Sunday 23 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What to do about the poor? There they are, ignoring the bailiffs knocking on the door, soon to kick it in. Enjoying their cold showers (that’s not a euphemism, by the way). Enjoying? What do you mean “enjoying”? Nobody enjoys cold showers in January! Haven’t they ever heard of warm water running smoothly down your body on a chilly winter morning? Ah, they can’t put the water heater on. Can’t afford it. All right, then. OK, how about this, how about all that greasy food they put in their fat bodies? It’s a disgrace. Oh, comfort food, you say, cheap food, you say, whatever is available, you say, from the local food bank, you say. Whatever. Whenever. Wherever.

What is poverty? Or rather, what isn’t? The latter is less difficult to define than the former. It surely isn’t yet another banker or CEO pocketing another billion-pound bonus.

I have realised in my many years living on planet Earth as a fully functional human being that in order to attain a degree of normality certain social groups must be occasionally demonised. The way it works is as follows: we create a problem, then, we come up with a scapegoat, or scapegoats, to masquerade the problem we can no longer solve. But the problem doesn’t go away, in fact, the problem comes back at us as strong as the urine that damps our clothes when we take a leak against the wind. But instead of acknowledging the problem (pissing against the wind, or the micturition dilemma to put it more politely) and our role in it, we look for another patsy to blame. All the time with our clothes reeking of urine.

Let’s establish a fact first of all: nobody wants to be poor. I have never met a single person in my entire life whose main aspiration is to live below the breadline. The opposite? Yes. All you need to do is turn your telly on and almost every channel on both terrestrial and satellite television will have its own “reality” show where contestants compete against each other to win a prize that will make them instantly rich. Or at least recognisable, which is a way to become famous and therefore rich. But poor? There is no programme called How to Become Poor and Be Really Good at It (although Channel 4 might already be working on it). Which means that poverty can be caused by many factors: redundancy (voluntary or not), learnt culture (born into a household where dependency on state handouts is chronic), loss of an industry upon which a whole region relies, i.e., mining. The list goes on. Why, then, the vilification of the poor as if deprivation could be explained by one single element?

I have a theory. I think that one of the reasons is classism. Throughout history different groups have been maligned for various reasons: blacks, Jews, Arabs, women, you name it. But in the case of the poor disapproval of their status and lifestyle has been constant. Why? Because the poor are a reminder of the flaws in our society, especially in the so-called developed world.  In developing nations, like Cuba, my country of birth, the existence of poor people is not a welcome sight, but it is understandable. After all we are “developing” as a country. Plus, the Cuban government can always be trusted to blame the US embargo for this situation, even if the big shots have never had to put up with hardship. But in the case of western polities, the poor are a stain that refuses to go away. They are that class with which the middle and upper classes have to contend every day even if they don’t share the same postcode. It doesn’t matter whether you sit on the left or on the right of the political spectrum. Whilst you might think twice about using inappropriate language when discussing race or sexual orientation nowadays out of political correctness, when it comes to the poor, anything and everything goes. Those of a blue-tinted hue (conservative, for those not au fait with British politics) condemn poor people and label them as lazy, good-for-nothing and scroungers. If only they got off their fat backsides and look for work! The red side (Labour) doesn’t fare better. It is constantly chasing the middle ground and therefore cannot make up its mind as to what to do with those who have fallen on hard times. When the liberal, progressive, forward-thinking brigade opens its collective mouth to talk about the poor what comes out is usually draped in condescension.

What to do with the poor, then? Well, the question is, what to do with them when they finally break through? When they come off benefits and find their own feet (again, for some). I tell you what, they still get a kicking.

The poor: damn if you do, damn if you don't
Enter Jack Monroe, the doyenne of one of the better blogs around, A Girl CalledJack. Ms Monroe is a dynamic, clever and feisty woman who, as a single mother of one, has unintentionally incurred the wrath of the rightwing press. All because she has dared to raise her head above the parapet and bring a much-needed empirical angle to the discussion about the welfare state. Oh, and she’s a lesbian with lots of tattoos.

When Jack writes about being on the dole she does not use figures or statistics. She lets readers know exactly what she had to go through when her housing benefit payments were delayed, leaving her in arrears. Monroe’s life is not the “Benefits Fantasy Island” parliamentarians debate about in Westminster, where apparently all claimants wear the latest Nikes and have Samsung 32-inch LED televisions in their living rooms. Hers is the real face of poverty in Britain in the 21st century.

I do not deny that some people abuse the welfare system. Sadly they give a bad reputation to those who really need it, but we have to accept the fact that fraudsters do exist. That is why we need the likes of Jack Monroe to tell us about her experience of watching her son eating the only food available in the house whilst she went hungry. We hear too much about the person who cheats the system of a few hundred pounds but less of the many claimants who can’t even make ends meet because they lack the ends.

