What poverty is . . .

I don’t believe that our political class – nor indeed much of our media class – actually have any understanding of what poverty really is: an agonising, life-wrecking tragedy.

Recently, my fellow NS blogger Alex Andreou asked people on Twitter about their experiences of poverty. I sent a short reply, but I wanted to expand on it.

  • Poverty is sickness. A constant, nagging itch somewhere in your brain; a ball of rage and sadness in the pit of your stomach.
  • Poverty is logging into your online bank account with sweaty fingertips, the thought that you’ve once again gone over your overdraft limit and are about to incur charges. Not a kvetch, but a juddering, pulse-quickening nightmare. It’s pleading with a bank employee to extend your overdraft limit for just a few weeks, because you know that sooner or later a payment you’re owed will come in, even though you know all it’ll do is buy you a couple of weeks before the next frenzied panic.
  • Poverty is shame. It’s not being able to tell your family. It’s shame at not being able to tell your family.
  • Poverty is loneliness. It’s not being able to go out with your friends, partly because you have no money, but more so because you can’t bear the thought of their happiness and your brave face.
  • Poverty isn’t necessarily hunger, though it can be. It’s certainly the thought process that tells you the skunk and vodka that takes the edge off the depression is more important than bread and milk.
  • Poverty is rage and envy. It’s seeing others succeed, or at least live comfortable lives, purely because of where they come from or who their parents are, and wondering why no one ever really prepared you for life; never told you that actually it wasn’t the level playing field you grew up on as a child. So you sit at your computer, and you fire off job application after job application, at first thinking each covering letter through, after a few weeks just cutting and pasting, and praying that someone, somewhere, will understand how much you just need a chance.
  • Poverty is standing on the bridge over the A1, staring down at the unyielding grey tarmac of the road below, tears in your eyes, thinking better of it, and going to a pub in Highgate, ordering a shot of whiskey and telling yourself to pull it together, then walking for three hours to get home, your mind strangely numb. It’s doing that for three days running.
  • Poverty is a nightmare. For me, it didn’t even last a year, yet this is the impression it left. And I don’t believe that our political class – nor indeed much of our media class – actually have any understanding of what poverty really is: an agonising, life-wrecking tragedy.

As you’ll see from Alex’s Storify, it’s so many different things to different people. In the last couple of days it’s been heartening to see both political parties scrambling to disown the “strivers vs shirkers” rhetoric that characterised previous discussions of welfare (and my period of worklessness was during the New Labour years, when such talk was rarely corrected). One thing that poverty also now is – as this detailed report makes clear – is living on benefits.

Right now I begin to wonder how far Iain Duncan Smith’s campaign to save people from the “benefits trap” is as morally-driven a crusade as he claims, and how far it’s just a question of political expediency. Because the more one looks at the evidence – for example here and here - the more one wonders if his conception of inter-generational worklessness is at best flawed and at worst fabricated.

Many left wingers will tell you that the Coalition wishes to punish the poor. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that politicians are often enticed by narratives that suit their ideology. Perhaps the main reason that provokes such outrage is because poverty means something different to them.

Rain in Rochdale. Photo:Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.