I read with interest this article on Left Futures regarding Jack Monroe, and read with even more interest her response, which was one of the most powerful pieces I have read since I discovered her work – and considering I have been a fan on Jack Monroe since I read her incredible piece on her own poverty in 2012, that’s not easy.
The thing that has struck me the most is the now-contrast between Jack’s situation twelve months ago, and the life she has been able to rebuild for herself since. And that contrast has been possible because Jack has the means to broadcast her thoughts to the world via the internet, the articulation to share her experiences with many in a medium which is desirable, even if the content is not. But what of those without those means? Those who live like this day in, day out, with no voice, no ability to share their experiences, no tools to break their poverty-stricken cycle. Jack is right – poverty is poverty, whether you reach it from a great height or a not-so-great-height.
But obviously, its much easier to mock and demonise the poorest of the poor than those who find themselves in the realms of poverty from the middle class – of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to feel sympathy for those people, nobody would choose to go from having a healthy bank balance, a mortgage and a nice car to having to sell your shoes for a loaf of bread.
One of Jack Monroe’s critics – and seemingly someone who doesn’t know when to give up – said that “Jack Monroe is the perfect example of a problem that social justice has, people who only care about SJ because they’re suffering. Who know nothing of the larger struggle, who only know that they are hungry today without realising thousands have been hungry from birth.” Poverty is everybody’s problem, of course it is. I certainly find the thought of families, with children like my little brother, homeless, hungry, scared, on the streets or in their freezing cold homes, in the arms of their equally hungry, scared parents, difficult to comprehend because they are victims of circumstance. Circumstances beyond their control. But it isn’t the fault of people like Jack Monroe. It isn’t Jack Monroe’s fault that she and her son were plunged into poverty, in the same way that it wasn’t my fault that my family was forced to throw in the keys for a business and walk away with a debt amounting in the tens of thousands.
But for some reason, it becomes ok to scathingly criticise those who claim welfare and who already come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, these people are judged even if they are free of poverty. They are judged, simply, for being poor. Some even go as far as to try and control what those in receipt of welfare can and cannot spend their benefits on. Why the hell shouldn’t people who receive help be allowed to buy alcohol, or have Sky TV? Are any pleasures reserved only for those who are lucky enough to escape being poor? Are those low-paid workers who claim benefits to top up their income any less deserving of nice things than those who fund their lifestyles from jobs with a bigger pay packet? What if it was someone from the middle class, a lawyer, perhaps, who was made unemployed due to “unforeseen circumstances“? Someone who fails to keep up with their mortgage repayments and has to move? Someone who then has to ask for financial help from the government to pay his bills, to live, whilst he gets back on his feet? There is no denying this lawyer will be treated much more gently by society than someone who left school with few or no GCSEs, and has work experience in a few low-paid manual roles. Nobody will demand that the lawyers’ television, or three-piece suite, or smartphone, is returned, sold to ease the burden on the taxpayer. And yet, those who had a low income to begin with, who may have received their possessions as gifts, secondhand or simply by saving their money week to week, are made to feel guilty for daring to own things which many people don’t even consider luxuries today.
It’s not completely surprising that people think its acceptable to pick apart the lifestyles of those on benefits, when they’re able to watch programmes about benefit “scroungers” which do all the picking, all the judging, for them. Programmes which purposely portray the smallest section of benefit claimants – people who refuse to engage, and they do exist – in the entire system, and pass them off as representative. Which clearly, they are not. Sometimes a simple injection of facts into peoples’ hatred is all that it takes. Most people don’t realise that the biggest chunk of welfare, more or less half, in fact, is spent on the elderly, not immigrants or teenage parents. Most people don’t realise that the second biggest cost on the welfare receipt is, in fact, in work benefits, where low-paid workers are able to top of their low incomes to an acceptable level. A liveable level. A lifestyle which many in this country take for granted.
It would be wrong to suggest that everybody who claims benefits has honourable intentions. But the number of these people is so minuscule – 0.7%, compared to a public perception of 27% of fraudulent claims according to HMRC in 2011/12 – that to suggest that these people are representative of all those who need help from the government is, frankly, disgusting, and is a worrying and damaging stereotype which cannot be accepted. When people are demonising people for claiming benefits and being a “drain on society”, they seldom seem to recognise that unclaimed benefits are much higher than benefits claimed falsely – HMRC estimated in 2011/12 that tax fraud and error outweighed fraudulent welfare claims by some TWENTY BILLIONS POUNDS. Nor do they recognise that big corporations, such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, paying their taxes can wipe out the entire welfare bill on their own. But, of course, it is much easier to blame the voiceless poor than it is to blame multi-million pound corporations, isn’t it?
I am incredibly relieved that I live in a country which is able to provide welfare to those who need it, to those who hit upon hard times, or those who need to top-up their income because their employer does not pay a Living Wage as Plymouth City Council does. It is comforting to know that, should I ever fall into poverty again – and I hope every day that this doesn’t happen again – then I won’t be alone, and that whilst I am lucky enough to have a decent, consistent income month to month, my taxes are helping families like mine, families like Jack Monroe and her son, to live a life that is worth living. I can think of no better use for my hard-earned money.