To carry on with Jack, her blog was picked up by a few media outlets and before she knew it she had a column in TheGuardian and was fronting a Sainsbury’s ad. You would have thought that the rightwing media would have been happy with how her life turned out. After all, she got on her bike and found work! No more feckless and unemployed Ms Monroe but a proper full-time employee contributing, through her taxes, to the safety net from which she had benefited. She was still a tattooed, lesbian single mother, though. Oh, well, you can’t please everybody all the time, can you?

So, was the rightwing media happy? Hell, no!

The Daily Mail has been at the vanguard of the onslaught against Jack Monroe in the form of Bigot-in-Chief Richard Littlejohn. Jack’s problem apparently is that she talks. And she doesn’t just talk, but she talks, articulately, about problems this government would rather people forget about. Like, for instance, how over 5,000 people have been treated for malnutrition in the past year in the UK. Jack’s problem (in the eyes of The Mail and other reactionary newspapers) is that, although she belongs to the underclass, she’s dared to rise above her station. Monroe is expressing opinions to which her ilk is not normally entitled. In the eyes of the rightwing media this is a mortal sin.

There is, however, another side to this coin. Welcome as it is that Jack Monroe has made The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror her natural home, one - unintentional - reason for her acceptance is the existence of a different type of snobbery against poor people, this time from the well-meaning left. Monroe ticks all the boxes that would rile the average The Daily Mail reader: "lefty, liberal, lezzer cook" (her words) . (We) Guardian devotees love this. There is nothing we enjoy more than putting one over The Daily Hate. But scratch the surface and I know that many of my fellow Guardianistas would not be seen dead in their local sink estate talking to the heavily-tattooed bloke, hoodie up, staffs let loose in the park terrorising families, smoking a roll-up and expressing himself in monosyllables with the f-word cameoing in almost every short sentence. That is also the face of poverty in Britain. Unfortunately it does not come accompanied by toasted pitta bread topped with chunks of fried sardine and a runny egg.

Jack is not to blame for this state of affairs. She is doing a sterling job. She is not only a brilliant cook (I will be nicking one of her recipes for my food and music section soon), but also a much-needed feminist model in times when most girls look at Rihanna and Beyoncé as women to emulate. To me the issue remains the same: what do we do about the poor? Answers on a postcard, please.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday26th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. We don't have to listen to Jack - or Jeanette Winterson, who talked with great rage about poverty on Question Time last week - because they're lefty lesbians.

    We don't have to listen to a Catholic Archbishop, because religion shouldn't venture into the sphere of politics.

    We don't have to listen to the tattooed bloke in the hoodie because, well, who wants to listen to him.

    Instead - we reframe the problem. If there weren't so many food banks we wouldn't have so many people using them!! Hurrah - a solution. Redefine poverty!! Only those with no money at all, nor a roof over their heads, can expect any help.

    But wait - that might mean we support people from overseas who have come to exploit our benefit system. We can't, of course, have that.

    So only white people, with no money, who can prove that they have never smoked, drank, or said an unkind word to dogs are entitled to any sympathy - and then they must wait for three months till they get a penny.

    (No I'm not serious. I'm ask angry as Jeanette Winterson, and Jack.)

  2. Thanks, Jo. I saw Jack on Sky News with a bemused and puzzled Eamon Holmes (what's he doing presenting telly?) and she came across as a confident and humble person. She has a cookery book out. You can buy it by clicking on the link provided on my post. As I wrote last week, I don't do promotions or advertise products to make money. I do, however, provide links to webpages, blogs and other online fora of artists, writers and bloggers whose work I think should be more widely known and bought.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  3. first, i love pearl of my top bands of all time...people dont want to live in poverty...i didnt but i did for over 7 family was fed...we learned to do without much...which is counter culture because we sell the need for everything and have created an entitled culture...its funny we then blame social programs for the problems that it creates and not our own obsessions...

  4. Pearl Jam, gran recomendación para un fin de semana, saludos amigo.

  5. Hmm...what do we do about the poor?
    Unfortunately, every feasible reply has it's complications.
    I agree with everything Jo has already said...there are so many aspects to this subject...I try to make light of it...self-preservation, you see...:)

  6. poverty is a big theme and there's certainly no easy solution - not even providing enough money would be a solution cause the roots of those that grew up in poverty are deep - they have "learned" certain things that will probably put them into the same place again soon - it's something that affects the whole person and family and society - and the politicians better start thinking seriously about how to improve things

  7. Greed always seems to stomp on the little guy from up high, so until you knock them down a peg or three, not sure what can be done

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  9. There was a time, only a few decades ago, where overpopulation often was cited as the primary problem confronting humankind. Although, in my view, that still remains a fundamental truth, if anyone really is echoing the warning, I am not sure who or where the voice might be.

    While I do think human frailties and weaknesses are the biggest factors which create poverty (no one has a choice of which genes, which environments, which physical and mental talents they are born with or into), ever-increasing technology and other causes are closing the doors to meaningful economic opportunity while the population of the Earth is burgeoning at a doomsday rate. This creates more competition for fewer resources (and jobs).

    Another thing most politicians seem to forget is that not all of us want to be a doctor, a professional athlete or a rocket scientist even if we could be. Nor is the person who makes hamburgers at a fast food outlet ever going to make the same money as the person who can throw a baseball one hundred miles an hour or a person who can perform near-miracles with a scalpel in an operating room.

