About those scroungers


11:53 am - March 19th 2009

by Neil Robertson    


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I’ll try to write more about this later in the week, but I would hope that Amelia Gentleman’s brilliant (and awfully depressing) report into Breadline Britain will add something to the debates on poverty & welfare dependency:

Shopping at Morrisons doesn’t take very long. Louise has a simple formula: don’t buy anything that costs more than £1. This week, the budget bananas are finished, and the regular packet costs £1.29, so she doesn’t buy bananas. The cheap potatoes are also sold out, so she doesn’t buy potatoes. She fills a basket with Morrisons own-brand orange juice, 56p; reduced-sugar jam, 95p; peanut butter, 78p; yoghurt, £1.00; bread, 99p, granulated sugar, 93p; oven chips, 79p; two tins of eight hot dogs at 49p each; one bag of value apples, £1.00. Only the milk, biscuits and the cheese cost more. She ignores the faltering monologue from her son, who has been diagnosed with learning difficulties, just audible from beneath the pram’s hood. “Mum, I want flowers. Please buy flowers. I want the Bob the Builder egg. I want High School Musical chocolates.“
. . .
“It would be nice, on occasion, to buy them something on a whim – treats, cakes and biscuits. But if you do, you know you’re going to have to turn the heating off,” she says. Her face is pallid, and she has grey patches of exhaustion beneath her eyes.

She crosses the car park to Iceland to find cheaper bananas (brown and verging on rotten), pizza, cheese spread and chicken pies for £1 each.

“This will easily last me until next week, and there’ll be stuff left over,” she says confidently, although she concedes that things would be better still if she could spare £4 to make a bus trip into the city centre for the weekly Wednesday food handouts by nuns, who usually give her a couple of plastic bags of tins and pasta. Last harvest festival her daughter’s school was collecting for the nuns, so she sent in a few tins she had been given by them, and is half-expecting to see them come back full circle and return to her cupboard.

Do read the rest.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Equality

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Reader comments


From the article:

“Her daily routine is punctuated by anxious furrowing in her pink wallet, and the careful updating of her weekly personal accounts in Biro on the back of an envelope: £5.50 for TV licence, ticked off;”

A TV licence costs £139.50. Or £2.68 a week. Either the figuires being used in this article are not very accurate or the BBC rips off those who pay weekly.

One thing does rankle about this article thought. We have laws in place to insist that fathers pay maintenance for their children. This father doesn’t. He should and that would alleviate at least some of the poverty described.

The implication of the article though is that we should be paying that through higher benefits.

Either the figuires being used in this article are not very accurate or the BBC rips off those who pay weekly.

It’s the latter, Tim.

Not sure exactly what the Beeb do with weekly payments, but if you pay monthly by DD then, when you first go on the scheme they stiff you for the full annual cost of the licence over the first six months before dropping the payments down to what they should be if you split the licence fee over a full 12 months.

Basically, they cook the payments system to ensure that you’ve always paid six months in front for your licence.

Unity – seems unlikely she’s only had a telly for 6 months, tho’.

On the original piece, This comment is interesting, as is this one. Given the levels of benefits that ‘Louise’ receives, even considering her £17pw debt repayments, there’s no way she needs to either spend such a small proportion of her income on food, or buy such crap food.

Just as on the Amnesty thing, articles that play loose with the facts are unhelpful even when the cause is good and righteous.

It comes back to one of my first ever blog posts, well at least in my current life. Whether it’s the skill or the desire to eat healthily that Louise lacks, it certainly isn’t the money.

Unity – seems unlikely she’s only had a telly for 6 months, tho’.

True, but then, given her circumstances, it is possible that she’s altered her method of payment in that period.

As it looks very much like she’s on the cash payment plan, then she’ll be paying either £5.50 a week, if she’s in her first six months on the plan and £5.50 a fortnight after that.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/mar/18/child-poverty-labour-eradicate-promise

Admittedly, the article is unclear and poorly written from the standpoint of explaining her income.

As a 24 year old lone parent with two kids, her basic income support should be £60.50 per week and she’ll get £30 a week in child benefit. After that its all down to childrens’ tax credits and whatever child related IS she may be getting.

To be honest here John, the numbers in the article don’t seem to add up but I can’t be entirely sure whether that’s the fault of the journalist or whether this young woman is simply not getting the full amount of benefits she should be getting and, if not, why?

One possibility that comes to mind is that the apparent shortfall may be down to non receipt of child support payments from her ex (or non-cooperation with the CSA) but I do have to say that if this was on my patch, I’d be getting a good bennies advisor to go in and give her claim the once over to see where the shortfall is and what can be done about correcting it.

