People who need to claim benefits also have to live hand to mouth, from week to week. We are already poor. It just takes one missed payment to completely empty your cupboards, to strand you indoors, to turn your light, heating and hot water off and leave you in a state of soul-sapping desperation. And if you are chronically ill, that flare – an exacerbation of defining symptoms – will also pay you a visit, for sure. You are having a bad time. Well have some more.
Poverty is far worse than simply having nothing. Its hungry reach is much less superficial than skin deep; it bites down to the bone and has you strugging to keep body and soul together. It robs you of motivation and animation, poverty leaves you battling for your heart and for who you are. It relentlessly erases your sense of identity a bit at a time.
And don’t for one minute ever assume that you will always be paid what you are entitled to; for we have a government that has explored every way possible to take away your support – which you have paid for via national insurance and tax – regardless of your circumstances, and it DOES so.
Poverty reduces people from cultural and social beings to isolated individuals who are pre-occupied with the struggle to fulfil biological needs in order to survive. Poverty is uncivilising. It involutes society and subverts culture.
Take meals for example. On a socio-cultural level, meals are shared, and food for us is not merely nourishment; it presents the occasion for gathering together, hospitality, sociability, affection and sometimes, dressing up. Food is always a part of sociable occasions of ceremonial recognition.
Christmas, birthdays, going to college, getting a place at university, weddings, funerals; we use food to celebrate, mark rites of passage, mark milestones, start relationships, maintain relationships, gather our friends and family close.
To share means that we need to have an abundance – more than we need for ourselves, because food is fundamental to survival.
Poverty isn’t simply about material deprivation: it means conceptualising the world without the prospect of freedom and choice, and in increasing isolation. It excludes people from even the most basic joys of normalised cultural rituals, and from the fellowships that bind us as a society.
It strikes me how dazing and isolating poverty is; how very lonely an experience, even with friends and family around who are supportive and kind. It marks you as a stranger, even to yourself.
I’m thinking of last winter, a snow-blurred landscape and my agonisingly permanently cold blue feet, painful hands, the shaming underweight lecture from my consultant: “You’ve lost weight because you are ill. You need to eat much more and you must keep warm with such severe Raynaud’s,” she said. I told her I couldn’t do both, and she looked at me uncomprehendingly, though she usually understood me. We once spoke as mutually accepted equals, but in that moment, her expression betrayed her, it was as though I had suddenly become a stranger to her.
She has retreated behind a brusquely professional role ever since, becoming a stranger to me, too. I think my being poor embarrassed her. I was left with a sense of powerlessness over my own health problems – it reduced me to a patient role of inert non-participant observation. To become someone who no longer has sufficient provisions to alleviate the symptoms of an illness is a self-diminishing experience, however, food and fuel are fundamental to basic survival.
Poverty transforms everything, from the material world to the subjective realm of relationships. Poverty makes us selfish and pre-occupied – simply because of the overwhelming necessity of meeting basic survival needs. It switches us off a bit at a time until we can no longer be ourselves, or fulfil our potential, or remain pro-active in social events.
Poverty divides us. It splits families, separates us from friends, and excludes us from having even a basic level of social esteem and cultural participation. It turns us into strangers, it prescribes our existential separation and exile. We become the socio-political Other.
How can it be that the most basic human right – the right to survive – is being so cruelly trampled in a country of great affluence, by those in positions of power and authority, in a so-called first world Liberal democracy? Poverty is a violation of human dignity that leads to a vicious cycle of degradation.
Such degradation is buttressed by a pathological Conservative ideology and a long-standing feudalist tradition of eulogising social inequality; imposing it through policies that reward greed, exploitation and inflict human misery, whilst the cavalier public schoolboys draw on a narrative, informed implicitly by Social Darwinism.
They disguise their deeds, they blame the victims of their psychopathic proclivities. The final indignity is the politically scripted biography, freely handed out on Benefits Street and in the Daily Mail, written to blunt and bludgeon public sympathy and to invite a collective condemnation: the declaration that poverty is caused by the poor. How irresponsible, how feckless, how lazy of us to wallow and languish in our poverty.
Gosh, we must be in need of more of those “fair” Tory policies, allegedly based on “incentives” to “help us into work”: even more poverty to punish us for our poverty in the hope that absolute poverty will stop us being poor.
Didn’t we try that approach once a couple of centuries back – the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act? I could have sworn that we’ve since decided as a society that policies imposing abject poverty on the population were an abject failure. Did I imagine those college lectures on the historic reasons for birth of the welfare state? Those books I read, those humanist writers, kindly, and writing their optimistic formulae for a hopeful future for all?
Mr Cameron says a barefaced yes.
However, such shameful, loud Tory negations and attempts at invaliding our own experiences cannot hide the truth: poverty is caused by government policies. It happens because of politically manufactured structural inequalities; politically motivated and designed to reward the rich and further impoverish the poor.
Growing poverty reflects a large-scale economic failure, regardless of the pitifully thin distillation of Tory “evidence” of “recovery” and “growth” which is localised to a handful of millionaires. Poverty is about the loss of much more than money. Poverty entails indignity and humiliation and exclusion. But it is the powerful and wealthy that ought to feel shame and humiliation for intentionally inflicting suffering on so many, just so that they can have even more.
Such frank inequalities, with increasing affluence and prosperity for a few, and increasing poverty, disempowerment and disenfranchisement of many reflects a political party that is FAR from democratic, serving the needs of no-one, fulfilling the wants and doing the bidding of an elite.
We have long needed to put the Tories out of our misery.
The right to food is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11), ratified by the UK.
For the Special Rapporteur, the right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.