I was speaking to an old friend a few days ago, catching up on family news and what we’d been up to. I mentioned that I’d just been up to drop off a box of donated food for the local foodbank, and there was an unusually eerie silence. The word on my friend’s lips next shocked me: ‘Why?’
Now, I happen to know this person has not been hiding under a stone for the last few years, as benefit cuts and austerity has gripped the UK. He grew up in a working class area, from working class parents who often struggled to make ends meet, the same as I did. So this threw me a little. I stumbled through an explanation I didn’t really feel I should need to make; relating the facts I thought he would know: that many families are struggling to feed their children, due to welfare cuts and loss of work. That some people are working and yet still on such low wages they can’t get by without the help of foodbanks to cushion them. And if the word ‘why’ had surprised me, his next, which I can only describe as a ‘rant’ shocked and sickened me. It went something along these lines:
‘So you know most of the people who use these foodbanks smoke and stuff, right? While gullible suckers like you are buying them food. There’s only one way to feed your family, I’m afraid, and that’s hard work. These People just don’t want to work. They just want handouts…’ I think it perhaps went on a little longer than this. I have a bad feeling he moved on to ‘these asylum seekers’, but, by this time, my hackles rising, I had to pull the telephone away from my ear to block out some of his talk. I felt guilty just being a party to this conversation. I did try my best to get a few words in, but it was no good – his mind had already been made up.
Then, later the same week, I re-tweeted a petition asking the government not to stop the Tax Credits system many UK families on low incomes rely on; mine being one of them. I subsequently began receiving messages from a gentleman who shall remain nameless in the vein of ‘scroungers taking money from the tax payer’. When I (politely) responded that hard working families getting financial help to pay for children’s school dinners/uniforms/food generally wasn’t what I would call a waste of money, the response was: ‘Why are These People having children they can’t afford’. That phrase again: These People. Who are these mysterious people? Well, I’m one of them, clearly. Was I being an abuser of the system by having two daughters and not taking a highly paid job because I felt it was more important to stay at home and raise them, whilst my husband worked? Were we wrong to open a small business, employing a handful of local workers part-time and creating something for the community?
Over the past few years, we have gone on and off Working Tax Credits as our business fluctuated during the recession. Apparently, according to that gentleman, I should have made ‘contingency plans’ to avoid the need for Tax Credits altogether.
Now I was brought up to believe everybody deserves fair and equal treatment. My mother would encourage me to give change to homeless people when we were shopping in town; she chastised anyone who uttered the remotest racist word, and wouldn’t stand for anybody laughing at somebody else’s disability.
These are ethics I’ve tried to instil in my own children, and I guess I’ve got into the dangerous habit of assuming everybody thinks this way. The overflowing collection of food for the foodbank in my local library is testament to the fact that there are people out there who share this ideal, and some basic research reassures me that we are not in the minority. According to The Trussell Trust’s website – the charity responsible for many of the current foodbanks – 10,280 tonnes of food were donated to their foodbanks last year and some 42,000 volunteers are helping to ensure that donated food reaches the people most in need. Also, the second highest reason for people qualifying for a three day supply of food was due to low income, not, as my friend had insinuated, because they ‘wanted handouts’ rather than work. Other reasons given, other than claiming welfare benefits, were domestic violence, homelessness, debt problems, sickness and to provide meals for children during school holidays.*
My friend’s comments sat in my mind for the next few days, making me question this: since when did it become justified to vilify the poor? Is it just the tabloid media who send out these hateful messages, or is it the reality of how many people have always felt underneath the surface?
The way I look at it, a society that wastes so much food every year can help to supply a small amount each week to support the foodbanks, who are doing such necessary work. Surely the children still need to eat. And surely, by vilifying those at the very bottom of the social structure, we are simply adding to the misery and isolation of their circumstances.
That’s when it occurred to me: maybe people like my so-called friend like to have the crutch of demonising the poor – after all, it’s much easier to sleep at night if you think people ‘deserve’ their situation in life. It means you don’t have to do anything about it.
Whatever way you look at it, things aren’t going to get any easier for the people on the bottom rung of society, especially with more welfare cuts to come. It’s getting more difficult for all but those at the very top, in fact, and that is something we all need to be aware of. Making derogatory comments about people less fortunate, or suffering from temporary difficulties, isn’t going to help anyone. We need to remind people who make these snap judgements based on ignorance and news headlines that anyone can end up needing help and support. Something only we, as a collective society, can do anything about.
*Information care of The Trussell Trust website.