Join me to debate The Great British Rip Off in Newcastle this evening
There’s an enormous disparity between the ‘economic recovery’ the media describes and what people in Britain are actually experiencing. Reports discuss the ‘recovery’ in abstract, essentially market terms, where “How are the banks doing?” and “What about the FTSE 100?” are amongst the main concerns. We rarely hear about the day-to-day impact the economy has on working people, and what life actually looks like for people in communities. At times, the media peppers the recovery debate with stories of human struggle but the overarching narrative is that these people are the exceptions in a land of prosperity. Commentary can be judgemental and fails to explore the nature of social exclusion, barriers to employment, and lack of social opportunities.
We only have to look at the furore following Channel 4’s ‘Benefit Street’ to know that people see poverty through a lens of privilege and have a definite sense of “I could do better if I were in their situation”. Poverty is portrayed as being the result of bad choices, when in reality, these ‘bad choices’ are actually the result of having no other option. It is a sign of our times that a community’s poverty is marketed at us as a form of entertainment, rather than acting as a central indicator as to whether or not we are in ‘recovery’.
Contemporary media is fundamentally flawed. Coverage is saturated with voices of people who just don’t understand poverty. Panorama’s ‘Hungry Britain?’ (3rd March) saw Edwina Currie aghast at the provision of food to the hungry through food banks. She proposed a return to old fashioned values and repeated the vile, patronising assertion that providing free food to the poor increases demand. A recent report by DEFRA contradicted Currie, showing – somewhat obviously – that demand for food banks is driven by increasing levels of hunger. Currie’s privilege rendered her blind to the limitations of having no money. For many people there is absolutely no room to save anything – it is simply not possible.
This is why the focus should be on human stories, not market assumptions. As a County Councillor for Cramlington Eastfield (South East Northumberland), I see no sign of recovery for my residents. In fact, the consequences of Government austerity measures are glaringly obvious. The bedroom tax means many people are in rent arrears because of a shortfall in housing benefit. Others are in debt with their utility provider due to spiralling energy costs, with those on metered systems living with the daily fear of having their heating and lights switched off. Contrary to popular myths perpetuated by the press and the government, many of the people I see in poverty, work extremely hard but their wages simply do not cover the exponential rise in the cost of essential items. Zero hours contracts are extremely common and people have to live with the insecurity of not knowing how many hours they will work that week. This coupled with crippling childcare costs and expensive public transport fares means that pay day loan companies are a regular solution, not merely for crisis moments, but for the basics too. 25% of young people in my ward now live in poverty, and that’s just the ward average, worryingly, I know it’s significantly higher in some parts. Work clearly does not pay and the case for a living wage has never been stronger.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why people in my ward are ever more reliant on services which are subsequently being cut. To say things are desperate is an understatement. One woman I represent, after all of her outgoings, including a small amount of debt, had just £5 left for food and clothing – and according to the Citizens Advice Bureau this isn’t unusual. I wonder if Edwina Currie could suggest how people are supposed to save when this is their reality. I, for one, would be interested to hear her ideas.
In discussions about the recovery, we need to strip those who don’t understand poverty of their privilege to pontificate about it. This is why events like The Great British Rip Off, that I will be participating in in Newcastle this evening, are vital. We need to hear your ideas to build a system of recovery around those who understand poverty as a lived experience. For the person who works in a supermarket on minimum wage, seeing their real term income decrease week by week, who is having their rights at work dismantled before their eyes, who did not cause any global banking system crash and does not care if the economy grew by 0.7% in a quarter. It means nothing. Economic growth does not automatically reduce the suffering for the poorest people living in my ward. A recovery is meaningless if it does not reduce suffering and improve quality of life for all of us. So far, I see no recovery.