    I am afraid I take a Biblical view: The poor will always be with us. They are a permanent segment of any society.

    In the meanwhile, I endorse the "New Deal" Works Project Administration approach of the 1930s in America: Help people who need help by having them participate in public works projects to earn their daily bread and their choice of cigarettes. It makes infinitely more sense, to me, than simply passing out free money collected by centralized governments levying ridiculous tax burdens on the people who are working and earning a living.

    Again, you are very serious for a Sunday morning, CiL, ....

  10. Many thanks for your thoughtful replies.

    This is a difficult topic to write about, especially as I can't really talk too much about my 9-5 job (which isn't really 9-5) which revolves around working with families many of which are living on or below the breadline.

    Fram, I'm with you and the New Deal. The problem is that the current government cut the lifeline of many of these programmes. Rather than spending to create, they withdrew funding from many schemes that proved to be effective with the poor and the unemployed. Disgraceful.

    Have a great week ahead.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Your right wing papers and America's right wing papers have a field day demonizing the poor. Too bad they can't spend Sunday morning -as those in my church do - making breakfast and feeding SF's homeless. Gay, lesbian and transgender kids kicked out by their families with no place to go. People who used to be considered "working class" who have been laid off and have no place to go. Jesus may have said "blessed are the poor for their's is the kingdom of heaven" but I think that all of us could use a lot less pie in the sky and more real projects and programs like the ones that FDR created in the 1930's. In a world where the 1% get 99% of the wealth, that doesn't leave much for the other 99%. The venom and hatred thrown toward the poor by those who are wealthy staggers me - but such hatred is the seed bed of revolution.

  12. WONDERFUL post.
    Yes, the welfare system has fraudsters. However, I suspect that it has less than some more profitable things - banks, politics leap to mind, just because the pickings are so much slimmer.
    I have been poor and don't want to go back there again. But acknowledge that it is possible.
    And that acknowledgement is a starting point. It could happen to me - so what can I do to reduce the risk, and make it shorter, and safer...

  13. Poverty always needs its spokespersons, and I applaud those who do. Its a wonder they manage on the funding.

  14. There was a great program in the U.S. back in the late 1970's for ex-felons and drug addicts to help them find jobs in non-profits. I remember a lot of people found really good jobs through this program and became fairly productive citizens. Shortly after this was when the "war" on drugs began and addicts and the mentally ill were demonized and sent to prisons for way too many years, perpetuating the cycle of recidivism. And so it has gone since. It is as if there is some sort of hidden agenda to keep a poor class of people in place.

    One of the growing classes of poverty here is with senior citizens. People such as myself who lost jobs during the "recession" of 2008 were never able to find another job because of age discrimination. Last year I was part of a program called SCSEP that enabled me to earn enough money through work with nonprofits to survive. However, funding for this program has been greatly reduced and many older Americans live a bleak existence of sheer survival.

    My point is there are simple ways to help people out of poverty but the bottom line seems to be no one really has an investment in giving the poor a chance and even more so there is a need to keep a poor lower class. One example would be our prison system that is rapidly being privatized so that money can be made. And so on...

  15. great post and no easy answer love her column and tips such talent

  16. What a thoughtful piece - loved it. I have no answers though...

  17. Thanks for introducing me to another person/blog -- and the whole discussion, including the comments has been fascinating as well. I have very little to add and have to restrain myself from sinking into an utter cynic by crying that these appear, sometimes, to be "end times" in the sense that utter corruption and gross inequality rule the day --

  18. Don't get me talking about this subject... the frustration of it would drive me to distraction. Brilliant post, though, Cuban.

  19. I often wonder where the welfare state would be if politics wouldn't be really is a shame. Enjoyed reading about Jack...good for her! We'll have to check her articles out ~ love that she's shaking up the system a bit :) Lovin' the Pearl Jam this morning!!

  20. This is a brilliant post.
    your lines say it well, 'poverty is a reminder of the flaws in our society' Jac Monroe was on Woman's Hour on Radio 4 today - she has given the money Sainsburys paid her to Oxfam - she is someone that we all should admire - not the money grabbing element which makes up most of our society.

  21. Wow, you are tackling the issues! I'm an admirer of Jack and anyone who can get people to relate to the poor. Empathy is her best recipe. Love Bob Dylan too.

  22. A very interesting and thought-provoking post, thank you.

    I've lived with the haves and the have nots. I agree, NO ONE wants to be poor.

    It's so much more than just a lack of money that makes anyone poor.

    A mindset, circumstances, misfortunes...that can snowball beyond what any individual might have imagined, and in a short period of time. I've been there...not homeless (thank goodness) but hopeless...

    and it's a hard road back to feeling secure and able to look into the future, even if it's just the next day, without fear.

  23. Everyone should spend time in council estates. I've lived in two of Edinburgh's council estates and teach creative writing in another. Which does at least mean i don't label the people who live there...



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