Poverty and benefits

Living around the world over the years gives you a bit of a different perspective as you would expect. Since 2008 I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, not in the swanky, oil drenched Gulf countries, but the second-class Palestinians of Israel, the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank and the impoverished communities of Jordan. In the 1990's I spent a year on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, one of the most impoverished in Europe at the time, and worked on housing estates in London. I have seen poverty in very different parts of the world.

I should also add I live with my dad, who is elderly and totally supported by the state, while I have barely earned enough to pay tax for the past few years.

And what I see, and experience, is just how well off we all are. I cannot call myself poor in any meaningful definition of that word. I can eat and don't feel hungry. I have a TV and can access the Internet with endless opportunities for entertainment and education. My elderly father has no worries about accessing top quality health care. I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and can run a car. OK so I am one of the many people who has to double up with a parent, I don't own my own home and am dependant on a private landlord. I can't afford everything I want, have to be careful when I shop, have a small car, don't smoke or buy very much alcohol and don't go out very much. I also haven't been able to afford a holiday.But... I am wealthy compared to the people I know in, say, Jordan who have stinking public hospital stretched to capacity, live in crowded, dilapidated homes in neighbourhoods lacking any sort of public amenity.

The worse example of poverty I came across first hand was in the jungle of upper Colombia. Here I stayed for a couple of weeks with black families who had returned to the land from which they had been brutally evicted ten years before. Here was real poverty: one bed for a large family, no table, a couple of plastic chairs, nothing to decorate their home, food cooked over a rustic open fire, a toilet that was a hole in the garden, no access to a doctor let alone a hospital,  just one shop to serve the whole village. No school building, no state trained and paid teachers. No roads. No cars. No motorised transport. Hard labour to gather a meagre harvest. One meal basic rice based a day. And you are elderly at 60. I could go on. This is poverty. And compared to these people, I am very, very wealthy.

Some years ago I worked in a private school, and ran a group for parents of children being prepared for confirmation. These were parents able to afford hefty fees usually for two or more children, run a car, go to dinner parties etc. And I remember a number of times being told how 'hard up' they were, how 'poor'. Taking a closer look they felt poor because they were comparing themselves with other, very, very wealthy parents who had, for example, a Ferrari, second homes in Paris etc. They felt hard up compared to those, and felt a moral twinge of superiority because they were somehow 'suffering' more.

I also experienced while in Easterhouse a young single mum who had got deep into debt with a catalogue. The local nuns helped her to manage her money, and over the course of two years she paid off all the debt. Everyone was so pleased for her, and the sisters had a little party for her and her little daughter. Before two weeks had passed she had gone back to the catalogue to buy... a toddler outfit... at a cost of...£150! It was just crazy, after all that hard work and being so careful with her money, and for something that was going to last less than three months. Yet, when asked by the sisters why she had done it, she simply said she wanted her baby to 'have the best' and she might never have the chance to get it for her again.

Here this young mum was living with the sense of being trapped by not having access to everything that she thought 'other' people had. Her sense of being free meant having what 'other people' had, not so much for herself but for her daughter. I saw this recklessness many times - the mother who sold her living room suite to buy a computer console for her two boys at Christmas, so they spent Christmas day sat on old tea crates, and the lad who's dad bought him a £100 pair of trainers which he wrecked the first day he had them playing football. These people were hard up, depressed, and felt trapped but not because they didn't have money, just not enough money as they felt they should have, and no emotional maturity to be able to handle it.

I saw this first hand as a young man. My dad earnt the minimum wage as a low grade factory worker back in the 70's, yet my mum managed to make the money 'work'. So, while I was born in a one roomed caravan, by the time I was 15 we were living in our own semi-detached house. True we didn't have a car, and only just had a colour TV and a phone, but my mum had ensured we were well fed (she cooked, grew her own vegetables and spent hours getting the best bargains and calculating value for money), clothed (mostly second hand or ones she made herself) and had a holiday once a year. It was an amazing achievement. Shortly before they separated my dad took over the finances, believing he could do better. I remember coming home with a friend from university, and having offered him a cooked breakfast of perhaps scrambled eggs couldn't even rustle up beans on toast. The cupboards, which mum always kept well stocked, were almost empty. This wasn't because of a lack of money, just a lack of the emotional confidence to make money work.

I share these observations because I want to make a comment which some might otherwise see as heartless and ignorant. Maybe you still will, but when we have people claiming that the cut back in benefits to the poorest in our society is somehow plunging people into near Dickensian poverty, I have to beg to differ. Britain is still a good place to be poor, to be at the bottom of the financial ladder, or rather to lack the emotional confidence to make money work for you. Britain does an incredible job at providing real, valuable support for its poorest citizens compared to many places in the world, indeed compared to almost all. We need to have a sense of gratitude for this. Secondly, people need training in how to 'do without'. We live in a society where we all, including me, expect to have things which make our lives 'comfortable', and when we don;t have them we really do suffer emotional and psychological harm. We also make choices, like the food we eat, that does us real damage as a result of our poor mental relationship to how we feel when we can't have what others have. We also waste a lot of stuff, we don't reuse or mend things in the way they do in, say, Egypt or we did during the War.

Politicians also make political capital out of making people feel resentment at what one party in power has given them, and in pandering to the myth that they can give us endless goodies and avoid any real pain. This, in the case of the current mood, is projected onto 'bankers'. Now, I think the banking culture stinks, and the wealth of the very highest earners is obscene. That's for another post. But the political solution to our financial crisis is not going to be solved by upping the tax rates on the very rich - as we see in France they just leave, and pay no tax at all. There is no magic fairy godmother, there is no endless pot of gold stashed away in some dragon's lair. And even if there was, our happiness is not going to be solved by having it as we will still end up comparing our situation to that of those with more and feeling cheated in some way.

Now, having said all that, there are groups in our society who are trapped in cycles of financial deprivation such as the disabled adults and their family carers. This sort of trap needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency because these are the people with very little room for manoeuvre, however thrifty they are. Those limited in their abilities to provide for themselves should be supported generously by any civilised society where the Darwinian creed of survival of the fittest is simply an excuse to go back to the jungle. But for the vast majority of our unemployed and low skilled workers, who will depend on state benefits in some for or another, we need to help them develop an emotional intelligence about 'going without' that doesn't become lost in a sense of depression, of worthlessness and desperation.


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