Yup, I’d agree with that. And again, the fact that the benefits system is so mind-bendingly complicated that the people who most need the cash are missing out because they don’t understand how to claim it is a scandal in its own right.

Sunny –

As you write for the Guardian I presume that you have access or know the author of this piece on the Guardian.

I have no idea the circumstances of this young woman’s bank situation but I would think, like most people who bank with a British bank, she is being over charged with those ‘fines and charges’.

Could you please forward or pass on this BBC piece where she can claim them back.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6170209.stm

There are already written letters in PDF format for her – someone with internet access will have to print them off and send them to her to fill in.

Or can someone do the humane thing and get her to the CAB who will help her out no end while she is in the situation she is in.

Just as on the Amnesty thing, articles that play loose with the facts are unhelpful even when the cause is good and righteous.

Do you honestly trust any crusading article? Why?

2 things annoy me about this article and the comments.

1) – This is a typical middle-class journalist-commissioned-to-go-visit-a-poor-person-and-write-a-story-about-how-bad-their-life-is article. FFS, I’d be surprised if some of the figures weren’t wrong. The journalist clearly has no understanding of the life lived, and is only interested in a should-we-feel-sorry-for-her narrative, presumably in the hope of prompting the kind of social guilt that Guardian-readers are famed for.

If the Guardian is really interested in this issue, instead of commissioning this patronising bs, why not commission the woman to write an article about her own financial circumstances? I’d actually BUY the damn paper if they commissioned a series of articles like that.

2) Can people here really do no better than to question the figures in a lame attempt to prove that the woman isn’t really that badly off?

Agreed with Tim above, and furthermore:
Admittedly, the article is unclear and poorly written from the standpoint of explaining her income.

Look – its a story, not a bloody financial breakdown of the poor. It’s a human interest story. Its very likely the journalist will have to take the person mostly at face value (unless something sticks out) on her expenditure. Would you really spend half your time simp[ly questioning every bit of a poor person’s income/expenditure to explain everything?

Furthermore, she may have written a longer piece that got cut down – such is journalism.

I agree with John on one point though – money is broadly a rubbish way to explain poor people eating badly, lifestyle is a better explanation. Food can be very healthy (not restaurant food!) and cheap, if straight cooked from vegetables than buying gunk from super-markets.

Will – I don’t, as I work freelance for them… Amelie may also be freelance (don’t really know), and won’t thus be in the office often. But the short answer is, I know her as well as you do.

“money is broadly a rubbish way to explain poor people eating badly, lifestyle is a better explanation. Food can be very healthy (not restaurant food!) and cheap, if straight cooked from vegetables than buying gunk from super-markets.”

Not sure I agree with this, unless the caveat is that lifestyle is massively affected by income.

Fresh fruit and veg go off very quickly, so if you have a small family and you’re not completely sure when you’re going to use everything, fresh fruit and veg can seem a risky investment. (What if your kid says they’re want to go round to their friend’s house unexpectedly – the kind of stuff you can’t plan for but which can throw out a carefully-planned meal schedule.) They require more preparation and time. (If you work and look after kids, making a meal from scratch is a lot more extra effort to be hassled with.) And they are more expensive than frozen stuff; there’s no getting away from that.

12. Shatterface

(10): ‘Look – it’s a story, not a financial breakdown of the poor’

Then it’s a meaningless anecdote from which we can draw no lessons, so why publish?

One of the commentators points to the fact that she gets £169 a week with no council tax or rent to pay, and spends £77.

Which leaves £92 unaccounted for, which as far as the story’s concerned simply doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant – she’s only got £20 a week for food and it’s all a terrible tragedy and the result of mean, selfish middle class people who don’t care about the poverty we inflict on children and therefore won’t let the caring, loving Labour party – that absolutely can’t wait to fix the problem – go ahead and fix it. We really are complete scum. *cough*

Very, very, very shoddy journalism – as ridiculous as the sort of nationalist, authoritarian crap you get in the tabloids: “Never let facts get in the way of a good story”

For those who think this is ‘shoddy journalism’ because it doesn’t break down every penny of ‘Louise’s’ income and expenditure, and who want Proper Research, http://www.jrf.org.uk and http://www.poverty.org.uk are highly recommended, both have literally thousands of hours worth of reading of extremely high quality research and stats about poverty in Britain.

