This article titled “The welfare state saved me. To need it isn’t a moral failure” was written by Lola Okolosie, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th May 2015 13.22 UTC
Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released figures showing that, between 2010 and 2013, a third of the UK population experienced income poverty. During this four-year period, 19.3 million people had a disposable income of below 60% of the national median at some point. These figures illustrate how millions of people are treading water, struggling to keep afloat and afford the very basics. Crisis loans and food banks are real.
In the wake of the election of a Tory majority government, it almost feels like the thing to do is to stop banging the same drum, to stop highlighting these issues. Yet here we are. Turning our heads away from people’s current experience of poverty – and what lies ahead – just isn’t an option.
As a senior teacher and a writer for this publication, my income is such that I can afford life’s luxuries. I own my own home and car. I can afford meals out and holidays that take me further than Europe’s shores. I don’t have to face the daily humiliation of wondering if I have sent my children out into the world in clothing that reveals reduced circumstances, and with not much in their bellies. Note the agency in these sentences; I am one of the privileged few. Yet the woman I am today wouldn’t exist without the welfare state.
It’s become almost passe to write that the Tories are dismantling our society’s safety net and pushing millions further into poverty. And although, for some, this is keenly felt as an awful new normal, it remains abstract for others – a reality several steps removed. Not so for me. I grew up knowing what it is to feel stomach cramps as a result of hunger; to have a packed lunch for school that was simply bread and butter; to be so ashamed of my ill-fitting clothes that I avoided going out altogether.
As a young adult I have been homeless and only saved from experiencing life on the streets by women’s refuges. I have moved from jobseeker’s allowance to wages so low that living was only made possible through housing benefit and working tax credit. I have accessed legal aid and had a small insight into how the law can work for even the most vulnerable. And I could undertake my bachelor’s degree because, as a poor independent student, I didn’t have to pay more than £1,000 in tuition fees.
I am the product of a compassionate state, one that believes in the potential of all its citizens. For that I am supremely grateful and lucky. Yet even writing this seems brazen, as though admitting a failure on my part. Poverty is good at shaming you into silence.
A surfeit of humiliation and guilt attaches itself to poverty. How dare I have used the state to realise a better life for myself and the children I would later go on to have? But if the state isn’t concerned with the uplift of those on the lowest rungs of society, how does it view them? Are they simply the fodder needed to realise the 1%’s wealth accumulation?
In my mid-30s, I am no longer reliant on the welfare state – and haven’t been for some time. The truth is that for the majority of those who claim benefits, it’s a short-term measure, tiding them over in their time of need. Now I am comfortably middle-class, even with all the talk of the “squeezed middle”, I am buffered from the worst the government has in store. Yet it all feels like one unfortunate calamity away, its proximity unnervingly near, made real by the daily struggles of younger family members who are trying to recover from childhoods in care, who have few or no qualifications and work on zero-hour contracts. When Iain Duncan Smith talks of “neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness” he fails to mention the poverty of opportunity in such areas, which his government’s policies will further entrench.
No one needs to remind me of the absolute necessity of our welfare state and so I happily pay into it. My wider family in Nigeria – a country where benefits are non-existent and pretty much everything has been privatised – live in the type of poverty that takes seeing to believe. And despite knowing first-hand the difference between absolute and relative poverty, I don’t believe the existence of the former cancels out the debilitating reality of the latter. Poverty in Nigeria or the UK isn’t a choice. Framing it as such is a heartless red herring, waved about to make us believe that only when people are without clothes, food or shelter should we bother to give them a passing glance.
Now more than ever, we need a chorus of voices mobilised against the draconian treatment of society’s most vulnerable. We need the millions who have at one time or other in their life accessed the welfare state to believe that they aren’t failures for doing or having done so. We need to continue the argument, which says it is decent, good and right that the state steps in when all else fails. Because to continue down the path the Tories have so gleefully outlined means society will only become more divided and unstable.
Increasingly we aren’t framing poverty as the result of political forces: the privatisation of state assets such as energy and transport; the weakening of unions; the steady erasure of the welfare state. Instead, we internalise all the guff telling us that poverty is the inevitable result of an individual’s moral decrepitude. Though the wealthy have always spun being poor as a willing choice of the selfish, dumb and lazy, now, more than ever, society seems to be buying this message.
With all Labour’s chatter about failing to recognise the value of aspiration – as if only those who want to pay less tax have it – the party is running scared and away from the most vulnerable. It is an unsightly manoeuvre, one that comes off as grasping and shortsighted. It is important that they do not become complicit in a lie that claims the poor can be shamed and punished out of poverty.
My parents didn’t receive benefits when living in England, yet our poverty was no less degrading as a result; it is not more dignified to offer oneself as cheap, easily exploitable labour. The Tories must not win an argument that is immoral to its core: that accessing the welfare state is a sign of individual failure.
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