When will modern society work out that hating and bullying people in poverty doesn’t eradicate poverty?
Last Wednesday, I spent several hours at Oldham foodbank, speaking with people who’d come in for food parcels. I visit Oldham foodbank from time to time.
On Wednesday, I had a long talk with Mel (name changed), 47. There’s a full transcript from that interview at the end of this article.
I’m posting this interview for a specific reason.
Mel and her family were on the receiving end of a great deal of government and public bile.
I want to show you how that looks from Mel’s side of the fence:
Mel talked about being patronised by frontline officers and targeted by people in the neighbourhood.
Universal Credit officers dismissed Mel when she rang the helpline because her benefits weren’t paid: “He [the DWP officer] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one.”
A neighbour had dobbed Mel in with authorities – I think for housing extra family members in her flat.
A secretary at a local school had called Mel’s children and grandchildren dirty: “I didn’t actually punch her…I’m not a violent person but…yeah.”
The list went on. It usually does.
That’s the point I want to focus on here.
I know precisely what government and a judgmental electorate would say about Mel’s family. They would call Mel and her family scroungers. They would hate on the family and think – “Job Done. That’ll Learn Them.” (It’s only a pity that bailed-out bankers aren’t punished as thoroughly for their money-handling problems). Such is our era. The general view is that all that people in Mel’s situation need to sort things out is a kick in the head.
I don’t believe that bashing people when they’re already down is a brilliant social policy tactic. What I do know is that Mel and her family were being crushed by the dysfunctional and abusive public sector bureaucracies that they relied on. That part was absolutely not Mel’s fault. That part was society’s fault. Society approves of institutional aggression towards the worst off and likes to describe people in poverty as barbaric if they respond badly to that aggression. That’s how things roll for the Mels of the modern world.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Mel was ill. She said that she was having radiation therapy. She looked sick. She was tiny and gaunt, and her hair was thinning. She kept saying that she looked old. She was upset about it.
“I’ve got two weeks left of radiation… two weeks left of treatment, three times a week. I look old.”
There were other problems, too – like Mel needed them.
One problem was that Mel was receiving Universal Credit. Universal Credit’s defective payment systems had caused Mel no end of grief. For example: Mel had rent arrears. She couldn’t understand why, because the housing costs component of her Universal Credit was paid straight to her landlord. Her rent should have been covered. It hadn’t been at one point or another, and she didn’t know why. Mel kept getting letters from First Choice Homes about the arrears. She couldn’t repay the money. She would never be able to repay the money. The demand letters kept coming. This happens too often to mention. The threats roll in and roll in. There’s no respite. The debts never end.
So, there was that.
Another problem was that Mel’s flat was overcrowded. Her children and grandchildren were staying with her, because they had nowhere else to go.
Mel said she had seven (sometimes eight) people living in her two-bedroom flat. There was Mel, her five-year-old daughter, her 26-year-old daughter, the daughter’s partner and their three kids (and sometimes another daughter, I think Mel said). The 26-year-old daughter and her family had recently been evicted from their flat, because the landlord had wanted to sell.
There was more.
At the moment, the family relied on Mel’s benefit money to pay for food and clothes. Mel’s daughter had applied for Universal Credit, but had only received one payment in ten months. Continue reading