The wrong people are feeling shame for Britain's poverty

More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. Shame is the logical response - but something has been lost in translation.

I remember noticing poor kids as a child. The ones whose clothes were an inch too short or started the day with dirt on their face.

My primary school was not middle class. Low income parents, with the strange grandness of a swimming pool crumbling at the back of the gates. No one was rich but some were poor enough to stand out. School dinners and a smell that wasn’t soap. Peeling plastic off a paper plate, as one seven year old was set out as different than the rest.

I think about difference sometimes, and the stigma that can come with it. I’ve thought about it more lately, as benefits (and more divisive, certain types of benefits) seem to be increasingly accompanied by a dose of shame. 

This Government is good at shame. It’s less a politics of policy and more one of morality. Not the sort of morality that’s recognisable to many of us, granted. More moralising. Where middle class stay-at-home wives are rewarded whilst single mothers are punished, where unemployment figures are greeted with forcing the jobless into unpaid labour. Be a good little citizen and behave the right way. Even if you can’t, even if you wouldn’t want to.

A Conservative MP said last week that emergency food parcels shouldn’t be given out because people might become reliant on them. “I value responsibility,” Paul Maynard MP said. “I do not believe that immediate food relief should be the role of the Government.”

The problem isn’t food poverty but that going to food banks for help might become “a habit.” As if there were people who found the experience of exchanging a voucher for scraps enjoyable. A free supermarket, where the cardboard boxes are lined with pride and self-esteem is on special offer.

Even the stereotype of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your kids isn’t enough anymore. Now it’s the ones filling in forms to apply for the help Government is meant to give or going to the food banks when that help fails them. Benefits are the new theft. Need – or rather, needing help to meet that need – is the new shame.

More than a quarter of people on benefits say they’ve hidden the fact because they’re worried what others will think, a YouGov study by the new charity coalition Who Benefits? shows today. This rises to half if they are 16 to 24. Over a half of all those who had never been supported by benefits said they’d feel embarrassed to claim.

This is good, isn’t it? If shame made people richer, perhaps. Strangely, the solution to unemployment isn’t embarrassment and poverty isn’t cured by stigma. Shamed people still need help to stop their children going hungry. They’ll just feel bad about themselves as they do.

There’s no martyrdom in going hungry. No one who’s ever faced a choice between the heating and eating found the sacrifice edifying. Few people have seen their children hungry and needed motivation to ‘help themselves’. This seems genuine news to many on the right. Where poverty is caused, not by market, but individual failure, where using benefits is a signal, not of doing what you need to live, but of a lack of personal responsibility.

Responsibility? This Government wouldn’t know the meaning. It lets children get poorer and blames “workless” parents for its crimes. One in five children in this country are now in poverty. Half of disabled people are using credit cards or payday loans to buy clothes or food.  More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. 

I wonder if Cameron or Osborne notice. If their kids ever see someone set out as different and think.

The funny thing is, guilt is natural. In the face of this poverty, shame is the logical response. It just happens to be the wrong people feeling it. This Government, whilst it's finding its conscience, should also feel the shame in that.

Volunteer Maureen Wiltshire puts together a parcel of food at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle