If you take a walk down Oxford Street, or any other busy Central London street, take a look at the pavement and you will notice an unusual shortage of discarded cigarette ends. This has nothing to do with any conscientious street cleaning by Westminster Council, and is certainly not because West End shoppers are particularly conscious of littering.
The reason is that there is an army of urban scavengers patrolling the streets hunting for cigarette ends so they can squeeze the last little scraps of tobacco into a Rizla. You need three or four fag butts generally to get anything approaching a reasonable smoke, and even then it’s likely to make your throat sore with it’s harshness. Lots of people store it up in a tin, or empty tobacco packet. It’s dry, flaky and smells predictably of ashtrays. The smoking ban has meant the prime spots are outside pubs. Bus stops are other good places to look. Some people even chuck away a cigarette half finished should a bus turn up. Posh bastards.
This all creates a good argument for stopping the habit most people picked up in childhood. But stopping smoking is hard. No anti-smoking initiative recommends sleeping under a railway bridge, in a night shelter, or living on economy beans and toast in a freezing cold bedsit, as an aid to quitting the habit.
Few people understand the complexities of a pre-pay electricity or gas meter. The last pound can disappear in a flash or last all day. Turning off everything that might conceivably use a flicker of power usually seems to help. Sometimes it doesn’t though. It can even seem to just disappear overnight, as if someone had broken into your home and turned the oven on for a couple of hours just to fuck with you. If you owe the power companies money they will deduct an amount from your meter weekly. This just adds to the confusion, especially as many people live off the five pounds emergency credit, whereby the electricity companies generously allow you to go a fiver into debt.
The worst case scenario is the power going off whilst you’ve been out all day, especially if the shops are closed. If you are lucky enough to have a freezer, then you may be familiar with the concept of an emergency food stash. A selection of frozen food, usually in blue and white packaging, that is there for when the money’s really run out. That can all be lost in a day if you mis-time the meter.
Kids don’t really understand what it means if the power runs out. They find out quickly enough when they can’t watch telly or start to feel the cold. If you’re fortunate and have credit on your mobile you may be able to phone a friend who can lend you a tenner for a day or two. You borrow it, knowing you will struggle to pay it back, but a tenner in the hand the day before a benefit payment is worth several the day after. This is something the increasing number of pay day lenders and loan sharks know only too well.
Economy nappies are low level child abuse. They leak and cause dreadful rashes. But the temptation of 20 nappies for two quid can be hard to resist, especially if two quid is all you’ve got. Value washing up liquid seems to be made of other people’s washing up water. It’s not really possible to tell whether economy washing powder actually washes clothes any better than rinsing them in hot water would. Some blue and white food is pretty much as good as the real stuff, but some of it is verging on inedible. Tesco economy teabags leave a sinister grey sludge in the bottom of the cup. The baked beans are mostly water. The biscuits can be alright, and provide a useful if edgy energy hit if you’re feeling hungry enough. You can only really find out by experience, much like you get to know what can be safely bought from a poundshop and what will break the first time you try and use it.
People develop strategies for living on desperately low incomes. Like squirrels, you learn to use the good times to stock up on reserves. You quickly get to know what’s cheaper from the market (fruit and veg always is), what’s cheaper in the supermarket and what you can pick up in the likes of Lidl, Poundstretcher or Aldi. Sometimes it feels like you’re constantly doing arithmetic as you keep a running track of costs down to the last penny, knowing one slight miscalculation can fuck up your, or your kids’ dinner. And if you have responsibility for kids, this is a mindset you need to develop fast.
Good friends and family can help get you through the worst times. Sitting at home skint alone is far more depressing than sitting with a skint friend. It also means resources can be pooled. One of the reasons for the popularity of the squatting movement amongst young benefit claimants is that company and a strong community can make poverty far more bearable. A few shared bottles of cheap cider with friends and a skipped vegetable curry is not the worst way to spend an evening. Hence the endless stream of middle class tourists who pass through the squatting scene (always safe in the knowledge of course, that it isn’t for life).
But for the vast majority of people, poverty is an increasingly isolating experience. Pubs, once the bedrock of poor communities, are unaffordable for those with very little. A small round could be more than your food budget for the week. Community Centres, Youth Clubs and Sure Start Centres have closed, are closing, or are stripping back services. Libraries are disappearing, the one place where you can actually get warm for free. No-one can afford the football anymore. Punitive bus and train fares mean it can be difficult or even impossible to visit loved ones. The Government is now pursuing policies which will force people from their homes into areas where they might know no-one. And of course they are coming for the squatters, the travellers and any other community who have banded together to resist economic squalor.
