Budgeting for the poor tends to mean living by bread alone

A couple of days ago, you may have seen that Marcus Rashford was pushing his extend school meals to the holidays campaign. You may also have noted that a motion proposed by Labour to extend free school meals through the holidays was voted down in the commons. Considering that the Prime Minister has been reported to have complained that his £150,000 salary was not enough to live on because he has various illegitimate children to send to Eton, you would have thought this might engender a bit of sympathy with those who are being told they must go on furlough at a mere 60% of their usual salary or who lose their jobs altogether.

There were also those insisting that parents should ‘take responsibility’. I don’t quite know how, in the midst of a global pandemic, coupled to their employer not being given the requisite finances from the government leading to them closing, represents a lack of responsibility on the part of the individuals needing help. Nor, even if it is somehow deemed a lack of responsibility on the part of the unemployed that their erstwhile employer can no longer keep on staff because of the government shut down, why you would want to then make their children wear the consequences of such brazen and flagrant irresponsibility.

But perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of all this was the great glee many took in carving up people’s imaginary budgets and claiming, if you can afford [insert whatever you have deemed unnecessary] you can afford to feed your kids. Again, you have no way of knowing how that TV, or iPhone, or anything else was purchased. You neither know whether it was purchased second or third hand extremely cheaply or if the thing was given to them by someone.

Even if you do know that it was bought, places like Brighthouse thrive in areas like mine, offering exorbitant interest rates on extremely long-term financial plans so that people can buy a TV. Whether you think that a worthy purchase or not, it is likely to be eminently more manageable than your weekly food shop. Your TV, on the right terms, might cost you £10 per month for several years. Your food shop can’t be bought on tick like that. When you can’t afford good food for your children anyway, nor much else that requires significant outlay, is it really that difficult to understand why they might find a manageable way to get them something they might actually enjoy among the general misery of poverty? Even if you cannot see any credit in that point and maintain that such parents are merely feckless and irresponsible, are you really prepared to insist that the kids shouldn’t eat because their parents made a poor decision?

I don’t know if this is a peculiarly English sort of thing to do or not, but I do know budgeting for the poor is nothing new. George Orwell captured it clearly enough in the Road to Wigan Pier:

When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five and ninepence, while another school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week.

The Road to Wigan Pier

He goes on:

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

The Road to Wigan Pier

He concludes:

I doubt, however, whether the unemployed would ultimately benefit if they learned to spend their money more economically. For it is only the fact that they are not economical that keeps their allowances so high. An English-man on the P.A.C. gets fifteen shillings a week because fifteen shillings is the smallest sum on which he can conceivably keep alive. If he were, say, an Indian or Japanese coolie, who can live on rice and onions, he wouldn’t get fifteen shillings a week–he would be lucky if he got fifteen shillings a month. Our unemployment allowances, miser-able though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Here, Orwell captures current arguments fairly well. Many begin with the question, ‘what is the minimum on which one needs to live?’ Then begins a grubby attempt to determine that others can live without what I wouldn’t countenance going without myself. Then, having limited what is reasonable for them to live on according to means we cannot countenance ourselves (NB: BoJo and his apparently meagre £150,000), we have the cheek to tell them what they can buy. Even patronising, middle-class food drive has historic roots, as Orwell comments:

In some districts efforts are now being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money… I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right–I agree heartily.

The point I am driving at – other than to say these arguments are nothing new – is to say that poverty is not much fun. But what makes it worse is being dictated to by those who have no concept of what it is really like. Being told how little you need to live on by people who have vastly more and have never had to live on it is never going to be well received. Being told by those same people that the choices you make in how to spend the pittance they give you is equally problematic. They neither know what it is like to have such little to live on and they do not seem to reckon with the fact that to insist on providing only the barest of necessities will grind one down and cause other problems in the long run.

What is required is a bit of compassion and a touch of empathy. It requires an understanding that most people need more than food and water. ‘Man’, Jesus said, ‘cannot live by bread alone’.