Media Check is usually my chance to lambast someone who’s written an article that I disagree with wholeheartedly and forensically take apart the article, providing facts and counter arguments to their points. Today though, I wanted to offer some praise for Charlie Cooper’s bit in the Indie about living off £175 for a week, entitled: Life on benefits: The starving of the 11 million.
To start with, let us explain: £175 is the amount he has calculated as the level of pay for a single man working 18 hours a week, earning the minimum wage, with all the benefits a person in his situation will receive. If you read the Telegraph, Mail, Express etc, you probably think this would be a large sum of money… If you read one of those papers though, you would, like on so many other points, be wrong…
With housing benefit and council tax benefit (that’s it) to add to his fictional £111.42 a week salary, he was left with £175 and change. Once rent, bills and transport were accounted for though, this soon left him with £31.08 to feed himself for the week. For the full story, I do suggest giving the piece a read, because, as he points out, this is not a lot to live on…
Frozen pizzas, ham sandwiches and store brand cornflakes make up the backbone of his diet, which he manages to limp to the end of the week on. In addition to the difficulty of having a social life (attending a party meant skipping a meal and friends paying for his pint), he points out the fragility of being on such a low income, and how an unexpected payment can push you into having to decide between paying a bill or going hungry. Hence the explosion in demand for emergency food packages from food banks. For, despite claims within the Tory party to the contrary, people are going hungry in Britain, in the twenty-first century.
The only significant flaw I have with the article is that he misses what, for me, is the central point about such poverty; it is relentless. His experiment lasted only the week, and as he gratefully sighs at the end of his week; ‘Friday: Decide to skip lunch and buy a decent dinner for £3.63. Can’t wait for Saturday.’ The reality for those genuinely in poverty is that the experiment never comes to an end. Frozen pizza, store brand cornflakes and ham sandwiches day-in, day-out – all the while lecturings about the importance of five-a-day, and being told you’re a scrounger to boot…
Equally, whilst for Charlie the £31 he had for the week was simply for food, for someone genuinely in poverty, that £31 would have to cover everything else: from toilet roll and washing powder, to haircuts, clothes, new shoes and any form of entertainment you can possibly eek out of poverty wages. Then there’s the big costs: the washing machine, the cooker… car (if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford one)… one of those breaking down can set you back months. The end of the week for Charlie was a relief, and a chance to blow his remaining pennies, for anyone else it would have been just another day in a life with no light at the end of the tunnel or prospect of things getting better.
This aside though, I liked the article. Anything like this can always come across as a bit of a self-congratulatory opportunity for a middle-class person to wallow in the difficulties of a ‘poor’ person and pretend they have some insight into a life they do not understand in the slightest. But, for me, he comes across as trying to raise awareness of a serious issue. Just as a journalist traveling to the arctic to view receding ice sheets cannot really have anymore insight into the issue than before they set off, so long as they write the piece, and it feels more powerful because of what taste they have had for the situation, I can only approve.
There are plenty of articles with the facts about poverty, the increasing demands on food banks and the difficulties of those on low incomes, and it would be easy to criticise this article for bringing nothing but a gimmicky approach, but at least he did try something different. He put himself in someone else’s shoes for a period of time and thought about the challenges and difficulties it must entail. Few are willing to do this, which is a pity.
Empathy is one of the greatest of traits we possess as a species and its distinct lack of existence in most recent government policy is what is causing and will soon cause some of the most terrible suffering in this country for decades. Whilst I don’t believe that all Tory Ministers are evil, heartless and without remorse (some, yes), I do think they are so removed from reality that their decisions become detached from the harm they do. The difference in lives they live from ‘ordinary’ people means that they can’t empathise with the situations of millions of people in Britain today and, in some cases, genuinely can’t believe that such situations exist at all. So, a suggestion: Try the policy before you buy into it. Live, for a day, week or however long, in the shoes of the people who’s lives you are making so much harder, then turn around and say it’s in the country’s best interests to have people live like that. At a time when MPs believe they should be paid more, making them see how those with so little are forced to get by would seem like the least we could do.
I commend the piece for paying attention to an issue which is so easily forgotten and yet so very important to many people. I wish there were more pieces like this in the media today; Giving attention to those hardest up in society, empathy for the difficulties they face and criticism, not of them for daring to be poor whilst the Tories are in office, but for the government that seeks to make their lives harder still. We need more pieces like this and more people willing to look at what life is like for others and declare that it is not tolerable, in the 21st century, in Britain, for this to be so.