For example, ‘Shatterface’ talks about ‘meaningless anecdotes’, but research on the public understanding of poverty shows that there are a lot of people who find real life stories much more compelling and interesting than research findings or statistics. It’s not like it is hard to find research to back up the article’s general arguments or conclusions.

I thought the article was a well written and very moving story of someone’s life. If I were in her situation I know I couldn’t cope half as well.

Which leaves £92 unaccounted for, which as far as the story’s concerned simply doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant

My god, I don’t even know what to say when people get so pedantic and cynical about a human interest story. She may have spent that money on essential child stuff. It may have to go towards education or something. There could be a whole range of reasons that don’t require a penny by penny breakdown of the person’s income and expenditure.

But no, rather than giving them the benefit of doubt, let’s just assume these ‘welfare scroungers’ are lying bastards as well.

Then it’s a meaningless anecdote from which we can draw no lessons, so why publish?

The Daily Mail does it every day – publish human interest stories. Given its popularity let’s just assume that people like to hear that side of fellow Britons too, rather than read articles pumping out stats day after day. Honestly.

“If you work and look after kids, making a meal from scratch is a lot more extra effort to be hassled with”

Don’t want to sound like a knobhead, & I can hear Don Paskini etc berating me already but having children is a choice in the majority of cases. It may well be based on lack of information or meaningful alternatives, but it still is.

I am not aware of this country being underpopulated, so we might well wonder why we have such a pro-natalist tax & benefits system (yes, that includes people who work for incomes high & low too).

There’s a fundamental difference between those who fall on hard times, for whom the welfare state was designed & who I do not begrudge benefits if they can’t get jobs, & those who pass on their troubles to their children, who are born into hopelessness. We need to rediscover the sense that it is a great sin to bring a child into the world if one cannot give it a future.

The problem is, of course, that Louise is probably not a person to be reproached, nor are most single parents. I know several. But it isn’t helping them or anyone else to have this culture.

I oppose Workhouse Purnell’s “reforms”. I live on an estate & I think you can distinguish between the ones who are trapped & the lowlife, but the DWP would make the wrong decision as it always does & any given “crackdown” would hit the deserving hardest. But it does not do to dismiss valid criticism of the culture which exists amongst some.

No longer can this sort of shite be ignored.

18. Shatterface

Sunny (15): you really don’t get it, do you? As with the Amnesty thread this is an article based entirely on figures which falls appart as soon as you look at it closely.

If your arguement is based on figures then those figures matter.

Nobody is calling this woman a ‘lying bastard’ any more than we were calling the women Amnesty claimed to represent, we are calling the journalist incompetant.

You could just as easily have published an anecdote about someone who spends all their money on crack.

“If your argument is based on figures then those figures matter.

Nobody is calling this woman a ‘lying bastard’ any more than we were calling the women Amnesty claimed to represent, we are calling the journalist incompetent.”

This. Really, this.

#18, #19: But it’s your choice to attack the stats rather than picking up on some other area of the story, and you are thus choosing to have a displacement effect where rather than using the story as an opportunity to discuss poverty you use it as an opportunity to refine your pedantry skills.

#16: You can’t provide disincentives to have children without being willing to put severe limits on a child’s welfare and life opportunities once born. (Unless you actually take the child away from the parent, which I don’t think anyone here is arguing.) That’s true whether or not you think people make choices to have children based on the benefits they will receive – and Don Paskini knocked that argument on its head during the Tom Harris saga anyway.

It’s not appropriate for the state to judge people’s choice to have a child on the basis of their finances, and I would’ve thought that was obvious to a liberal. It is appropriate to support the child once it has been born.

4. john b . We hae had industrialisation in this country since 1780s. Therefore many people have lost any connection with the land and food. Women have worked in factories and mines since industrialisation. We were one of the first countries to introduce the mass production/processing of food. Food has a much lower priority in this country than prectically any other. Consequently we have lost our basic knowledge and interest in preparing food. Dishes such as porridge with nuts, dried fruits and brown cane sugar, oxtail, Lancashire Hot pot, Cornish pasties , faggots and peas , ham and pea soup, meat and vegetable pies ,meat broths/irish stew using plenty of vegetables and barley were all foood for the poor. The dishes could be prepared a day in advance . Seasonal vegetables such as potatoes, onions, cabbage, greens, swede, turnip and parsnips keep quite well in old fashioned well ventilated larders .

