whatever their positions in life deserve to be treated with dignity!

    Finally, I will close with an account of my recent ATOS ‘interview’, I am aware that I am opening myself to further judgemental comments from the crowd of ignorance around the subject of the welfare state. However, it is an accurate account from a situation that is seldom heard, and far too easily mocked, judged and dismissed.
    I have worked in community development for over 25years. Unfortunately, 8yrs ago I was retired on the grounds of ill health: Under developed coronary arteries, angina, breathlessness, high-blood pressure, hypertension, muscular skeletal issues, and depression. It was with a great deal of sadness that I have had to accept my restrictive condition. I have now been subject to three Atos medical assessments, finally last year I was placed briefly on Incapacity benefit, and then moved to ESA. I fully admit that I have no love lost for ATOS and for the unfortunate poor reputation it is currently developing. Recently, I was summoned to my third assessment by ATOS – Friday July 8th 2011.
    The interviewer did not give her name or title, but did inform me that she was a nurse employed by ATOS. The interview began with an alarming admission that, and I quote: “There is nothing about any heart problem on the computer records”. I found this admission incredulous, and disconcerting to say the least. The nature of these interviews is to remove people from ESA/IB to the lower rate JSA and deem a person “Fit for work”. I have no faith in ATOS, and I despise the inference that I am claiming a benefit that I am not entitled to claim. I also find it extremely alarming that an extremely crucial area of my chronic condition was not recorded? This added to my anxiety and discomfort during the process. I informed her that I was not feeling very well and would be unable to do reaching and stretching exercises.
    How can I hope to get a fair assessment when she had “no records of any heart problem”. I referred her to my comprehensive responses to the DWP form/questionnaire – I outlined in great detail my health and well-being. I also informed her that I had been through this process twice before and on each occasion I ensured that ATOS/DWP received ALL of the appropriate material required to ensure an accurate assessment of my conditions. She asked me about the condition – I referred her to the complete information on the form. I was asked about the medication and again referred her to the information available on the form. Several questions relating to my claim/illness were asked and on each occasion I referred to the information already in their possession – Again, I expressed by concerns with regard to her statement that “There is nothing about any heart problem on the computer records”. This certainly undermined by faith and confidence in the process, and any hope of receiving an informed assessment, rather than one based on ‘tick-box’ questions and her assumptions. This is totally inappropriate when seeking to obtain mental and physical details of chronic conditions. I endeavoured to explain my psychological concerns about unveiling deep emotions and deeply personal matters in such a context. I answered her questions by referring her to the appropriate replies I has given in great detail on the form she had in her possession. I was asked about my daily routine and social activities. I reported the fact that poverty seriously impacts a person’s well-being, and I simply do not have the resources to consider ‘normal’ social activities, for example: attend the cinema, football etc.
    How can a person, trapped by circumstances, begin to explain to a person disengaged from the impacts of poverty, impacts like not having any resources to replace things around the home when they breakdown or are damaged. I have not had an oven to cook with since November 2010; and there are many other household things that remain broken – How can I begin to explain the impact on my dignity to highlight such impacts, and the added insult to injury of being categorised, labelled and dismissed by folk like the Interviewer. How can I hope to engage their sense of compassion, or basic understanding, when they cannot even pay me the simplest courtesy by ensuring that they have the correct, the accurate and up to date information to undertake a personal assessment?
    I once again informed her I was not feeling well. And this experience strips away further layers of dignity, and a sense of self! Not to mention the impact on all around well-being. I did not begin to explain to her – I did not feel she had the appropriate listening skills – that I was a professional community development worker, and had worked in the caring professions for 25yrs; and I was not a ‘scrounger’ or a person who would tell lies to obtain a benefit that I was not entitled to. I deeply resent the inference that I was lying or feigning illness. I also very deeply resented the implication that a person of extremely inferior expertise was also calling my GP’s integrity into question. By doubting his expertise and actions by issuing the appropriate SSP! The day before this interview – I was given an updated sickness certificate for the next six months – January 2012.
    However, I have a very strong suspicion that ATOS healthcare will ignore this and I feel that the decision was predetermined, I expect to be deemed “Fit for work” – I shall wait and see. I have NO faith in ATOS it is an agency with a very poor reputation, and by referring to itself, as “Atos Healthcare” is simply no substitute for genuine expertise from far more trustworthy/genuine health experts. I have very serious concerns about Atos, its declining reputation, among Advice professionals, and its’ predetermined tactic of negatively reinforcing hopelessness on the most vulnerable in our society. Atos’s entry into private health care is a retrograde step and I believe a very negative development in an area where expertise, genuine health expertise is paramount to ensure genuine healthcare, not ‘tick-boxing and targets with more emphasis on profit rather than people. I did not hide my concerns about Atos, and my belief that they are NOT fit for purpose – this was not challenged by the fact that they fully admitted they: “had no records of any heart problem” – a Crucial indicator in obtaining an accurate assessment of my health, well-being and entitlement to the appropriate benefit. How can I hope to be treated in a manner that upholds my dignity and rights to equal opportunities?
    What faith can I hope to have in Atos when they have been given sufficient information informing them of my Heart condition and they “Have nothing on record?” How can this be? When we consider they have been in receipt of SSP and continuous information outlining my condition including x3 “Questionnaires”. The latest form I completed was in June 2011. What does such an inadequate process tell us about a company with a £300million contract? I believe that the vast majority of these ‘interviews’ are predetermined before they commence!
    I reiterate that I fear further inadequate results from the process to be deemed “fit for work” in the next few days. I shall, obviously appeal this and reiterate that from the beginning their records are wrong or ill-informed. Her face like thunder – she said she wanted me to do some stretching and reaching tests – I said I was not well enough and did not want my dignity stripping any further, and invited her to take my blood pressure – which she duly did. Then she opened the door, reeled off some spiel about sending form off and I should here in a couple of days. She had a face like thunder and simply dismissed me with a hand gesture – I said, “Bless you”. And left. I expect to be deemed “fit for work” in the next few days.
    I do not share this as in any context of ‘self-pity or a pity party’ but to seek to raise awareness of the continuing pressure brought to bare on those going through such a process, at the same time has being worried to death with regard to how all of this will impact our lives. I am fully aware that far too may of the vulnerable and the young are being ‘tricked’ into being sanctioned and thereby being forced deeper into the most dreadful, and anxious situations. I have no illusions about the impact upon health and well-being, and I am acutely aware of how desperate things rapidly decline – suicidal thoughts are not restricted to celebrities… ATOS healthcare is another area of our society that politicians seem content to turn a blind eye too – the Jobcentre whistleblower who gave information to the guardian which revealed a policy of ‘scamming’ tricking people into being sanctioned – and ATOS guilty of deeming three individuals fit for work when they had actually died!

    Once again I want to thank you all for your support, and gracefully thank those who may well be writing letters to support me through the expected appeal process. (When the need to appeal is confirmed I will forward relevant details to the folk helping me at this anxious time).

    Adrian.

    I apologise if this article is too long, a simple voice for so many voiceless.

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