Over the past seven days the Guardian has run a number of articles on what it terms Breadline Britain, highlighting people struggling by, and in many cases working hard to do so, in a condition one slip away from being unable to make ends meet.
Giving the lie to the pernicious myth – ably assisted in recent times by Iain Duncan Smith – that the poor are scroungers who should try a bit harder if they want to do better for themselves, the series struck a chord with me.
Closer to the trapdoor
During the six years I worked in social housing, I read hundreds of homeless case files of people seeking a council property. Many of the neediest had been dealt a heartbreakingly shitty hand from the outset – and yes, a proportion were trying to chisel the system.
But it was always striking to see instances where a divorce, debt problems or simple misfortune had ripped the rug out from under seemingly settled lives. For many, the ongoing erosion of the UK’s welfare safety-net is bringing these kinds of scenarios nearer.
I got a milder taste of austerity after coming to Bristol last summer, thousands in debt after retraining, to start a £15,000 entry-level journalism job. On my second day I learned my team was being axed and that redundancy was imminent; my girlfriend, who moved with me, was unable to find full-time work.
We turned the situation around thanks to luck – and the privilege of having qualifications, job experience and families seemingly desperate to part with the odd tenner. But I can confirm that watching rent and bills swallow three quarters of earnings while interest on money owed ticks upwards is a bit stressful.
During those months, having something decent for tea was about as exciting as life got. So I was unsurprised that some of the case studies in the Breadline Britain series vented frustrations that they couldn’t manage to eat healthily.
But interestingly, next to the tales of hardship was a report on prison food, costing £1.87 a day for each adult, which hinged on the argument that good food could be prepared from fresh for “a fraction of the cost” of foodstuffs “in a packet or a tin” – and had a pronounced impact on self esteem.
Drawing a comparison between incarceration and working poverty would be glib, and stupid on a number of levels, but that £1.87 figure – the cost of four chocolate bars, and less than the minimum daily patient spend in NHS hospitals – got me thinking about how far I’d be able to cut things back, while still actually enjoying eating.
So later this week I’ll be devoting a few posts to exploring what you can do for £2 a day; it’s the kind of thing this blog was originally intended for.