The sharp edges of poverty

“Money pads the edges of things” says Helen Schlegel, a character in EM Forster's Howards End. And where there is no padding, those edges can be very sharp indeed.

The Guardian newspaper's 'Breadline Britain' project, carried out in partnership with the Resolution Foundation, has been tracking the effect of recession on families and individuals across the UK. It makes for grim reading. Here are accounts of children coming to school hungry and being fed by teachers at their own expense, of food banks opening at a rate of two a week and of families pushed over the edge into into a spiral of poverty by one unforeseen and unavoidable expense.

These are not the “feckless scroungers” of ministerial rhetoric. They are the other stock characters of party-political opportunism - “ordinary hard working people who try to do what is right.” The human reality is the grinding anxiety of people whose wages have been frozen, whose employment is insecure, who see their in-work benefits and tax credits being cut while living, travelling, housing and heating costs continue to rise. These are families and individuals who can just about cope as long as nothing goes wrong. But if the washing machine or boiler dies, they have no savings to provide a cushion. The point of crisis will arrive very quickly and it is not an exaggeration to say that this can be the beginning of a slide which may end in homelessness.

To live with this level of insecurity is crushing. If you have never looked around your home to see what you might sell to pay the electricity bill or feed your children for another week, it may be difficult to grasp the destructive anxiety and sense of despair which grips so many of our fellow citizens. There are 7 million families living on this edge and the effect on their health, relationships and capacity to flourish is devastating.

This is not just a matter of forgoing the occasional meal out – it is the regular experience of going without food until the next pay cheque comes in. It is far more than rationing treats for your children, it is about knowing that you can scarcely feed them, never mind offer them those mind and heart enlarging experiences which are surely the wish of every parent.

Consider the experience of Paul and Emma Marshall. Paul is a postman and Emma a part-time dental nurse. Their children are aged aged six and two. When all their essential household expenses – not treats or luxuries – have been met, they have about £12.50 a week left. "Counting every penny is exhausting and frustrating” says Paul. “My lack of job security is frightening. And all the time, the bills just keep going up and up. There's nothing left to cut costs on.”

The ongoing shambles at the National Westminster Bank further illustrates how near the edge many people are forced to live. It may suit the agenda of some prosperous politicians and commentators - the fortunate ones Helen Schlegel describes as “standing upon money as upon islands” - to opine on the supposed improvidence of people whose lives fall apart when their wages do not come in. But closer attention to the experiences of families like the Marshalls might teach them otherwise.

Rowan Williams has described David Cameron's concept of the 'Big Society' as “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.” It is part of a calculated attack on the millions of people whose lives are made wretched by circumstances beyond their control and evidence that the adjudication which is the duty of responsible and discerning government has been abandoned.

The spiteful and ill-thought through attack on our system of social insurance which the Prime Minister delivered at Bluewater this week was evidence of his need to throw raw meat to his least thoughtful backbenchers It is also a warning of the kind of society he knows they want to see.

That society, divided and dispossessed, will eventually disintegrate. The islands of money will be of little use when that time comes. In the meanwhile, those who still feel themselves to be standing secure might like to reflect on families like the Marshalls as they pick up their mail from the doormat or receive attention for their toothache.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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