Why the British Underclass Deserves Our Attention

Photo by scribbletaylor via Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Photo credit: scribbletaylor via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Since moving from Bristol to London last year the issue of poverty and homelessness in the UK has become more apparent to me than ever before. It’s not that I was naive to the problem before relocating, more that it exists here on a much larger scale, and is therefore more visible and more disturbing. I’ve asked myself many times why it is that an estimated one in five people in London—one of the world’s largest and most successful financial centres—are enduring extreme financial hardship. This is certainly not a simple question to answer, and I could explore it at length. But after a recent experience that forced me to think about the issue from a different angle, I’d like to focus on something more deeply personal to us all — the way that our society sees those living in poverty.

Waiting for a train at Stepney Green tube station a few months ago, my attention was drawn to a scruffy young man slumped down on a bench and drifting in and out of consciousness. Assuming he’d had a few too many drinks the night before, I thought nothing more of him and proceeded to board my train when it arrived. It wasn’t until he emerged in my carriage after a brief stop at Whitechapel that I realised he wasn’t just another drunken casualty on his way home from a heavy night out. Standing directly behind him, I could see the unnatural smallness of his body, the thick matting of his hair, and the dirtiness of the clothes that he was wearing. After a few seconds he addressed the carriage, but his voice was weak and barely carried over the noise of the thundering train. Rattling a few coppers in one hand, he begged us for any food or small change that we could spare, explaining to us that “It isn’t nice to be put on the spot like this, but I’m desperate for food.” And it was clear that he was. 

Looking beyond his shoulder as he spoke, I noted the response from his audience: Two well-groomed girls whispered and giggled amongst themselves as a dozen or so morning commuters paid no attention to him at all, staring intently at their smart phones and Kindles as he spoke. As I turned to look behind me, I saw a smartly dressed man surreptitiously scoffing a Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference sandwich, concealing his face with a paper bag as he ate. As the young man drifted through the carriage empty-handed, clearly frustrated and upset, someone took pity and handed him an orange. The man’s eyes brightened momentarily as he accepted the donation, and a few seconds later he was out of sight.

Whilst it’s not uncommon to find people begging on public transport in London, this particular case was one of the most personally distressing that I’ve come across. Whether or not this man was an addict, drug dealer or criminal was of no concern to me (I’ve heard stigmatising labels such as these used as an excuse for apathy far too many times). What I was and still am very concerned by is the fact that this man, this human being, whatever his background and current circumstance, was clearly in a very bad state of health and in such a depleted financial situation that he’d resorted to begging complete strangers for help. The fact that all a carriage-load of largely well-to-do commuters could muster for a clearly malnourished and vulnerable man was a single piece of fruit proved an overwhelming lack of empathy, not to mention a worrying level of desensitisation to something that has been a serious problem in this country for a very long time.

I’ve asked myself many times why it is that an estimated one in five people in London, one of the world’s largest and most successful financial centres, are enduring extreme financial hardship.

As upsetting as this experience was, it isn’t difficult to understand why so many of us feel so reluctant or at a loss to help. In contemporary Western society we’re led to believe from an early age that if we work hard enough then we will gain access to everything we need to live a healthy, fulfilling and independent life. For many of us this can be defined as having a decent job, a warm, dry and safe place to call home, access to a decent education and a high enough wage to pay our bills, buy food and look after our families.

What we often seem to forget, though, is that financial comfort in life depends on so much more than hard work alone. For those who do not conform to society’s ideals, life can be experienced as a daily struggle (especially when mental and physical disabilities are involved), made even more challenging by low wages, a competitive job market, a decrease in affordable housing, and an ever-declining appreciation for non-academic skills.

In a meritocratic society that overvalues the individual and considers life successes and failures as equally deserved, it’s all too easy to harshly judge, laugh at or completely ignore those who, like this man, have found themselves living on the margins of civilised life.

For those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or suffer from conditions that affect their ability to work and earn in the expected way, there is little hope of independently achieving the level of financial security that is needed to attain a comfortable life. And what help is available to us when things don’t quite turn out the way we hope or expect? Unfortunately, very little. There are some state benefits that can be claimed (providing you have an address, valid ID, a bank account and the willpower to appeal if your claim is wrongly rejected, of course), and there are certainly a few dedicated NGOs such as Oxfam, Crisis, Barnados and Shelter working hard to provide food, clothing, and accommodation for vulnerable citizens, but it clearly isn’t enough. If it were then there would be far fewer people in desperate need of support than there are currently. In February 2015 3,569 UK citizens were estimated to be sleeping rough – a 30% increase from 2014 (Homeless Link)- and a recent government statement has reported that Housing Benefit claims amongst those in employment rose significantly in 2014/15 compared to 2009/10 (Department for Work and Pensions).

Whilst employment rates are reported to be at an all-time high (Department for Work and Pensions), the use of zero-hour contracts by employers is on the rise (Battling with Benefits, BBC, 2016), and financial resources for low-earners and the unemployed are slowly but surely diminishing. The Independent Living Fund and Housing Benefit for under 21s were some of the first financial lifelines to be cut by the Conservatives, whose aim it is to eradicate Britain’s “merry-go-round of welfare” (The Guardian, 24 June 2015). And the newly proposed Housing and Planning Act that will see much of the UK’s social housing sold off to private companies will leave even more people struggling with unaffordable rent. This combined with the suggestion made by certain political figureheads that so-called lifestyle choices such as drug addiction and family breakdowns should be considered when defining the causes of child poverty, leaves affected families even more responsible and at even more of a loss to cope with their perceived life failures.

In February 2015 3,569 UK citizens were estimated to be sleeping rough – a 30% increase from 2014.

Easy as it is to harshly judge those who are unable to live comfortably without financial support, it seems clear to me that a more empathetic view and proactive attitude must be adopted if we are to tackle the issues of poverty and homelessness in this country.

Any one of us could find ourselves jobless, suffering from illness or without a decent support network, and wouldn’t we all appreciate a bit of help to get back on our feet? As a country we’ve been demonising and discriminating against impoverished citizens for far too long, with disastrous consequences to those affected. With increasing numbers of people experiencing low wages, expensive rent and a general lack of resources to reach their life goals, isn’t it time that we acknowledged our collective responsibility and started working together to help rather than judge those in need of financial assistance?

Without rethinking our collective attitude toward those experiencing poverty, the problem of inequality will never be eradicated. And if the government refuses to acknowledge the severity of the situation then it’s up to you and I as caring, compassionate community members to support one another, make clear our solidarity, and bring about the positive changes we so long for.

If this is an issue that you’re also concerned about, visit Make Poverty History to access a range of useful resources and find information about current campaigns. The Independent’s recently published article outlining ways we can help those sleeping rough this winter is also worth looking to for useful advice.

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Maddie is a freelance writer and lifelong lover of literary fiction, with a particular interest in the Gothic and macabre.