Every now and again, a minor celebrity or institution will announce that they are ‘challenging themselves’ to ‘be poor for a day’ in order to raise awareness of the plight of people living in poverty in the UK. Sometimes this is done through charitable initiatives such as Live Below The Line, which I have done myself for several years running, fundraising for Oxfam and Street Child United. I use my own experiences of living in real food and fuel poverty, as a single mum on benefits, to cook and eat for £1 a day, and write about it extensively. It usually causes some degree of mental anguish, flashbacks, reliving of some of the worst periods of my life, and is not something that I enter into lightly. I have not done it for the last two years, to protect and preserve my own mental health. I am not sure if I will do it again.
Compare this, then, to YouTube star Alfie Deyes, deciding to live on just one measly pound for a day, as a kooky video idea. Complete with five paid advertisements in the middle of the video, Deyes took his £1 coin to Waitrose, where he was comedically shocked to find that fresh fruit is expensive for people living on a budget. So is the whole of Waitrose, Alfie, I muttered as I winced my way through the twenty minute video. Most people in poverty can’t blag a dozen free Krispy Kreme donuts for having a famous face, and neither can they just pause the challenge in the middle of the day to buy some beard oil and hit the gym. Slipping into our scarred and malnourished skins for a day, knowing full well you are heading back to your mansion at the end of it, stuffed to the gills with all the freebies and luxury that most people can only dream of, is insulting, and cruel. It is nothing more than performance poverty, to entertain yourself and others, with no value but your own entertainment, and barely-hidden disdain.
‘Poverty tourism’ is where someone in a position of privilege, pretends to be poor for a day, in order to ‘experience poverty for themselves’. You won’t. Poverty is not a 24 hour challenge. It is a world of endless nothing. It is depression, despair, darkness. It is having no light at the end of the tunnel, like being stuck down a well, waiting to die.There is no planning for the future because you don’t believe you really have one. There are no savings accounts, no rainy day funds, no contents insurance, no health insurance, no investment in your own self, your own health, because to invest financially, nutritionally, or emotionally is to look forward. Poverty only looks at its own feet, in too-tight shoes that let in the rain, it drags you downwards, and inwards, and I speak from bitter, horrible experience.
I lived in poverty for around two years with an infant son, moving from a flat to a smaller, mouldy flat to a friends sofa to a mattress on the floor in a house I shared with five people. I made myself minimal, I hid in my room, I tried to kill myself several times. Nobody could take this on as a challenge.
There’s nothing fun and exciting about missing days of meals, with the heating off all winter, the lightbulbs unscrewed, selling your sons shoes and drinking his formula milk that the food bank gave you. Try it for a month at least, if you really want to get an idea. Two months. Two years. Unscrew your lightbulbs, turn off your fridge, sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than a quid for.
Stop going out. Walk everywhere, in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing three year old trailing behind you. Drag that three year old into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies. Get home, soaking, still unemployed, to ‘dry out’ in a freezing cold flat. Put two jumpers on and worry about how you’ll wash them, take them off, and put a tshirt underneath. You can wear the jumpers all week, and change the tshirt twice.
Drag yourself to the cooker to pour some pasta into a pan, pour some chopped tomatoes on top, and try not to hurl it across the room when your son tells you he doesn’t like it – because there is nothing else. Nothing else at all.
I was cold, exhausted, only forcing myself out of the depths of choking depression to smile at the children’s centre workers because I was scared they can see how numb and dead I felt, how I went to bed at night tormented by thoughts of suicide. The endless self-chatter: ‘Your son would have a better life without you. You’re a drain on society, the state, your family and friends.’ I slit my wrists in the bath and horrified, came to, wailing and sobbing on the floor because I knew I’d hit the fecking bottom. Again.
You’re grateful for the tea and sympathy but you just want everyone to leave you alone and to stop asking if you’re okay. Because you’re not. You’re full of rain and heartache and anger and despair and it’s starting to seep through the cracks in the kept up appearances, seeping through the tshirt sleeve and you need to get out of there.
The rain isn’t miraculously any less wet when you don’t have a coat with a hood, or an umbrella, or three quid for the bus. That rain still soaks you to the skin, and your three year old, too.
Compare this to St Pauls Girls School, a mere £24,000 a year in fees and boasting famous alumni such as Natasha and Joely Richardson, Victoria Coren, and Baroness Bonham Carter, holding an ‘Austerity Week’ last week to show their pupils that, shock horror, some people can’t eat their regular menu of confit duck leg, courgette mornay, Thai steamed plaice parcels and Malaysian snapper curries. Some people have just a little potato for dinner.
I suggested that perhaps St Pauls would be better off inviting me to teach a Home Economics lesson, with a food bank parcel or an almost-empty cupboard of tinned beans, cheap pasta and a Healthy Start voucher, followed by a volunteering trip to the local food bank or homeless shelter, if they really wanted to understand the impact of austerity. Perhaps a visit to the widowed husband of Linda Wootton, who died eight days after being declared fit for work from a hospital bed, or the family of David Clapton, who died because he was unable to plug his fridge in to store his life-saving insulin.
Austerity is killing us in our thousands, and it is not a hunger game for the privileged to opt into for a day so they can pretend to have an insight. It’s easy to eat basic meals when you’re going home to your mansion at night. Jarvis Cocker said it better: ‘You’ll never get it right, because when you’re laying in bed at night, watching ‘roaches climb the wall, you can call your Dad and he can stop it all.’ My offer stands, both to Alfie Deyes to teach him how to cook £1 meals and take him to a food bank in Brighton, to use his platform to make a genuine difference for people in poverty (people who, until last week, I’m not sure he knew existed), and to St Pauls, to teach a Home Economics lesson on the real premium of poverty, with not a baked potato in sight.
In the meantime, the best thing that we all can do to ‘help’ people living in poverty in the UK – some 4 million of them – is not through ego-boosting challenges, not through appropriating our miserable diets of limited choices and even more limited budgets; it’s to join campaigns for Living Wages. To write to our MPs and ask them to prioritise their constituents who write to them with delayed or sanctioned benefits, or long waits for Universal Credit. It’s to examine their voting histories and ask yourself, if I lost my job tomorrow, or became seriously unwell and ended up on benefits, would I want this person representing me and my interests? Do I want them making decisions on behalf of my friends? It’s time we all took collective responsibility for the most vulnerable people in our society – because not one of us is immune from being among them. As Neil Kinnock famously said, ‘I warn you that you will have pain, when healing and relief depend on payment. I warn you that you will be quiet, when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to be ill. I warn you not to grow old.’
We are none of us immune from the scourge of poverty. Illness, accident, unemployment, bad luck can befall any one of us, and I warn you to put down your video cameras and self-congratulatory austerity weeks, and instead take the time to repair the welfare safety net that millions of your fellow citizens are slipping right through.
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