My troubled past, our desperate present – and a fairer tomorrow
To mark the launch of Broke, a new JRF-backed book on the UK’s deepening poverty crisis, author Kerry Hudson looks back at the hardships of her own childhood, argues that things would be even worse today – and explains how journalism that truly engages with people on the sharp end can help to put things right.
I’ve known the reality of being broke ever since I first walked across my primary school classroom and sweatily collected my green free school dinner token, tucking it covertly up the sleeve of my second-hand jumper. Experiencing a new self-consciousness, and a sick, itchy feeling that I would come to know was shame, I was watched by other girls in school uniform with blonde pigtails who, the teacher announced, ‘PAID’. My soon-to-be no-longer pals had, until that moment, thought that I was ‘normal’ and not poor.
There is a spectrum, of course, a vast multitude, a sweeping wide register of exactly what it means to be broke. One person’s bones of their arse is another’s doing pretty good actually. My 1980s single-parent family, for various ‘time and place’, intergenerational and individual reasons, were at one of the most extreme ends of poverty.
Realising we were different
I didn’t immediately realise that we were broke, and indeed broken, in a different sort of way from the many other poor local families, when we arrived in a deprived area of North Shields in Teesside. I was eight years old and had tumbled off a National Express from Lanarkshire smelling of my own stale, travel-sick vomit, hoisting my sturdy toddler sister on my hip while my five-foot-nothing mum dragged two laundry bags stuffed with all our worldly belongings behind her. We had nowhere to go that night. Mum was thrilled when a ‘B&B’ that accepted ‘DSS’ (the old Department of Social Security) had a ‘family room’ for us. But ‘Bed and Breakfast’ was a euphemism for a halfway house for the newly homeless, usually men freshly out of prison remand or mental health facilities.
Needless to say, there was no breakfast. The beds, in our room at the very top of the old house, were iron bunk beds, icy to the touch. The space was deemed suitable for families because it had ‘cooking facilities’ behind a thin plaster partition: a plug-in frying pan, tabletop freezer, kettle, aluminium sink. Showers were available communally – if you had a 20p piece for the meter. We didn’t. ‘We aren’t made of money, Kerry,’ said Mum as she guarded the bathroom door and I ran through the steam across wet tiles to catch the last of someone’s credit. Soon my meandering stepdad joined us, a giant in a doll’s house, constantly bumping himself on the sloped ceilings and the additional single bed somehow crammed into the room. We lived on drop pancakes and frozen sausages. I learned to like mustard that year.
I might not have known this was a bad way to live – though I often had a sore stomach for no reason at all, it seemed – if the kids at school hadn’t tried to follow me home to see if I lived in a ‘homeless shelter’. I walked up the path of a fancy-looking house (in reality, just a regular pebbledash semi), my face burning, their laughter hitting my back, lingered at the white PVC door and then sneaked into the back garden to wait until they had given up. The full understanding of exactly where we landed on the spectrum, the second part of the one-two punch of realisation, came soon after when the housing association man in his nice suit came to see if we qualified for rehoming. He had a gentle Northumbrian accent and a clipboard and, God love him, he just could not keep it off his face. ‘It’ being profound pity. I don’t blame him. Anyway, he found us a home, a rural red-brick flat in a village with ponies roaming by the swing set who’d snuffle a Polo mint from your sticky palm if you were prepared to sacrifice one.
Social problems are often related to lack of money
People can say that not all problems are related to money, but I would counter that in my own experience, social problems, mental and physical poor health and addiction very often stem from the sheer imbalance caused by trying to do too much, or even the bare minimum, without the resources. The ‘Help’ section at the end of my memoir, Lowborn, reads like a chunky, sad chapbook given out by the Citizens Advice Bureau: domestic abuse and poverty charities; debt, addiction and mental health advice; support for homelessness and sexual violence. It’s a shopping list nobody wants to write, a catalogue of problems that are made so much worse, so much more common and so much more inescapable by being skint.
My family – my mum, my sister and I – continued to move up and down the country constantly looking for a never-to-be-found fresh start. From Aberdeen, where fish houses were on their way out and oil was sloshing its way in but somehow never to the poorest enclaves, down to the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth, where the pink lights and arcade music were fading on British tourism, to a village in Durham already hollowed out by the closing of the mines.
Of course, I grew up in the 1980s and '90s and you would be right to think, ‘Well, different times. That was Thatcher, riots, “loadsamoney” and a heroin epidemic.’ In the years that followed, there was lip service to eradicating poverty, even a few wobbly steps in the right direction, but since then, the pendulum has swung again, full force, smashing any progress even further back.
So while I wish I could agree that the years of my childhood were the ‘bad old days’, my belief is that if I was growing up now in the same conditions – with a single parent with mental health problems, the latest body in a long family line of extreme poverty, with a gamut of issues directly connected to that hardship – my experience would be far worse.
A punitive welfare system designed not to elevate but to trip up, push over, gag and bind has forced many who might have succeeded back into poverty. An out-of-control housing market compels people deemed unable to afford mortgages to pay double this amount in private rent while paying someone else’s mortgage (can someone make that make sense for me?). Added to the continuing erosion of social housing and income-related inequality in education, I think there is today instability that is far greater than in my childhood and teens.
The reasons for this are many and are explored with nuance, skill and craft in Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis by journalists who’ve been working on the front line of austerity for decades now. Some have direct experience of hardship or the system turning a cold shoulder, but all are equally committed to closely listening to and faithfully reporting the voices of people at the hard end of an unfolding crisis. The chapters collated in Broke highlight both the perilous cliff edge of problems that poor people in the UK are teetering on and, equally vital, the absolute importance of grassroots organisations, local communities, unions and solidarity in tackling these issues. As with Lowborn, a list of charities and other support organisations is included at the end for people seeking help and those who feel able to contribute.
Challenging the negative stories
I believe this new book represents hope. In its pages, the writers and their subjects together redress the lazy, seemingly inevitable, narrative peddled out again and again: that to be poor is an individual failing due to fecklessness, uselessness or stupidity rather than collective political, national and historical flaws. The book challenges the insidiously negative stories about people who are broke, and about how they end up and stay broke, stories that have been used to justify cuts to crucial social benefits and services, and stories which – most damagingly of all – persuade a majority that it is acceptable to look the other way while millions of our fellow citizens, and untold children, go hungry.
Supported by JRF, this book can be used as a tool, as a point of connection, as a challenge. People who know what it is like to be truly broke will see themselves reflected in these pages, and I hope they will feel heard. Just as important, those readers who have until now had little understanding of what it is like to struggle might read this and see that they have a fundamental part to play in fixing this crisis, too – that they should not look away but instead make themselves part of the movement to change things for the better for future generations.