Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

The benefits support worker: The £6.31 minimum wage is not enough to live on

Returning to the work being done at King’s Church in Catford this week,  I talked to Andy, who is a  paid support worker. This church in South-East London sees social action and reaching out to the community as a priority.

He reports that since the most recent changes in welfare benefits, most of his work has involved giving benefits advice. “The changes might not affect everyone, but they have hit most of the group we work with particularly hard. Some of them are from very disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s been a demise in manual work, and the £6.31 minimum hourly rate is not enough to live on, even with housing benefit – and that’s if they’re lucky enough to work.”  London, for those on minimum wage or no wage is not a city where you can live with dignity. This minimum wage is of course set far below the new London Living Wage rate of £8.80 an hour that employers can opt to sign up to.

As for schemes such as Universal Jobmatch – which claims to match jobseekers with vacancies – Andy says he has “never known anyone from that scheme who’s had even a reply (about a vacancy) through it”. He says he challenged someone from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  on this. “I was then told they were very fussy about people’s CVs.”

Sanctioning people on benefits has a detrimental impact on them, he says: “If jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is stopped, housing benefit is automatically stopped, and they often need support to get their housing benefit reinstated.”

One of Andy’s key roles is to act as an advocate at tribunals for people who are challenging Atos (one of the private companies administering fit-for-work tests) decisions to refuse them employment and support allowance (ESA) – the higher rate of benefit that takes into account their inability to work because of ill health. Andy tells me he only represents people at tribunal if he’s convinced they’re not fit for work. “If people don’t get enough points, they don’t get the benefits and they don’t have the confidence to take matters forwards themselves. You have to feel you deserve it.”

The issue for many of those he comes across it that they lack the self-esteem to take on the system themselves. He adds: “I think there’s a section of society that has low self-confidence, and often have mental health issues without a formal diagnosis.”

His success rate at tribunal is very high. He hasn’t taken anyone there who hasn’t ended up with a minimum of 15 points, and some of them score higher than this. These are people who have scored “maybe nothing or a few points in the Atos assessment”.  It goes without saying that he thinks the Atos assessment process is obviously not working.

In March this year it was announced that the £500 million contract with Atos, mired in accusations that the tests they applied were inhumane and crude, would end early. Judge Robert Martin, the departing head of the tribunal which hears appeals, was reported in the Guardian here as saying that the work capability assessment (WCA) process has undergone “virtual collapse”. In a confidential journal distributed to tribunal members, he said that this collapse was the biggest single factor in the decline in the numbers going to appeal.

He added in the article that the removal of funding under the legal aid scheme for advice and assistance on welfare rights matters, “compounded by continuing cutbacks in local authority spending on advice services has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights in challenging benefits decisions”. Judge Martin says that if a supplier to replace Atos is found “presumably at a premium, the company will have to address the chronic shortages of healthcare professionals which has dogged Atos and which is exacerbated by the need for additional resources to deal concurrently with PIP (the personal independence payment introduced to replace disability living allowance over a three-year period beginning last October)”.

Given the difficulties facing those who want to challenge benefits decisions, the people who end up with Andy on their sides are the lucky ones. Andy is an expert and they’ll usually win their case. But there aren’t enough people around like him now – committed inviduals with the benefits know-how to successfully take on the DWP. Legal aid lawyers and welfare rights experts are a dying breed in the UK.

All the signs are there that the outlook for this most vulnerable group can only get worse. The majority of the spending cuts deemed crucial to the austerity narrative lie ahead and are set to bite even deeper into welfare spending. Chancellor George Osborne said in what the Guardian called a “grim New Year’s message” in January that the biggest chunk of savings of around £12bn will come from welfare in the two years after the election, with young people and those of working age most at risk from cuts.