When people say there is no ‘real’ poverty in the UK they usually mean there is no famine. They point to the refugee camps of Somalia as if it is only when thousands of children are dying of hunger that we should take economic inequality seriously. They claim people can’t be poor because they use drugs, drink or have mobile phone, as if these things don’t exist in poor countries, or that Afghanistan doesn’t have one of the biggest heroin problems in the world.
Children may not die of starvation in the UK but they do go hungry. Tens of thousands of people are homeless, if not yet on the streets as an increasing number are, then in grim hostels or B&Bs. Some families share a space little bigger than a modest double bedroom with their children. Even people who have gained access to social housing can be blighted by mould, damp and cramped or cold living conditions. One estate in Hackney had a river of sewage running through it for months before the Council bothered to do anything about it. Elderly people die because they can’t afford their heating bills. Sometimes no-one even notices until someone complains about the smell.
Many people who are poor cannot escape some level of criminality. Whether buying duty free tobacco, working a few hours on the side, shoplifting, fare dodging, not paying for the telly licence, or even begging, sex work, or low level drug dealing, few people who are very poor manage to stay within the law all the time. The very poorest are criminalised just for trying to survive. Even the law abiding young see the police not as protecters, but as bullies, murderers and gangsters in uniform.
The imagined life of plasma tellys and Easyjet holidays are a world away from the reality of life on benefits or a low income in the UK. Even people who have got a posh telly probably bought it from a high street loan shark like Bright House. They will be paying for it out of their food budget for the rest of their lives and for long after they’ve flogged it to Cash Converters to get the heating back on.
This is a side of the UK lots of people don’t ever really see and many people would rather pretend didn’t exist. Yet still this Government wants more from the people with the very least. Sick and disabled people must waste their time attending back to work training, when no-one will give them a job anyway. Single parents are jailed for not being able to afford a television licence. Older private tenants who may have lived in an area for fifty years are now being forced to relocate, not just from the area they live, but the entire city.
The few remaining things we still have are being stripped away. The cuts to ESA and student fees mean that even fewer individuals are likely to be able to escape. The NHS is being eroded and downgraded. Social Housing rents are set to soar whilst private sector rents become unaffordable for anyone on benefits. Homelessness, hopelessness, poverty and desperation is becoming the daily norm for vast swathes of the population. The Welfare State is gradually being abolished and people in the poorest possible conditions are sent to work for the rich for no pay and no lunch. The last few institutions society provided for the destitute are disappearing and the charities that pretend to help merely see the poor as a commodity they can exploit to fleece Government contracts.
Wage freezes, benefit cuts, unemployment and rent rises are essential say the Government, pledging that we’re all in it together. Yet they spend more on lunch than some families spend on food in a week. Taking a walk around some parts of London, there seems to be no shortage of cash. Money sings from the gleaming walls of every luxury apartment complex whilst hugely expensive boutiques and gastropubs replace greasy spoons and well loved local boozers.
Politicians tell us that benefit cuts are good for us. Government ministers say disabled people lead ‘wasted lives’ and need to be helped by being stripped of benefits or forced to undergo demeaning health tests. Forced labour is repackaged as training schemes, essential to help young people get used to a life of poverty and hard work. Single mums are bullied if they don’t take low paid work, and financially penalised if they do. Vocational education for working class jobs is stripped of value by the same old Etonians who accuse us of snobbery if we don’t want to stack shelves in supermarkets for no pay. And when our children riot the liberal media sneer at them for wanting trainers costing a fraction of the price of the shoes they wear themselves.
Shows like The Apprentice preach greed, aggression and selfishness as the only ways to get ahead. The more vicious you can be to your fellow human being, all the better for whichever cunt is profiting from your inhumanity. The rich behave with complete moral bankruptcy yet a disabled person playing golf is seen as an unimaginable evil and splashed across the newspapers along with rapists and murderers.
The kids may well be too savvy to riot as hundreds of gun toting police protect the sacred Olympics. But riot again they will. Increasingly people with nothing to lose are saying enough is enough. There is nothing left to do for the very poorest but fight back by any means necessary now. Capitalism run rampant has created this society, and those who have benefited so handsomely may yet come to regret the vicious world they’ve built.
(This post was mostly inspired by finding out I hadn’t got a tenner in the bank like I thought I had this morning)