Down on luck

I passed a woman on the street last week while walking home from work. She looked to be in her early 30s and she held out a cardboard sign to the street with a messy scribble that read: “Sometimes, women need help too”. The sign struck me because the woman described her need as being not for money or for food – although that was what she was asking for – but for help. And every person will, at some stage in their life, need to ask for help.

As a society, we too readily jump to conclusions about who a person is and how they came to be where they are. We assume that we know and understand circumstances that are a far stretch from the range of our own life experiences. We make judgments about their lifestyles and their behaviour.

I remember reading an article about the logic of stupid poor people, in which the author was writing to explain why poor people will often purchase expensive but “useless” status symbols. The middle and upper classes are quick to point out the contradiction: if you are poor, why would you spend money buying expensive stuff? From their point of view the behaviour is completely illogical, and so they come to conclude that maybe the poor deserve to be poor through their own stupid decisions. The point that the author makes at the end is hard-hitting:

You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

I grew up in a household where part-time jobs making coffee and teaching piano meant that I was the only employed person in the family.  I have sat, numerous times, in a WINZ office with my mother, wondering whether the fridge might be empty for another week. And yet it is so easy to forget that past and to be blind to those experiences, as the woman on the street reminded me, when we are not part of the “inherently poor” “them” but are instead part of middle class “us”.

Certain experiences growing up have made me particularly sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of those who are down on luck. But every now and then, I think we all need to put ourselves into the shoes of those who are struggling – often due to no fault of their own – and to remind ourselves of how human it is to need help.

This week, the reminder came from Sue Townsend, who described her experiences as a struggling single mother of three in a 1989 piece on “how the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies”. The entire piece is worth reading, but part of it is reproduced below.

“Haven’t you got any relatives who’ll lend you some money?” said the young man behind the desk. It is impossible to convey to somebody who has money and no children the nightmare of having children and no money. I knew nobody who was on the telephone at that time. I couldn’t even reverse the charges and ask for help.

I couldn’t face walking the five miles home. I begged the young man for 50p, but he wouldn’t relent. The staff in the back office started to put their coats on and tidy their desks. Half-past five arrived. Most of the people in the waiting room were ushered out. Others, desperate like me, stayed – explaining – some in tears, others shouting, that they hadn’t eaten, had nowhere to stay. It was bedlam. My children were hot and thirsty. Could I give them a glass of water? “No,” the office was now closed.

“You lend me 50p – as a person, you’ll get it back,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Where would it end if I started to do that?”

I wanted to tell him that I was a literate and intelligent person, not just the young mother of those crying children – for Christ’s sake, I had read every page of War and Peace. When I could afford it I read the Guardian. I was a Bessie Smith fan. I had won several prizes for verse speaking. I could read a menu in French. A poet had been in love with me. I knew how to spell and pronounce Dostoevsky. I had worked hard since I was 15. I had paid my taxes and my national insurance. I had never broken the law and all I wanted from the welfare state was a stinking, lousy, sodding 50p. I didn’t get it.

It is a terrible thing to see your mother crying. I tried very hard, I contorted my face this way and that but eventually, when we were out on the street, the tears came. The four of us walked along – a quartet of cry-babies.

I was too proud to stop passers-by and ask for help. I scanned the pavements looking for money. Instead I found lemonade bottles, Corona brand. There was a returnable deposit of 4p on each bottle. My eldest son cheered up; he knew that these bottles represented hard cash. My pride vanished, I looked in litter bins, I looked over walls and behind fences. Soon we had enough for my bus fare, and then we had enough for four ice lollies – don’t anybody dare to even think that those children should have been given something healthy to eat.

When we got home I bathed the children, and, when they were clean and shining in their pyjamas, I said we were going to have a special treat for dinner. I emptied the food cupboard of its contents. It didn’t take long. There was a packet of beef suet, a tin of golden syrup, a tin of peas and one Oxo cube. For dinner we had pea soup (put another pea in the soup, Mother) and the golden roly-poly. My eldest child still remembers this meal. We laid a tablecloth on the living-room floor and ate in picnic fashion.

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