Three years ago, having passed the audition to play myself, I sat in a sweltering recording studio with a Very Nice Middle Class sound technician recording the audiobook for Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns. Around two and a half days into hearing me talk about every brutality growing up in poverty had visited upon me, he interrupted me mid-sentence and shouted loudly over the recording, “But what can I do? What can I possibly do?”
We stopped recording. He explained to me that he didn’t have a lot of spare money and barely any time himself. Only then did I realise he had spent those days feeling I was personally targeting him for society’s ills.
I am used to this question: “What can I do?” I have been asked it hundreds of times by overwhelmed, decent-hearted people who have done their food bank drop-offs, circulated petitions, donated what they can, and still feel helpless.
I answered him as I usually did, explaining that people usually have more resources than they recognise. That the problem needs to be tackled at root and perhaps he had skills to pass on, a network he might call on to help improve access to the privileges that had led to him sitting there, healthy enough to go to work, recording my book.
And, along with my stock response – that a society needs affordable housing, functional social security, state education and medical care – I felt that I gave him as good an answer as I could. Because in that moment I was shuttled back to another sweltering recording studio, 10 years earlier. Visiting a national radio station as part of my job with a charity, a quite-famous-at-the-time breakfast presenter told me a particular X Factor contestant was actually “a nasty little chav”. I am deeply ashamed to say that, for the sake of my job and for the charity, I laughed uncomfortably and said, “You’re probably right.”
What I should have said both those times in recording studios, for the purposes of the tape and for posterity, is that we, as a society and a culture, really need to stop talking shit about poor people if we want anything to change. In reality TV, talk shows and media, yes. But also in homes and workplaces and supermarkets and on the benches in parliament when MPs feel able to wrongly claim that people in poverty are there because they cannot cook or budget.
The false statements about, and type of language used around, poor people needs to become as taboo, as clearly bigoted, as with any other form of systemic prejudice. When we hear it, we need to call it out. People who find themselves in poverty should not be the punchbag of politicians. When we demonise and mock our most vulnerable, we fail to recognise all the potential and value that those living in poverty have to contribute.
Of course, the pandemic and current cost of living crisis means that in recent years those who have never been touched by hardship have suddenly found themselves squeezed financially. And, no, perhaps they have not been in the grip of the sort of poverty I found myself in as a child, and millions of people find themselves in today – when there was not enough food, the electric was off for two days, or we were sleeping in coach stations. But as more people find themselves uncontrollably spiralling into poverty, the more people who may have once bought into the stereotypes about where culpability lies will now question those myths – that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, or can’t cook or won’t cook.
I’m grateful I rarely hear the term “chav” any more – a word that to this day makes my skin cold and clammy with flight-or-fight instinct. But that doesn’t mean that the intention behind that word has disappeared. I grew up within an ever-perpetuating cycle of stereotypes – about why poor people deserve to be poor, how they have ended up that way, and how they’ve made it worse. Yes, I’ve seen the shape of that narrative change, the thrust of the argument and the prisms it moves through mutate. But the cold, sharp, compressed core judgment – even hate – has endured.
I think most of the people reading this would challenge hate speech or prejudice, and we must learn to do this for those who are suffering from poverty too. To not simply let it slide because for decades the media have offered up poor communities as easy cannon fodder – the dreadful consequences of the benefit cap came in as a response to the idea of “benefit scroungers”. We cannot allow the deeply harmful, even fatal, narrative that this is an individual flaw rather a societal one to persist. That is the very first step each individual can take about poverty.