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.’

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme
James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme

A vulnerable 60-year-old has been left penniless and dependent on food bank support after his Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) was sanctioned at the end of July while on the Work Programme. South-east Londoner James Dearsley received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (below) telling him that he had been sanctioned from July 29 and that his JSA would not be reinstated until October 29. James, who is already in arrears with his council tax, has spent more than three weeks without social security. This withdrawal of money means that he’s already been forced to use Greenwich food bank twice.

He says the local job centre told him he was being sanctioned because on three consecutive occasions he had failed to turn up for his Work Programme appointment with a Seetec job search support club. The letter from the DWP states: “We have decided that you did not comply with the requirements of the scheme to which you have been referred and that you did not have sufficiently good reasons for doing so.”

The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction
The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction

James, who has health issues, says he was not able to make his July 16 appointment because he was sick. He received a phone call from Seetec and he told them he was ill. He says he was able to attend his next appointment on July 23, and also turned up for his appointment with Seetec on July 30, “but they sent me home because they said I had a sick note and because of that I couldn’t stay there”. He added that later they “said verbally that they were sanctioning me because of three supposed missed appointments”.

He has now submitted an application for a hardship payment – which is an emergency payment at a much lower rate than JSA. He was told last week that it would take seven to 10 days for this to come through. James has also very recently submitted an application for employment and support allowance (ESA).

How does he feel about the three-month sanction and the effect it could also have on his housing? “It’s draconian. I also owe £300 in council tax. If they cut my money off I’ll lose my flat. I’m also totally in the dark over when the ESA will come through. To state the brutal truth, it’s bully boy tactics.” James has submitted a request for a review of the decision to sanction him.

As Polly Toynbee points out in the The Guardian here, “Jobcentre Plus offices have become sanction factories”, with staff under massive pressure to cut people off. She mentions the case this summer of a diabetic former solider, who was “sanctioned into starvation” and who tragically died.

Does anyone in the system responsible for these welfare policies – including setting up a Work Programme described by the Government as “offering personalised support for claimants who need more help looking for and staying in work” – genuinely believe that giving James a three-month sanction that forces him to the food bank will ultimately lead him closer to a job and a more secure and healthy future?

Many thanks to James and to all the food bank clients who are prepared to share their experiences.

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma

According to Vox Political  and the Disability News Service, the UK government seems to have become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). The committee has the power to do this if it receives what it calls “reliable information of grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol.

The committee conducts its investigations “confidentially”, so it has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. Disability News Service has reported that CRPD appeared to have put off its public examination of the UK’s approach to implementing the disability convention until after next year’s general election. According to Vox Political, it now appears that the committee “may have taken this decision because it had launched the much more serious – and so far unprecedented – inquiry into the UK’s violation of disabled people’s rights”.

Surely here in the UK we wouldn’t abuse disabled people? Could that really happen in London, for example – a sophisticated and rich world capital, recently revealed by an article in Forbes as the world’s “most influential global city”. London was ranked first in the world on the Z/Yen Group’s 2013 Global Financial Centres Index. The article admiringly states that “its location outside the United States and the eurozone keeps it away from unfriendly regulators”, and it’s a “preferred domicile for the global rich”. Given all that serendipity and wealth, the world’s most influential city must also be in a position to influence things to ensure its residents don’t starve?

The benefits of London’s position as a welcoming home for the world’s rich don’t appear to be improving matters for the clients at the food bank frontline in London – or nationally for that matter. Greenwich food bank (which is currently operating from seven locations across the borough) has seen visitors increasing from 776 to 5025 in the past year. In nearby Lewisham, the figure rose from 623 to 3895. Mananger of the Greenwich food banks Alan Robinson tracks the increase he’s seen to welfare changes dating from April 2013, including the bedroom tax and welfare cap.

A few days ago I caught up with long-standing Greenwich food bank client Mark Bothwell, who has depression and whose shoulder injury had developed into a chronic problem. I’ve interviewed Mark many times, and he’s a warm, intelligent and engaging young man of 29. His experiences must make him one of those said to be experiencing diabolical treatment – those “grave violations” – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over many, many months. Mark told me that by July he was so distraught that he felt  suicidal.

