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The poor: poorer than you think

February 18, 2011

I’ve been trying to write a few blog posts recently about political and media failings, but they keep turning into massive essays that I don’t have time to finish, so I’ll try keep this one short:

I like the Guardian: it’s one of the few (or even the only) UK papers that has a left-wing bias and doesn’t treat you like you’re completely stupid, but it’s very hard to ignore that its target audience is very clearly the middle class. Most of the time it makes little difference, but articles like this about low pay in Swansea really open my eyes to how uninformed people can be, and how different my life has been compared to even the people of the middle classes.

The aim of the article is to inform people of the conditions of the poor around the country (in this instance, in Swansea), which I certainly have no problems with. My problem is that these conditions have been around for decades without anyone giving a damn. Things are getting worse now the cuts are biting – this much is true – but these examples cannot be the worst out there. £40 a week for everything other than food is tough, and these people have my sympathy, but it’s hard to be sympathetic when you know there are many others worse off, especially when you’ve been there yourself.

I’m in a pretty good position right now. I have a job, and while the pay is rubbish, my living costs are quite low as I still live in shared housing. I got a pay rise last year, but only because they raised the minimum wage and I would have fallen under it. The reason I describe this as a pretty good position is because I remember how difficult it was living with my mum and my brother 6-12 years ago – she earned about the same as I do now, with much higher living costs and trying to support two teenage children. We usually had around £40 left for food at end of the month, maybe a bit more when I helped out with my part-time wages once I had turned 16. To top it off, in the area we lived, this was normal. Everyone lived at roughly this standard, trying to make ends meet month after month, during the New Labour boom times. I hate to think how badly those same families are doing now.

A few years ago, before I dropped out and eventually found this job, I was a student. Both of those were worse positions than now – my living costs were roughly the same, but my income was much lower. I didn’t have to pay tuition fees (they were paid for me as my family didn’t have enough to pay them) but this didn’t really remove all the problems that students from poor backgrounds have. Nobody should have to choose between not having enough money to live on or having a part-time job that cuts into the time you have to study, and this position ultimately cost me my degree. I failed both courses I tried, because I either didn’t have the time to do the work I needed to achieve the grades, or I didn’t have enough money to eat and spiralled into depression.

I dropped out and signed onto Jobseekers, which at least gave me enough money to pay the bills and buy food without forcing me into more debt, but the two months it took them to do the paperwork saw me living off a packet of biscuits a week plus anything my friends would give me out of sympathy. It wouldn’t surprise me if crime is rising more and more these days, because even I was tempted at that point – even if you get caught, you at least get food and a bed if you’re in prison.

The worst part of this article, in my opinion, is that it’s not even written primarily to inform, but to sell a book – this Precariat thing, four paragraphs in. Have a look at the Guardian bookshop blurb, and you will see why. “The Precariat – the New Dangerous Class“, it says, going on with complete seriousness about how the growing number of people without a hope of a future is a risk to this country and its politics.

Why exactly are the poor dangerous now, and were we also dangerous ten or twenty years ago?

Why are we described as some kind of obstacle, something the country has to “overcome”, instead of what we really are – a symptom of a country, a system that is designed to abuse us, to make the most of our resources while providing so few in return, and keep us down where we apparently belong?

We’re an unpleasant reminder, even to the Guardian readers, of just how much of a mess this country is in, and of how so many people want to do nothing about it.

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