The introduction of rice , dried chickpease, lentils, kidney beans and other pulses and spices and herbs means cheap protein is available . By combining say one ot two chicken legs with chick peas , onions, garlic and herbs a cheap meal for 4-8 can be cooked. The meal can be cooked and that not used , frozen for a later day. Brown rice affords a high level of nutrition. By cooking twice what is needed on that day and freezing the rest , one can store meals for the days when one is too tired to cook.

One of my grandmothers became an excellent cook even though she was largely brought up in a workhouse in a city and left school at 14 or even earlier. She taught herself to cook and asked for help from those who were professionals. This was long before the amount of information which is readily obtainable today.

Charlie, how many 4-year olds do you know that will eat lentils and chickpeas? They want fish fingers!

22 timf . My Mother produced tasty food which I ate as did many children who came to my parents house. It was embarressing for my Mother when other Mothers said that their children did not normally eat certain foods but did so with gusto when cooked by herself. Of course my Mother had the advantage of being brought up by a Mother who was a good cook and growing up in WW2 which due to rationing , meant she did not tolerate children being picky . It is quite interesting looking at the preferences of children . Where they have been brought up with healthy and tasty food, then children will invariably eat what is put in front of them. What helps is children developing a healthy appetite from playing out of doors .

Are you guy’s going to to feel sorry for her after she has her third and fourth child?

There is no excuse for having kids you cannot afford in Great Britain today. Birth control is free and there is access to abortion.

Lilliput, why do you assume we’re feeling sorry for her now. I don’t feel sorry for her – what a patronising emotion – I just want to make sure she has whatever support she needs to continue the obviously very good job she’s doing in bringing up her kids.

“It’s not appropriate for the state to judge people’s choice to have a child on the basis of their finances, and I would’ve thought that was obvious to a liberal. It is appropriate to support the child once it has been born.”

So basically you’re saying that I have no right to a say in whether people should have children that they can’t afford but I am forced to support them – how liberal is that?

Would you rather the state is used as an instrument to pressure people into making particular life-choices (your model) or where it redistributes cash to generalised groups of people who need it (my model)?

Besides, you’re a liberal, I’m not – so I don’t have to be consistently liberal on this but you do.

tim, I’m looking for people (in government or on the street) to pressurise people to take responsability for their actions.

Its not a complicated concept

@10/15: surely the important question here is whether Louise has a miserable life because benefits are too mean, because benefits are too complicated, because absent working fathers are insufficiently chased, because she doesn’t have the skills to manage her household/her money, or what combination of all of the above? The policies required to combat these different problems are very, very different.

@22/23: this is one where I’m genuinely clueless, not being a parent myself – how hard is it to make young kids eat cheap-ish healthy-ish food instead of Power Rangers Donkey Twizzlers, or current equivalent?

Seems to me that the most likely explanation is that the woman in question only had £20 left this week, this time, and the journalist took that to mean every week, every time.

Can’t help but think of this:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article5941255.ece

Best line: “Mr and Mrs Chawner and their two daughters insist that they are “too fat to work” because they have a combined weight of 83 stone”

I can see that there has been some tizz on this website, but I haven’t had a chance to read all of it.

I was brought up by parents, both working in public sector jobs. My mother was very mentally ill, but held down her job all through her life. We had very little money.

During the course of our childhood, we would economise. We went shopping on Walthamstow market, where my parents would buy marked down fruit and veg. That meant, in practice, that we would buy produce which were sometimes a bit off, but where you’d cut the parts which were bad, and use the remainder. Saturday evening (and later Sunday evening) we’d do the rounds of the three local supermarkets, and buy whatever had been marked down in the 30 minutes before closing time.

My parents would spend the weekend cooking food for the week. They were both incredible, inventive cooks – creators of the ‘pizza loaf’, where the filling was cooked on the inside!

At one stage, my dad made clothes. They never wasted money. They didn’t have a standing account with Amazon: they went to the public library.

I thought my parents had been fools, for working in low paid jobs, and studiously living well within their means. Like many people, I concluded that there was no earthly reason that one shouldn’t buy IPods on credit.

Obviously, I was proved wrong.

‘How many 4-year olds do you know that will eat lentils and chickpeas? They want fish fingers!’
Then how did humanity survive before fish fingers? Kids can be picky, but there’s always some unprocessed food they do like, sometimes even lentils and chick peas.

