For once, the media showed they understand poverty in the UK

Posted by Chris Johnes Director, UK Poverty Programme

12th Apr 2013

For once, the media showed they understand poverty in the UK

Since Iain Duncan Smith rashly joined a long list of politicians trying to "experience poverty" by declaring that he could live on £53 a week (the level of income a market trader said he had to live on after facing a cut in Housing Benefit), he has stimulated a wave of impassioned reactions.

The most prominent response was this petition, dismissed by Duncan Smith as "a stunt" but nonetheless signed by some 460,000 people calling on him to try out the experience.

But for me, the most interesting reactions of all were a few articles, in papers normally sympathetic to the Work and Pensions Secretary, that showed what life for those living on such low incomes is like. They described how women managed tiny budgets very carefully in a way that allowed them to just about cope. And how the money they have is not enough to deal emergencies, like household appliances breaking down, sick babies suddenly needing many more nappies, or school children needing new shoes.

This reminded me of the experiences of people I met some six or seven years ago in Llandudno, Wales, who were part of the Anti Poverty Network Cymru projects supported by Oxfam (pictured). These people  decided to show council officers exactly how they survived on benefits, and so explained where every penny went, and how they budgeted to allow for some tiny pleasures for their children, but not for themselves. Council officers were not only better informed after this, but also gained huge respect for the community's budgeting skills.

Living on low incomes is no game.  It requires serious determination and self control. Most of us don't have to survive on such little money, and would probably struggle to do so. But as Oxfam knows, more and more people, especially those in part-time and low-paid work, are slipping into this hand to mouth existence, all in the seventh richest country in the world.

Last year I went to the Conservative Party conference, and saw Iain Duncan Smith speak. He spelt out clearly, and accurately, how detached the political class, of all parties, were from the reality of the lives of people in poverty. He said that this is why it is so challenging for politicians to tackle poverty. He was right then, and the journalists from the Daily Telegraph were right to examine without prejudice the realities of living on low incomes. So I find it very odd that the Work and Pensions Secretary, who last year seemed to understand the differences between his life and the life of someone who struggles to make ends meet, day in, day out, could say he can live on £53 a week.

As the impacts of the recession and cuts hit so many low incomes, we must not widen the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' further with  stigma. We should treat each other with respect and understand the reality of people's lives, instead of making judgements based on cheap and inaccurate caricatures.

Finally, we should always be able to look to our leaders to show us the way.

Blog post written by Chris Johnes

Director, UK Poverty Programme

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