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Middle class? Welcome to the ranks of the poor

Three things to remember: It's not your fault, it's policy; you're not alone; and you can survive this. 

September 20 2022, 15.30pm

For 13.4 million people in the UK, the money you bring in is less than the money you need to spend to get by. While some may be fortunate enough to eat out, travel and socialise, a lot of us are not. An increasing number of households earn less than what they need to live - let alone save - and enjoy luxuries. These days, that includes people who’d consider themselves middle class. If that's you, dear reader, I’d like to welcome you to the new ranks of the poor.

As one of the world’s richest countries, you shouldn’t expect poverty to be so rife and normalised. Every day we hear stories of people undertaking desperate cross-continental journeys to get here - the promised land - but yet we also hear stories of people living in homes with black mould creeping up their walls. We see and read contrasting features about how house prices are 'back to normal' after the Covid pandemic and are increasingly sold aspirational and unsustainable lifestyles. Driving through my own borough of Hackney in London, one side of the road has multi-million dollar homes and the other side has rows of council blocks where you’re more likely to be robbed than find an oat milk latte.

The first tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs refers to “fundamental psychological needs.” Before someone can advance in life, they need to have their basic needs met. Those basic needs include shelter, safety, warmth and food. The current cost of living and climate crises mean that people now have to choose which one of these things they retain in order to survive. Heat or eat. 

Six British billionaires hold more money than thirteen-million of the poorest citizens in the UK. One in two or three children in UK urban areas live on or below the poverty line. 

While our benefits reduce, our wages remain stagnant - even the Living Wage does not take into account the actual cost of living. The rising cost of everything means that everyone has effectively taken a 25% pay cut - but the effect of that may not be felt immediately. Big business and industry gets bailed out when their income goes below their expenditure - the same doesn’t happen for individual families that find themselves in the same predicament. Upper middle and higher income families can rely on credit lines in the short term - a privilege those at the lower end of the haves-and-havenots scale can’t access. But, eventually, that credit line will run dry and more families will find themselves closer to the poverty they fear. 

Don’t be scared. One of the first things you learn when you’re poor is how to survive - because here, we don’t live, we survive. Let’s look at food - 2,173,158 people have used food banks opened in the UK from 2021-2022 - compared to 128,697 a decade ago. Community kitchens, lunch clubs and food cooperatives show that not everyone has access to store-bought food. After you’ve paid your bills, you struggle to pay for the basics. Food banks and lunch clubs will become one of your only sources for food. And because food costs more, donations to these places will reduce and portions will become smaller to make resources stretch. Parents, teachers, nurses, key workers, freelancers and the self-employed - food banks have seen them all using their service in recent times

Food is fuel. And that brings me to another fuel. Whether domestic or commercial, the energy crisis is real. Announcements from our most recent Prime Minister “reassures” the country that people won’t pay more than £2500 per year until 2024. While the upper incomes and business owners breathe a little, people on prepayment meters will tell you that £2500 a year is what they pay anyway. We pay a higher rate per unit (if you’re poor, you can’t be trusted with a cheaper rate). If we don’t have the money, it’s 'no money, no lighty'. The only thing that’s newsworthy is that middle class people find out that they’re not as rich as they imagined themselves to be. And they’re outraged. Not about the poorest in society being exploited as a norm, but that they are now those poor and they are the ones now being exploited. 

Thousands live with, and in, poverty every day. All that’s happened recently was it started happening to richer people and suddenly, everyone’s aghast and it suddenly had a name: 'The Cost of Living Crisis'. My question here is why aren’t you aghast that the poorest section of society is being extorted as a norm? Are you only upset when you can no longer treat yourself to that fourth craft beer or nice imported cheese from the local artisan deli? Does poverty only matter if it affects you personally? Why?

This isn't about making you, personally, curl into a ball of guilt. It's about considering whether we could have have stopped this if enough of us got angry sooner. This is an invitation to get angry now - and to get busy. In response to this escalating emergency, grassroots organisations like the Hackney Community Closet I founded are filling the gaps where the government has failed. Average people are making up the shortfall for assistance for housing issues, hygiene, clothing poverty, mental health services and all the other aspects that make up a life. Armies of neighbourhood-based projects deliver necessities to those in need - mostly without much-needed local authority or government support. Almost all of these projects are driven by volunteer labour; people like me are taking matters into our own hands because we’ve had enough. The government doesn’t get a free pass from caring or support just because we’re fed up waiting for them to do what they’ve been elected to do.