JThree years ago, after auditioning to play myself, I sat in a stuffy recording studio with a very handsome, middle-class sound technician recording Lowborn’s audiobook: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns. About two and a half days after hearing me talk about all the brutality growing up in poverty had inflicted on me, he interrupted me in mid-sentence and shouted loudly on the recording, “But what can- I do? What can I do ?
We stopped recording. He explained to me that he didn’t have a lot of spare money and hardly any time for himself. It was only then that I realized he had spent those days feeling that I was personally targeting him for the ills of society.
I’m used to this question: “What can I do?” I’ve been asked this hundreds of times by overwhelmed, decent-hearted people who have made their food bank deposits, circulated petitions, donated what they could, and still feel helpless.
I answered him as I usually did, explaining that people usually have more resources than they realize. That the problem needs to be tackled at the root and that maybe he had skills to pass on, a network he could call on to help improve access to the privileges that had led him to sit there, in enough good health to go to work, recording my book.
And, in addition to my standard answer—that a society needs affordable housing, functional social security, public education, and medical care—I felt I had given him the best possible answer. Because at that point I was sent back to another stuffy recording studio, 10 years ago. While visiting a national radio station as part of my work with a charity, a fairly famous breakfast presenter at the time told me that a particular X Factor contestant was actually “a mean little chav”. I’m deeply ashamed to say that for the sake of my work and for charity, I laughed uncomfortably and said, “You’re probably right.
What I should have said those two times in the recording studios, for the sake of the tape and for posterity, is that we as a society and a culture really need to stop saying shit about the poor if we want something to change. In reality TV, talk shows and the media, yes. But also in homes, workplaces, supermarkets and on the benches of parliament when MPs feel able to falsely claim that people living in poverty are there because they can’t cook or budget .
Misrepresentation and the kind of language used around the poor must become as taboo, as clearly bigoted, as any other form of systemic bias. When we hear it, we must call it. People who end up in poverty should not be the punching bag of politicians. When we demonize and mock our most vulnerable, we fail to recognize the full potential and value that those living in poverty have to bring.
Of course, the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have meant that in recent years those who have never been hit by hardship have suddenly found themselves financially strapped. And, no, maybe they didn’t fall prey to the kind of poverty that I was in as a child, and that millions of people are in today – when there wasn’t enough food , the electricity was cut off for two days, or we slept in bus stations. But as more and more people find themselves spiraling out of control into poverty, more people who may have bought into stereotypes about guilt will now challenge those myths – that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough or can’t cook or won’t cook.
I’m thankful that I rarely hear the term “chav” – a word that to this day makes my skin feel cold and clammy with the instinct to fight or run. But that doesn’t mean the intent behind that word is gone. I grew up in an ever-perpetuating cycle of stereotypes – about why poor people deserve to be poor, how they got there, and how they made it worse. Yes, I have seen the shape of this narrative change, the thrust of the argument and the prisms it passes through mutate. But the cold, sharp, compressed central judgment — even the hatred — endured.
I think most people reading this would challenge hate speech or bias, and we need to learn how to do that for those suffering from poverty as well. Not to just give up because for decades the media has portrayed poor communities as easy cannon fodder – the dire consequences of benefit caps have come in response to the idea of ’benefit scroongers’. We cannot allow the deeply harmful, even fatal narrative that this is an individual rather than a societal flaw to persist. It is the very first step that each individual can take in the face of poverty.