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 wait for disability benefit and the impact of being declined: Tales from the London foodbank and beyond

The existence of  a massive  waiting list for decisions on Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and accounts of long waits faced by individuals is becoming better known. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says this social security payment is designed to ‘help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or a disability’ for those aged between 16 and 64. According to DWP figures, of the 529,400 cases registered for PIP between April 2013 and the end of July this year,  just over 206,000 have been cleared (awarded, declined or withdrawn).

Yesterday in the House of Commons Mark Harper the current Minster of State for Disabled People said that by the end of the year no-one would be waiting for longer than 16 weeks for a PIP decision.

How deliverable is this, given the scale of the fiasco?

Statistics capture one aspect of  the saga, of course. But they do not show how long people are waiting within this 16 month period. Mark Harper has said: ‘The delays faced by some people are unacceptable and we are committed to putting that right’. According to an article in the Guardian here, the figures show that 51 per cent of new claimants had been awarded PIP, and it had been granted in 72 per cent of reassessment cases to people previously in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (the benefit that has been replaced by PIP for all new claimants).

But what about the day-to-day lives and feelings of the people caught up in this catastrophe, many of whom have been waiting eight months and longer for that life-changing letter to drop through the post? Also, what happens when that long-awaited decision turns out to be a ‘no’?

One of the worst cases – reported on the Same Difference blog and elsewhere –  involved Lyn Ward, who applied for PIP after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In March this year she was still waiting for help  – 11 months after applying for this help and having undergone an operation to remove the tumour, her lymph nodes, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. While PIP itself is not a means-tested benefit, finances were so tight that the delay forced Lyn to go back to work just days after completing her radiotherapy.

It’s worth stating the unavoidably obvious fact that people who apply for PIP are some of the poorest people in society – those with long-term ill-health and disabilities that more often than not impact on their ability to work. The ill-health can be physical, mental or a combination of both. Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of disability charity Scope, is quoted in the Guardian article saying that ‘Scope’s helpline has been inundated with disabled people phoning for advice on their PIP claim, and many are facing extreme delays of well over six months’.

Recently at this London food bank, I spoke to Theresa (not her real name),  who has recently been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which can make people at risk of self harm and suicidal behaviour. Theresa, a single person,  told me that her experiences while on Workfare – working for no pay while in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) – had driven her to take an overdose. Now on the waiting list for specialist counselling, she has just filled in the forms to apply for PIP. But she has no idea at this stage how long it will be before she hears if her application has been successful. Even if it is successful she has no idea how much she’s likely to receive. Applicants could get between £21.55 and £138.05 a week, depending on how their health needs have been assessed – ie how many points they accrue. If she’s turned down for the payment she faces the decision of whether to go down the route of a mandatory reconsideration and if that’s not successful then an appeal to an independent panel. This would  – and again it merits hammering home  –  be particularly stressful in her circumstances.

I’ll be keeping in touch with Theresa to find the outcome of the decision and to keep track of how long it takes to come through. In the meantime, she is trying to survive and pay all bills including rent on her employment and support allowance (ESA) payment of £140.80 a fortnight – a challenge that has driven her to ask for support from the food bank.

Amy (not her real name) is 29 and lives in Sheffield. She’s had an extended wait for a decision on a PIP application. Her circumstances are slightly different to Theresa’s – but she like Theresa is struggling daily with the impact of  serious mental health issues. She lives with her 35-year-old partner in a rented flat, and her mental health issues include, but are not limited to, anxiety, agoraphobia and hearing voices. She has previously had to spend time in hospital. Amy’s partner had been a full-time student, but ended up working during the day and staying up all night to finish his dissertation. Her partner currently earns £16,000 a  year, and they both depend on his income. He is hoping that his contract-based job is extended from this December. Their rent of £440 a month is paid to a private landlord. She says their situation, though hard, would be worse if they lived somewhere like London where private rents are much higher. The couple, who have no children, receive no benefits. I’ve suggested she and her partner immediately get some advice on whether he can apply for Working Tax Credit – worth up to £1,940 a year –  based on the level of  his income. A useful benefits calculator is here.

She applied for PIP in March, and she was helped to do this by her mental health home treatment team, whom she says give her good support. She also has a social worker. She supplied medical evidence, including a report from her psychiatrist. There was an eight month wait, then the decision came two weeks ago – her application was turned down. Her mental health team had thought that she might only get the lowest rate of just over £20 a week – but even that lowest level of PIP would have covered her food bill of £15 to £20  for the week. Amy eats a vegan diet and is skilled at making a little bit of food go a long way. Her partner has a lot of food allergies, so she uses a lot of tinned vegetables and cooks from fresh when she feels able enough to do that. They couldn’t afford ready meals, even if he was able to eat them.

But the decision to reject her application was devastating. She says that if she’d got the money – and particularly if it had been backdated – she could have used it to pay for the tiny extras for herself or someone else that might make the occasional difference between existing and living. Not that she goes out much, being agoraphobic. But the extra bit of cash might have paid for the odd trip to swim at the local leisure centre – which she used to find relaxing. It might also pay for a birthday present or a card for someone. She likes cooking and said a few extra pounds a week might also give her the chance to risk trying out one or two different things. She can’t risk experimenting when she cooks at the moment, because when you’re on the sort of budget she’s on, you can’t afford even one mistake.

Before she got ill, Amy worked as a cleaner. She had been able to put aside some savings during that time, but by the start of this year that money had run out. ‘I thought – I don’t want to be a burden. I think it precipitated me into being very unwell, which is why mental health services helped me apply for PIP. They recognised that the financial worries were making me more unwell. I think they (the DWP) do want to put people off applying by making people wait too long.’

I asked her if she’s going to request a mandatory reconsideration of the decision, which would potentially lead her to an independent panel appeal. But she says that she won’t do this. ‘Most claims go to appeal and I can’t face the stress of  it being turned down. My partner says he’d rather we scraped through than for me to get ill again. I feel the risk wouldn’t be worth it. I know that I do very badly under stress. The worry about going back to hospital outweighs any benefit that money would bring.’

She added: ‘The system can make you more unwell. What they try to save by not giving me £20 a week makes me ill and anxious. They are not saving any money overall. Social care costs more than benefits would cost.’

 

High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?