34. tokyonambu

“Fresh fruit and veg go off very quickly”

No they don’t. They last for weeks in a fridge. May be not an optimum freshness, but still perfectly edible and infinitely more nutritious than many of the alternatives. And given access to a freezer — not a given, but most fridges have at least a 2* ice box — frozen peas, frozen broccoli and frozen cauliflower are incredibly cheap. Frozen mixes of peas, carrots and beans are even cheaper. You can keep apples for weeks even without a fridge, and as we’re still using last autumn’s apples off our tree (wrapped in newspaper and put in a dark cupboard) the same would apply to ones that were bought in bulk. You want to be careful with green potatoes, especially with children or pregnant women, but sprouting just reduces the nutritional value slightly.

Dried pulses are cheap. Rice is cheap. Chicken legs and stewing lamb and beef and belly of pork are cheap. For all the middle classes decry their presence, places like Tesco Express sell decent stuff at decent prices, and your local `ethnic’ shops have all sorts of fabulous stuff dirt cheap. I made some fabulous apple buns for my kids’ lunchboxes out of a recipe in the Graun last week: I doubt the dozen cost a quid in ingredients. If I went back to the days when I played at being vegan in order to lure women with unshaven armpits into my bed, I reckon I could feed a family of four for twenty quid a week and do actually quite well.

Not knowing how to cook is a choice. It’s not hard, and charity shops are full of recipe books.

“this is one where I’m genuinely clueless, not being a parent myself – how hard is it to make young kids eat cheap-ish healthy-ish food instead of Power Rangers Donkey Twizzlers, or current equivalent?”

Trivial. Put it in front of them from an early age, and eat it yourself. My younger, 10, has just returned from a trip away for a week with school, and caused much amusement by having no idea about what to order in McDonalds (although she can find her way around a sushi menu). Stews made from pulses or cheap meats are a way of life: once you accept that children can’t eat proper food, you’ve crossed a line that’s hard to get back across.

Several things struck me. One: This person’s a bit thick. Two: She doesn’t have any opportunities. Three: She’s not a bit thick by accident. The system has failed her, she and her kids have been starved to the point of being stunted, learning difficulties and illiteracy seem very common in poor areas.

Something has to happen to improve the situation. After the next round of cuts the poor are going to be hungrier than ever, all sorts of bad things might happen then. Traditionally either a fascist party appears and gets mass support, or there’ll just be a massive crimewave

People who are a bit thick are more likely to be violent, and people who are bit thick, and hungry and angry…. We need an army of do-gooders to descend on these places, crash literacy programmes, money, food… in many ways it is reminiscent of the third world ’cause it’s plain as day nobody cares and hunger is seriously affecting them. It is the elephant in the room issue, nobody likes to think about hunger in this day and age, it is one of those “it couldn’t happen here” things.

I am truly afraid of what might happen. We’re seeing all kinds of hatreds and racisms making a comeback, I dread to think what might happen if the govt continues down this course of demonising poor people and the left continues to ignore their plight in favour of religious fanatics and racists. Nobody seems to care.

Charlie, how many 4-year olds do you know that will eat lentils and chickpeas? They want fish fingers!

Tim – sorry but that’s no excuse! I was forced to eat chickpeas and lentils then (mmm…) and still do now, regularly. If you can’t force your kids to eat healthy food at 4, then frankly you’ve failed as a parent.

I notice there’s a lot of judgement happening here of someone you’ve never met. You’re talking about someone who is practically a kid themselves, who never had a lot of the *intangible* wealth that we enjoy – not only the lack of culture, of family traditions and community solidarity, but also the lack of basic facilities like decent shops and transportation. In many ways these are people created by corporate branding and advertising, educated by television (because teachers, for instance, have abrogated their responsibilities) and brought up by people just as ignorant, and like I said, people who are ignorant by design, not by accident. People who rely on “the system” (and I don’t mean the government) for a life and trust the television to tell the truth and as a result of eating corporate food and doing what they’re told al their lives end up in deep doo-doo.

This is why education is important – it gives you survival skills. But is being stupid such a crime? Middle class people are happy when stupid people do crap jobs for low pay and don’t strike or unionise, but they complain bitterly when stupid people – the people their politcians helped create – sign on. It’s a situation of incredible hypocricy.

The fact is that employers and the state have abandoned huge swathes of the population to a terrible fate, big business and the criminal underworld exploit the poor mercilessly and all the nice people who could help instead choose to blame the victim, carp and whinge about how much it all costs and lobby the government not to improve matters but to make things worse – more means testing, more poverty traps, more judgement. That sort of attitude does not help.

She should start by cancelling the bloody TV licence. Spend the money on doing something with the kids, it will improve their lives and yours.

I notice there’s a lot of judgement happening here of someone you’ve never met.

You can’t sympathise with someone unless you have made some judgement about them and their position.


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