I have just come from a truly inspirational event launching the report Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015. It was produced by 8 women who came together in response to Bob Holman’s challenge in his article in The Guardian (Dec 2013) to update the report ‘Our Towns’ written by 8 women in 1943.
The original report documented the problems of urban poverty and the attitudes of those confronted by it when children and their mothers were evacuated to the countryside during the 2nd World War. Bob Holman was one of those children and was there today to talk passionately about the plight of those living in poverty 70 years later despite the fact that we now have a welfare state that didn’t exist then. The ‘Our Towns’ report called for a national response to tackling the problems and its recommendations helped to influence the development of health, social security and education reforms in the post war period.
The latest authors share with the original women a long history of working closely with people in poverty. They have a commitment to challenge negative attitudes towards them and to encourage policy changes and solutions that bring people together, rather than divide them.
Personal stories of individuals struggling to survive and facing hardship are included, and how they are affected by the negative attitudes towards them portrayed by the media and certain statutory institutions.
These stories come from different parts of England, Scotland and Wales and ably demonstrate that the greatest burden of coping with the impact of the financial crisis and the move towards recovery is being borne by those people least responsible for the crisis and least able to carry the load.
We read about people battered by the benefits system and welfare reform programme, subjected to humiliation and degrading experiences and reductions or sanctions being imposed often resulting in debt. We read about the negative impact of this on people’s mental health and wellbeing which in turn can exacerbate the problems they face and push them further into poverty.
We read about Maria, who has struggled with epilepsy, mental illness and other problems all her life and barely able to read or write going through 2 tribunal panel hearings after she was deemed ‘Fit for work’ despite her GP, psychiatrist and support worker providing detailed evidence to the contrary. Reduced to tears after the hearing she says “They made me feel like a criminal, but I’ve done nothing wrong.” Her benefits were reduced for 19 months whilst the process of appeal with support from the CAB and others went on ending in the appeal being upheld and her being repaid £3,000 they owed her in unpaid benefits.
We read about Marcus and Louise with 4 children, Marcus has worked hard all his life but was forced to give up work due to long standing mental illness. They find themselves subject to bedroom tax, living in poor housing, their benefits being delayed leading to spiraling debt and Marcus’s mental health deteriorating due to the constant anxiety over their situation.
Many of the challenges people face are similar to the 1940’s, we read about people living in poverty due to complex and dislocated lives. Out towns focused on people removed from their homes and communities due to evacuation and today we have migrants, asylum seekers and refugees removed from their home countries and communities but experiencing many similar challenges in terms of stigma and hostility. We read that in the 1940’s we had rationing, ‘buying on tick’ and money lenders. Today we have pay day loans and cheap credit from unscrupulous lenders in addition to mainstream financial institutions exploiting people on low incomes.
The report also highlights that ‘Our Towns’ influenced the creation of the welfare state in the 1940’s. Today the broader role of the welfare state is being undermined and budget cuts mean that public sector and VCOs have less resource to meet an increasing demand for their support.
Speaking as CEO of VONNE, the report resonates with the feedback we get from our members across the region who tell us that demand for their services has never been higher and they are seeing more people living in poverty than ever before, yet funding to provide that support is reducing.
For me the report is also uplifting in that in reading these stories we also get a strong sense that despite the extreme hardship these people are faced with, for many there is still a sense of resilience and a determination to make things better for their families. As Our Towns asserted “courage, and gaiety survive in the mean streets in spite of poverty, insecurity and debt’” I am not sure about the gaiety but certainly courage and resilience are evident in these personal stories.
I urge you to read this report and pass it on to others hoping it will inspire local and national action on a similar scale to that of ‘Our Towns’ back in 1943.