Cupcakes for breakfast - is that what poverty looks like?

Davine Forde explains that poverty is often hidden, and is not what you might think.

My second son was at secondary school in Chorlton - a school ambassador, captain of the football team. I sent him off with his plastic container of cupcakes; to the outside world I was a lovely Mum making home baked cakes, but both of us knew all we had was 99p in my purse - so the only thing I could afford was the cupcake mix you add water to, and that was his breakfast, lunch and evening meal. The impact of poverty is greater than the poverty itself.

As a black, middle-aged single parent, quite well known across the voluntary sector in Manchester, my lived experience allows me to shine a light on poverty and ask the questions: from what angle are you looking at the prism of poverty, and where does poverty start?

I grew up in a working-class background with two parents, who were married for 56 years until my father passed away. They were part of the Windrush generation, who were invited to Britain to find work, my mother in the NHS and my father as a supervisor in a well-known meat factory. Like many other black families, we were raised to go to church, treat others fairly, go to school and get a good education as your main aim was to secure a stable job. I did not see it as racism when I chose my option of ‘O Level – Latin’, because I wanted to be a lawyer, and my teacher told me to be realistic: “How about a cleaner?” We believe that teachers always know best!

Starting off my work-life as a civil servant after college, prior to moving to my parents’ country of birth for eight years to discover my heritage, I had never considered myself as poor, as all my peers had very similar upbringings. I returned after eight years with my eldest son who was six years old, after a traumatic break-up as a single parent, which was not a choice that I had ever chosen lightly but out of necessity for our safety.

On our return I had to present at Manchester Town Hall as homeless. The officer that saw me stated, “You don’t look like you belong in a hostel!” I was glad that I did not have that specific look, whatever belonging in a hostel looks like, as it got me a safe house accommodation, and close to the top on the housing list! Living as a single parent meant that there was never much money but there was more than enough love!

I then decided that I would apply to university and got a place at Manchester Metropolitan University, studying Business Management on the evening course, even though I was a single parent and had no employment. The course was hard because all the other students were in full-time employment and most of their employers were funding their development. I left university with a 2:1 grade in June 2001 and it made no difference to my job prospects as my address was the same: I lived in Moss Side, a place that the media had portrayed as a gang haven. It did not matter that individuals like me were trying to secure employment; living in the area, to outside perception, meant that you were unemployable.

In 2002, I was ecstatic: I applied to the Big Life Company and used my address, secured an interview and was employed as a part-time Office Manager. Being in the voluntary sector was life changing for me as I could help people like me, just not myself! By then I had my second son and my private nursery fees in order to work were more than my salary! This meant that robbing Peter to pay Paul was a customary way of life, you painted a smile on your face and you carried on. After each fixed-term appointment came to an end you found another role in the voluntary sector.

In 2014 I was working for a youth charity and, after returning from burying my father, the friend of the CEO (who she had hired in my absence on a temporary basis) told me that my quietness on my return meant that the staff did not want to work with me and there was no more funding for my role! I told her my quietness was labelled grief, thanked her for my temporary role that had lasted twenty months instead of the advertised eight, and left! I did not know what I was going to do but their insensitivity at that time made me realise that we did not have the same values, and my season at that organisation had come to an unnatural but necessary end.

I then was plunged into further poverty when I went to sign on: the benefits advisor told me the last time I was unemployed I got a job in a week, so I had to complete a course that they were offering as I was not entitled to unemployment benefit! Just like the teacher, I listened to the advisor as they always know best! The course never had a title or certification, it was actually a way for them to get you to sign up to be self-employed, so you were not registered as unemployed. But I had no idea of how to cost out my time, and this sunk me further into debt. I had numerous court notifications, and the “need to help bank” that was waking me up with texts messages about the charges and constant reminders that I had no money, became my morning alarm.

All I knew to do was to help others, so I volunteered with my local Health Commissioning Group, a homeless charity, and other charities focusing on cancer. I started getting more involved in the Manchester BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) Network, trying to use my skills to help small BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) organisations and individuals get their voices heard. My voluntary work meant that I always met someone who needed more help than myself, and took my mind off my mounting debts and anxieties for a little while every day. As I sunk deeper into debt and my anxieties rose, my health decreased; some days I could not move, the pain I endured was excruciating and when I told my GP that I could not live with this much pain, she asked “Why are you making that choice then?” My answer was “I can’t afford to live, but I can’t afford to die!” That is the truth about poverty, if I was to die tomorrow, I could not afford a burial.

I then changed my GP practice that I had been with all my life, for over 50 years, and my new practice looked through my notes and the mounting health conditions. In February 2019 I received a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia as well as other conditions. That was absolutely wonderful to know that it was not in my head, but then reality struck! Each prescription charge was £9.00 and the ten-plus items I would need a month would cost me £90.00; where would I get that amount of money a month to get me well?

On top of this I was behind with my council tax, and when I called the office to inform them of my plight, they just told me that there was nothing they could do - the matter had been sent to a bailiff. Even though I was paying some of my council tax, the bailiff kept adding charges to my arrears and made threats. The constant pressure to meet the mounting bills on a part-time wage, and enduring worsening health, is relentless!

When examining poverty what do you see? Those the media portray as scroungers on benefits? Or those on zero-hour/part-time/full-time low-paid contracts, with no chance of promotion due to the colour of their skin or because they belong to the working class? For the majority of those who are poor financially but not poor in spirit, we are only asking for some of the same things that others who are not facing financial difficulty have access to. People like me with lived experience of poverty want not only to live but we want to thrive, not just for ourselves but for our children and their children too. As a black, single parent, who has just survived COVID-19, like my three other siblings I’m not asking for preferential access, just equal access to employment, health, housing, education and all the systems that enable people to acquire a better quality of life.