Poverty is a crisis of government
In an alley, just up from the Scottish Parliament and, rather ironically, literally right on the doorstep of the office of the homelessness charity Crisis, a makeshift home has been assembled. A ragtag jumble of cardboard, waste paper and rags.
A stained mattress has been turned on its side to act as a windbreak rather than for the soft landing originally intended. A shiny metal bistro table sits incongruously to one side. And with an empty beer can and a used ashtray, it looks for all the world like some staged vignette from a trendy Shoreditch watering hole.
But what hits you first is the stink of urine. And then, as you turn away, the realisation that underneath this collection of foul-smelling detritus lies the story of a broken life. A man who has no home and whose hope is as obsolete as the date on the packets of stale sandwiches that someone has left him.
The two old sofas neatly stacked nearby, tied and labelled awaiting an uplift by the council, appear to have been awarded more care than the human pile of misery that has desperately tried to craft something resembling a home from trash. And who uses the pavement as a toilet.
Poverty cuts right through Scotland. It’s branded on our psyche like a Celtic gene and we have all but had to accept the consequences of biting impoverishment as a fact of life – and in premature death – even as we tinker around at the edges trying to soften the blows.
When I was a child, about nine or ten, and staying with my granny in Perth, there was a massive explosion from a council tenement flat along the street. I was having an Arbroath smokie for my tea.
It was the first time I’d eaten one and that foreign taste and that unexpected sound combined to forge a memory that remains to this day as an inextricably entwined collection of smells, noise and sights that reminds me of the human tragedy of poverty.
A father trying to heat his home had hooked up his gas cooker to the lighting in some complicated way to avoid bills. The result was devastation. His nylon shirt had melted onto his skin in the blast and I still remember the horror of standing out on the street watching him being pulled from the blown-out building with burning shards of bloody cloth and skin dripping from his torso, his face contorted in anguish as he wildly searched for his children in the crowd. A flat blown to pieces, a family torn apart and a father fighting for his life when he had been fighting for his family’s survival.
He ended up in prison and his kids in care.
This was 1973. The fag-end of a Tory government. A year that began with our entry into the European Economic Community – marked perhaps prophetically with the Union Jack flying upside down outside the EEC office in Brussels. It wasn’t a good year. There were power cuts, a three-day working week, a miners’ strike, the oil crisis, butter rations and terrorist attacks. Some describe it as the most significant year in British history.
For me, it shifted my comfortable middle-class world on its axis. I saw the horror. And I couldn’t un-see it.
Four decades on, things don’t feel better, they feel worse. Because there is now a context, a comparator that tells us that things can be improved.
But today, need has soared, while the safety net is in tatters and the tangible evidence of growing destitution is increasingly evident on our streets.
What is the litmus test for successful government if it is not to keep its citizens fed, watered, warm and housed? But when welfare cuts leave the most vulnerable more vulnerable, the sick sicker, the hungry starving and those in work poor, then surely this is a crisis of government even before you debate the deep-rooted injustices that stymie escape from such social inequity.
Following years of austerity and social security cuts coinciding with frozen wages and rising costs, there is a harsh reality that we are watching hard-won progress slipping away.
It isn’t a radical agenda to argue every family should have a safe, warm home, a decent income and a chance to ‘get on’, but how can social mobility mean anything when even the commission by that very name resigns in frustration at the inability to make a difference?
The writer Darren McGarvey talks about ‘social immobility’, because that better reflects the reality for someone like him, someone born poor who stays poor.
He says: “To get a better idea of what social immobility means to someone near the bottom of the pile, living in conditions of poverty characterised by psychosocial stress, the ubiquitous threat of violence and constant financial insecurity, simply imagine a startled giraffe, with asthma, languishing in a pool of quicksand.
“In this context, ‘social mobility’ is keeping your head above the sand, while politicians take credit for the fact you have a long neck, while socially ambivalent voters who think poverty is a personality defect point to your long neck as proof that society is fair.
“The depth of the swamp, how the giraffe got there, and the fact it has asthma are never adequately accounted for.”
UK Government welfare policies aren’t just holding people back, they are causing hunger, depression, homelessness and even death. This is not governing for the people, it is throwing away their lives. And while desperate people are sleeping on the doorstep of a charity designed to stamp out homelessness, then government has failed.