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|
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.
Photo taken from The Guardian
Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday26th February at 11:59pm (GMT)