Remember being a child and finding it incredibly annoying that adults, who clearly had more money than you, chose to spend it on crap like bills and bus fares? What was that all about? Why didn’t they spend it on cool stuff like toys or, better still, just give it to you? You’d have put it to good use. None of that moping around over a brown envelope demanding payment for something entirely intangible and definitely not as good as Optimus Prime. Well, anyhow, remember that feeling, because I reckon that’s what it’s like to be IDS, George Osborne or David Cameron all the time. Yes, they might be the ones with the money these days, but man, they deserve it. The rest of us? We’d only fritter it on rubbish like the electricity bill and shoes for our kids.
I know that I’m a privileged person. I’ve been in full-time, permanent employment for the past nine years. Before then, I had brief stints on benefits – the longest being when I dropped out of college for psychiatric treatment – but I always had a sense these phases would be temporary. Of course, I could have been wrong. It could have all ended badly, but it didn’t and the fact that I come from a solidly middle-class background probably had more than a little to do with that. I am safer than other people. All the same, I do worry about money because, like most people, I don’t have a huge financial cushion if something were to go wrong. I wouldn’t want to try living without my monthly wage. The thought frightens me. To be poor – and I’ve never been poor – isn’t just to go without, but to be an outsider, these days more than ever. And yet I’d still have my family and my degrees and my business contacts. I wouldn’t find myself truly without support, not really. To think otherwise would be fanciful and childish and I’m too old for that.
IDS thinks he knows what it’s like to be poor. In response to a petition calling for him to demonstrate that he really can live on £53 per week, he has said “I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this. I know what it is like to live on the breadline.” Iain Duncan Smith, no you do not. I have been unemployed more than twice and I have no fucking idea what it’s like to “live on the breadline” – and I’m not even married to an heiress! And yes, my partner and I have been through some marginally tricky times. We had the phone disconnected three times in a row because we kept getting into debt paying the reconnection fee. And there was my partner’s ongoing shoe saga (you end up spending a bloody fortune on cheap shoe replacements when you can’t afford to buy proper shoes in one go). And there was that one time we ran out of food till the next signing on day and were left, rather amusingly, with some Fortnum & Mason lobster pate that my partner’s mother had given us (that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re Oxbridge poor rather than truly destitute). None of this lasted very long and we never feared being without a roof over our heads. So no, we weren’t “on the breadline”. The mere fact of being unemployed does not grant a person insight into what it’s like to experience genuine economic and cultural exclusion. What kind of fantasy world does IDS inhabit?
Extreme privilege – never having to really worry about any of the everyday crap we mortals take for granted – seems to be making children of our politicians. It never seems to cross their minds other people’s lives have different pressures, different contexts. There is no empathy, no recognition of the limitations of other people’s lives, just the expectation that everyone does things their way (and if they can’t? Well, they can’t have tried hard enough).
IDS thinking he’s been “on the breadline” reminds me of myself at seven. I was obsessed with a schools’ history programme called How We Used To Live and that, combined with regular news reports on the Falklands War, made me truly believe I was a War Child. I was growing up in a semi in Cumbria, thousands of miles away from the actual conflict, but just the knowledge that “we” were at war filled my head with all sorts of self-aggrandising beliefs. I courageously soldiered on through war-torn times, still stopping on the way home from school to spend the rest of my dinner money Panda Pops and Quavers on the basis that there was no way of knowing when I might be put “on the ration”. I look back on this now and think “how ridiculous” but it seems to me this is how IDS still thinks today. All that counts is the technical definition, not the real-life context.
This seems to be a trend in our current government, this infantile belief in oneself as a plucky striver, combined with the breathtaking sense of entitlement that comes with never really having to manage household finances. These people think like seven-year olds, staring grumpily at those on benefits wondering why they get stuff when they’re just not doing anything! It’s just not fair! The resentment is real and devastating but I can’t help thinking the origins are based in something as straightforward as never having had to feel afraid that one day, it could be you.
When I was in my teens, my brother was awarded sickness benefits. He’s still on them now, and needs to be, but at the time I was well pissed off. Because he got a free flat! And extra money for food! And what’s more, he only ever bought Rich Tea biscuits and PG Tips! I’d have spent the money on much better stuff, plus I was working two jobs – as a silver-service waitress and a motorway service station cleaner – and I couldn’t afford a flat (as if that mattered – I still lived with my mum and dad). My parents would say “yes, but you have potential and you can get an education. You will have choices, even when you don’t have money”. All of this has been true, but I didn’t listen at the time. Because my brother got stuff for free! That was all I could see and that’s all our government are seeing now. These are people who aren’t operating in the same space as everyone else. Their moral worldview is stunted. I worry it is far too late to persuade them to care.