“When we first moved in we were told it was temporary accommodation,” explains Kia, of the one-bedroom flat she has lived in for two-and-a-half years. “What I wanted was a house with a shower, not a bath. It’s awful trying to bath the children in the shower.”
Overcrowded housing highlights the difficult living conditions for families on the council housing waiting list and the daily problems and frustrations that waiting for housing can bring. It highlights the realities of living in poverty.
A few hours ago, my friend exodus asked me if I had seen this video. She told me that it had made her cry, and that she knew it would me cry. (I think the friend who knows what will make you cry until your eyeliner comes off is a true friend, I don’t know about you.) She was right. This video is easily one of the most upsetting things I have ever seen. But it shouldn’t be upsetting because it’s unusual, because nothing about this video is unusual— and I want to talk about that, how we’re so used to presentations of poverty as an Other, as something alien, that I think it is easy to forget that poverty is something terrifying in its mundanity. But first: watch this video and then read the rest of this, because nothing I could ever say can match the end of this video for impact. Seriously. Watch this video and then read the rest of this.
Okay, watched it? You see, when those on the left say that people will die because of Coalition measures, they’re not being dramatic. We don’t know what causes cot death, but we do know that 64% of cot deaths happen in deprived families. That is not the world I signed up to live in. That is not a world I think anyone should ever be expected to live in. Because I don’t want to live in a country in which babies die because they were unlucky enough to be born to parents in poverty. Because I don’t think asking to not live in that world is too much, or unfair, or not knowing my place. Because I don’t think that saying no child should ever be born to die in a tiny cot in an over-crowded room before they were even old enough to know how to speak is a great demand on my, or anyone’s, part.
But this is reality. This is the world in which we live. Poverty is not something detached from this world, from our world. It is not a foreign country populated by benefit scroungers and welfare cheats, but by millions of scared, vulnerable people whose state and whose government have failed them. You see these people every day, even if you don’t know it. They drive your buses and they clean your floors and they serve in your supermarkets. They are the backbone of a country which hates and ignores them and grinds the boot-heel down on them for asking for more.
It’s easier to believe the lies, of course. It’s easier to believe that this isn’t happening around the corner and that the cuts are better for everyone, the old lie that ‘we’re all in this together.’ We’re not all in this together, because people who can barely afford to feed their children are not ‘in’ by default. This is what systematic oppression looks like. It is not people with ten children living in a townhouse in Kensington. It is not someone ‘faking’ an illness to milk the state out of thousands. It is most of us. It is the people who should receive the lion’s share of state help, and who are instead being thrown on the scrapheap. It is everywhere, all of the time, and it’s time to stop believing the lies.
We’ve had a welfare state in this country for sixty years. You would think, with sixty years to play with, that situations like this one would be a thing of the past. I know my father hoped so, my father who grew up in a household of eleven people with three bedrooms between them, two generations from immigration from Belfast at best and in an area that remains, even today, one of the most deprived in Northern Europe. You would think that a hundred and sixty years after the publication of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor that the conditions he described would be over. That entire families no longer sleep in single rooms with mould-covered walls, and that their babies no longer die from unknown causes. Mayhew hoped that one day his book would prove to future generations how far we’d come. Currently, it merely proves how far we haven’t.
Frankly, it’s time to grow up. Not in the conservative (both small and large ‘C’) sense, but in the general, societal sense. We need to stop being childish about poverty. We need to stop pretending that ignoring it will make it go away. We need to stop treating the people in it, themselves, like children, and we need to stop silencing them when they try to speak for themselves. If you think poverty is a necessary part of the human condition, you need to look deep inside yourself. I refuse to live in a world where children die because they happen to be poor. I see no reason why this is something anyone has to accept, and I see no defence for the status quo other than greed and selfishness and fear. It’s time to stop being blinkered and prejudiced and afraid. Above all, it’s time to ask yourself this: is this the world that I want to live in?