http://www.scotsman.com/news/joyce-mcmillan-myth-of-undeserving-poor-revisited-1-2878384Joyce McMillan: Myth of undeserving poor revisitedVisits to food banks have become increasingly necessary for many. Picture: Gett
By JOYCE MCMILLAN
Friday 5 April 2013
THE politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ have pushed us backwards in time to join the heartless Victorians, writes Joyce McMillan.
Let us now praise famous women: or one not-so-famous woman, in the shape of Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland.
For during the last parliamentary recess, while other MP’s went skiing, Helen Goodman decided to have a go at living on the “generous” state benefits provided to typical women of her own age – Helen is 55 – who are either unemployed, or have had to give up work through ill health.
After setting aside small sums to cover energy bills, water rates and the new “bedroom tax”, Helen had £18 a week left for food.
After seven days of trying to survive on this, she found herself exhausted, cold, hungry, waking up ravenous during the night, and unable to imagine how anyone living on such a diet could possibly work up the energy to even look for a job in the current tough market, never mind also working 30 hours a week, unpaid, on “job experience”.
Worst of all, by the last day of the week she had nothing left to eat at all. And if you think she must have been strangely incompetent to end up in such a situation, then try asking some of the 200,000 people in the UK who last year sought help from charitable food banks just how easy it is, in low-income Britain, to run out of money for food, if you want to keep a roof over your head.
Nor are food-bank users all unemployed. Increasingly, they include Britain’s army of “working poor”, people who are paid so little that they cannot meet the basic costs of living.
Now, of course, as soon as anyone points out the misery experienced by millions on these rock-bottom incomes, the letters pages and comment strands fill up with messages which are both full of bossy advice, and utterly bereft of real empathy.
“Buck up!” cry those voices. “Make soup! Get a vegetable box! Give up biscuits and crisps, and don’t you dare have a drink!”
Then there are those who simply deny that such cases are typical. They prefer the image – all the easier to promote, after this week’s shocking Philpott manslaughter case in Derby – of the benefit “scrounger” with multiple partners and a dozen children, lolling around in some publicly-funded mansion, even though in fact such cases are vanishingly rare, and account for a negligible proportion of benefit spending.
Those who repeat these arguments, though – and they are legion, across Britain – had better beware. For whether they are in the majority or not, they are beginning to sound exactly, and in detail, like the great right-wing bourgeoisie of the Victorian and Edwardian age; those generations of heartless and economically illiterate buffoons pitilessly satirised by great English writers from Dickens to JB Priestley, whose view of the poor was – and is – always the same.
In the first place, they say, the poor are exaggerating their plight. In the second place, their plight is all their own fault, and could be remedied by a little thrift and ingenuity. And in the third place, they have too many children; so many that the only answer is to punish the children along with their parents, in order to remove the “perverse incentives” that led to their birth.