Despite having already waited  for a prolonged period on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) while believing that his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was being assessed, Mark was not only told that his ESA paperwork had been lost, but that he had been sanctioned – twice – for supposedly failing turn up for jobseeker advice appointments with Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). He was told that he’d received the first sanction stopping his JSA at the end of May and that they had written to him telling him about the appointment. He says he did not receive any such letter. He began an appeals process with the help of Greenwich borough’s Welfare Rights Service. While he was told that the appeal for this sanction was being allowed, he was informed “in the same sentence that I was not going to get any money, because there was a second sanction for the same period of time for another missed appointment that I didn’t know about”. He says they told him they had sent another letter – “but I didn’t receive them”.

When the initial sanction was imposed, Mark was plunged into a nightmare of making multiple phone calls to different people in an attempt to get some help. It took two weeks to get a DWP hardship payment (about 40 per cent of normal JSA) through, and this was not enough to cover his bills – ” I had to borrow money”. He had to make multiple calls to the JSA enquiry line on his landline. He was told that if he wanted to talk to a “decision maker” he would have to call the enquiry line and leave a message for the “decision maker”, who would then call him back. He says that “on almost every phone call he was told something different”.

He added: “From about the beginning of June until mid-July I made about 60 phone calls trying to sort out the appeals and the (lost) ESA (claim). I had to resubmit the application for ESA because they said they lost it. On almost every phone call I’d be told something different. That process left me feeling suicidal. They were telling me a different thing every single time. They would tell me it (my money) would be a week, then I phoned up and they said no they shouldn’t have told you that. Then with the last phone call the woman said, no it doesn’t happen like that, it takes another two weeks. She was so rude I just hung up and collapsed on the floor. Tears were running down my face. I actually said out loud the word suicide to my flatmate, to my family and to complete strangers. I hit rock bottom around July 10-12.”

About a week later, Mark was told that he would get ESA, and that it would be backdated from the end of May. He is now receiving £144.80 a fortnight. The regular money is “helping a lot” and he says he can now buy food items such as fresh meat. He’s certainly looking brighter and stronger now.  Mark shares a home with a disabled flatmate and friend. This person has been told he’ll be getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for help with some of the extra costs of being disabled. With the PIP finally in place, Mark has at last been able to fill in the application form for Carer’s Allowance in relation to the help he gives his friend. He’s also finally getting better help for his depression, and has been able to come off his Tramadol medication, which was beginning to badly affect his short-term memory.

Finally, after this atrocious wait and a host of adverse developments, Mark is starting to get the benefits he’s entitled to. But why did the state allow him to languish for such a long time waiting to move from JSA to ESA, and without Carer’s Allowance? Mark began experiencing problems with his shoulder last October, and in May, I reported that he’d already been waiting months for his ESA claim to be processed. In respect of his friend’s PIP application, we know that PIP claim backlogs during the first year of its introduction have caused tremendous problems for the disabled.

During his time without benefits because of the sanctions, Mark had to survive for two days without any food. As a long-standing client of Greenwich food bank, Mark has been provided with the usual three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food on about a dozen occasions. Greenwich food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Its policy and commitment is to provide short-term help through a crisis for people who’ve been referred by a frontline professional such as a social worker or health visitor. The decision was taken not to provide another food parcel. This happened after careful discussion and review. The Trussell Trust believes that providing food aid on multiple occasions for an individual can remove an essential incentive to fix the underlying problems that drive people to the food bank in the first place.

Mark has been very appreciative of the support he’s received from the food bank over the last number of months. Very thoughtfully, once his ESA money came through he brought in a cake and a thank-you card – to the delight of the volunteers.

Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank's help
Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank’s help

In July, a report – Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era – was published by the Just Fair consortium, which included Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London. it suggests the UK had moved from being an international disability rights leader to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”. Many of the individual accounts I’ve collected here, including Mark’s, add to the evidence that the vulnerable and disabled are the subject of the gravest injustices.