Poverty limits options but we can invest in systems to keep people afloat

Gus Cairns has experienced a lifetime struggle to keep his head above the water of poverty, fighting against the currents of undiagnosed autism.

I feel that my circumstances at birth have dictated my entire life. I am a person with a vast lived experience of poverty. On 17 October 2021, I will have my 75th birthday - that is 75 years of living in poverty. October 17 also marks International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

I was born in 1946 to a Farm Head Cowman on a large estate in South Cheshire. I was the youngest of four children - my older brother was 19, my sister 18 and another sister was three. We lived in a farm-tied cottage which the farmer owned, and if the family wanted the cottage we had to do as the farmer said. I don’t know if this still happens but if it does, it’s just not right. Milk was free and we had a garden with vegetables and fruit trees and a few hens. Money was always an issue. My brother went into the army for National Service when I was three, so his keep stopped coming in. My sister had a slight mental condition which kept her from working so she looked after us little ones while mother cleaned the farmer’s house.

I am autistic, but this went undiagnosed until aged 70. At school I always struggled to keep my head above water. It was hard to do anything right. The education system wasn’t equipped for students like me, I experienced lots of punishment and bullying from teachers and pupils alike. It was proper corporal punishment, then later a ruler over your fingers.

We moved to Blacon Chester in winter 1954 when I was seven. My father took on a smallholding which he got with a private mortgage from his old employer. He had to do a full-time job as well so got a job on a nursery - very hard work on a low wage. I went to the local junior school a mile away and walked there on my own every day. Blacon was full of council overspill houses that housed streetwise kids from Chester slum clearance, and I got very badly bullied. My autism was not helped by the bullying and was still undiagnosed.

Eventually, I left school with no certificates, with only one eye working and a broken leg, all through bullying. I was doing the very lowest level of job, I worked as a van lad on a milk round, and then milkman, but I got sacked as I couldn’t work out the bills properly.

I signed on for unemployment benefit and was unemployed for three months just about holding my head above water as my benefits went on my keep at home. I tried labouring on building sites but experienced enormous amount of bullying and injuries, so I was often unemployed, and benefits were my lifeline.

When my dad had a stroke, I took on the role of his carer for many years. I had never married or had any real girlfriends, the result of living in poverty and my undiagnosed autism. Living on carers allowance it was a real struggle to pay the bills especially when my mother became ill as well. Poverty was like a dead weight trying to pull me under all the time. When a third stroke killed my father his council pension went, so I had to get a job. My sister and brother both died of diseases, my sister at 60 and brother at 74. Mother was still really ill, but my other sister was able to look after her during the day, while I took on a driving job and cared for her at night. The stress and scheduling of that didn’t work so I had to give up work to become a fulltime career. My mother by then was on attendance allowance so my social security, her pension and attendance allowance just kept our heads above water.

When my mother died, I had to sell the decrepit smallholding to pay off debts and move in with my sister. I got a job as a council car park attendant, was able to get a council one-bed flat, and got harassed badly by a neighbour demanding money which cost me a lot.

At 58 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and went off work. I got awful depression and was told by occupational health I wouldn’t be able to work again, so got sickness retirement off the council (a £6,000 lump sum) and a small pension. I got invalidity allowance at the top rate after a meeting with the unemployment benefit staff where I had a complete breakdown in their office. The invalidity benefit and small council pension was hardly enough to live on and keep me afloat. The £6,000 got whittled away by my neighbour until I brought the police in. He went to jail three times but no payment orders were granted, although he took about £9,000 off me. In a country where we care about justice, this feels right out of order.

Recently I’ve moved to a pensioner’s bungalow. I am now eligible for the old-age pension and receive my council pension. I receive housing benefit and council tax benefit but still pay £190 rent per month, and Council Tax of £63 a month, and pay income tax on my council pension.

I think it’s awful that the Government has cut the £20-per-week uplift to Universal Credit and is discarding the triple pension lock for pensioners. I have signed petitions and sent MP letters. I won’t stand by and watch this happen in our society.

I am 75 on 17 October, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. While poverty and undiagnosed autism have kept me down, I have never stopped being active. I was 2019 West Cheshire Voluntary Action Older Volunteer of the Year, and I am Chair of the West Cheshire Autism Hub Board, and West Cheshire Mental Health Forum, as well as participating in many other groups.

The coronavirus storm has been difficult for us all, but for people like me struggling to get by, it has been more difficult. We must remember, we are in the same storm, but not all in the same boat. In September I had my first visitor to sit and talk to me in 18 months.

We must invest in systems that keep people afloat, not in policies that pull people under. I don’t know how this can be allowed to happen in this day and age. Let’s remember this on International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.