Essays

"We need to stop just pulling people out of the river." – Jack Monroe in the Houses of Parliament, 3 June 2013

The full text from my speech in the Houses of Parliament, June 3rd 2013.
This morning, small Boy had one of the last weetabix, mashed with a little water, and a glass of tap water to wash it down with.
Where’s Mummy’s breakfast? He asks, all blue eyes and two year old concern.
I tell him I’m not hungry, but the gnawing pains in my stomach call me a liar.
But what else can you do?
What else can you do – when you’ve turned off your heating? That was in November 2011, it went off at the mains and I parked furniture in front of it to forget that it was ever there, to alleviate the temptation to turn it on.
What else can you do, when you’ve turned everything off at the wall sockets, when you become obsessive about unplugging things, down to the green LCD display on the oven, mockingly flashing away.
You learn to go without things, you unscrew the light bulbs. You turn the hot water off and pretend the freezing cold shower is ‘invigorating’, but it shocks you every time.
You sell the meagre DVD collection for an even more meagre sum, your sons toys, everything you own.
But poverty isn’t just having no heating, or not quite enough food, unplugging your fridge and turning your hot water off.
Poverty is the choking, sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix, and he says:
More Mummy? Bread and jam please Mummy?
And you’re wondering how to carry the tv and the guitar to the pawn shop, and how to tell him that there is no bread and jam.
I’m Jack Monroe. That was an excerpt from my blog, from July 2012.
I’m a 25 year old single mother to a 3 year old boy, and I was unemployed for 16 months.
I’m one of the lucky ones.
I have no TV, no heating, and no car, and many evenings have gone by with no dinner, but I’m one of the lucky ones. Because around six months ago, I was referred to my local food bank for help.
I had been attending a support group for single mums on a Wednesday, and to be honest I only went for the free lunch. One of the women who ran the group noticed that my son and I always had seconds, and thirds, and quietly asked me if everything was okay.
I lied, and I said that I was fine.
Because that’s the trouble, when you have holes in your socks and holes in your jeans, and your collar bones are jutting out of the two jumpers you wear to keep warm – you tell everyone that everything is okay.
Because you think if you admit to skipping meals, to feeding your child the same cold pasta with tomatoes for four nights in a row, you worry that you might lose him, that he might be taken into care. And in the cold, in the despair and desolation, your son is the only thing that stops you stepping off the flyover you walk over every day. So you say you’re fine.
But she filled out a form for me despite my protestations, and one Tuesday morning, I joined a queue 60 deep, of mothers in push chairs, outside a community centre, and I waited almost an hour for five tins of food and a packet of nappies.
When Oxfam released their report, Walking The Breadline, this Thursday, it stayed that half a million people in the UK are currently dependent on food banks.
But food banks, while meeting a need, are not the solution.
To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, there comes a point where you need to not just pull people out of the river. You need to go upstream and find out who is pushing them in.
So what would I do? Having lived the quality control measures of Government cock-ups for the past year and a half, what would I change?
Well I agree that welfare needs to be reformed, but not like this. Not these damning cuts and sanctions and work capability assessments. Start by making things better for people, not worse.
Start by paying housing benefit monthly, not four weekly, in line with most peoples rent and mortgage payments. To spell it out, in my local area, LHA is £635 a month. But paid four weekly, it’s just £586. The additional £49 needs to be topped up, usually out of income support, which is money that should be used for heating, clothes and food. Paying housing benefit monthly would also be cheaper to administer, as payments would be made twelve, not thirteen times a year.
Secondly, raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Minimum wage for an adult is currently £6.19 an hour. A living wage is estimated at £7.25. By my quick and crude calculations, minimum wage earners working less than 28 hours a week will not be paying tax on their earnings. By raising it to a living wage, people who work over 22 hours a week will be in the threshold for paying tax. Also, slightly higher incomes mean decreased eligibility for benefits. I’m quite a simple person – but more money into the economy in the form of taxes and higher income, added to less money coming out of the welfare pot, can only be a good thing to help restore the health of the economy and incentivise work over benefits.
I’ve actually taken the liberty of writing a 14 point plan, and i’m pleased to see today that Asda have adopted one of the points, although I shan’t take the credit, and will be donating some of their food waste to food banks and other humanitarian incentives.
Again, I don’t believe food banks are the solution. They’re currently a life line for half a million people in this, the seventh richest country in the world.
But isn’t it time that we stopped just pulling people out of the river, and instead, let’s go upstream, and stop pushing them in.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe

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Jack Monroe is an award winning food writer and bestselling author. Books include A Girl Called Jack, A Year In 120 Recipes and Cooking On A Bootstrap. She has won the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink award (ironically), the Observer Food Monthly Best Food Blog, Marie Claire 'Woman At The Top', Red Magazine's 'Red Hot Women', the YMCA Courage & Inspiration Award, the Woman Of The Year Entrepreneur award, the Women Of The Future media award and many more. She works with Oxfam, the Trussell Trust, Child Poverty Action Group, Plan Zheroes, the Food Chain and many food banks, schools and childrens centres to teach people to cook and eat well on a low income, and campaigns against the causes of poverty and austerity in Britain and abroad.