My mother is in Sainsbury’s. She bumps into her Pilates teacher. They begin to chat.
What could be more middle-class? What could be more Middle England? It sounds like the opening scene in The Archers. Or the Saturday morning of Radio 4 listeners across the land. But what happens next is a little less predictable.
My mum meets her teacher, Kate*, with a big smile. “How are you?” Now in retirement, my mum structures her week around her many exercise classes (Zumba is her favourite, especially the “hip-hop moves”). She never misses a class (or a beat, by the sounds of things) and knows all her teachers well.
Kate is talking quickly; there are tears in her eyes. Her voice is rushed and panicked. “Are you OK?” my mum asks.
But poverty doesn't have a face – we just ascribe it one to suit a narrative that props up power structures and keeps everyone firmly in place
Kate explains that she can’t afford anything in Sainsbury’s. And by that she means she can’t afford to feed her daughter, who is in primary school. And she can’t take on more teaching classes because she can’t afford the childcare. And she doesn’t know what to do. And she feels like such a failure. And the tears fall. And, and, and.
"Do you think I could go to the food bank?" she says, nervously.
“Go," my mum tells her. “That’s why it’s there.”
It has been the summer of hunger for many children in this country. A food bank in West Sussex announced it has been handing out double the amount of meals to kids compared with last year. A food bank in Cornwall said that children are “starving”, despite handing out over 10,000 meals each month. Donovan Gardner told ITV News: “You know we get children in here and they see some sweets which have been given to us and they fall on them as if they've never seen sweets before… We’ve had ladies and men come in here, tears running down their face, and said I've never done this before. I've worked for 40 years and I've suddenly got made redundant and they stand there with a voucher in their hand and they're almost afraid to think that we're going to give them the third degree.” Brent, Clydebank, Devon, London – it’s the same story across the country. More children than ever are hungry because their parents can’t afford to buy food because a succession of Conservative governments have unpicked the welfare of this country with the agility and ruthlessness of Edward Scissorhands.
Mostly, I think, we have still a Victorian idea of poverty: those who are the most poor have probably brought it upon themselves. Or, that’s at least what the voting habits of our government would suggest. We sneer and jeer at poor people via Channel 4 documentaries or benefit scandals in The Sun. A few years ago, The Times sent the now-foreign secretary's sister to Lidl as if some sort of anthropological experiment, replacing her usual Notting Hill fare, plus a £150 Ocado delivery. Her verdict? “I am used to entering a supermarket to the toasty aromas of baking bread and freshly ground coffee. This was like entering a morgue, only colder and deader somehow.” I wonder if it was as cold and dead as a starving six-year-old. When I go to Lidl in Peckham, it’s less witty lifestyle feature and more lifeline. Perhaps Rachel Johnson thinks poverty is a joke; after all, Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks people using food banks is “rather uplifting".
Our notions of poverty have to be transformed, not least so we don’t perpetuate a classist culture of shame and division, but also because it’s a growing problem. Around 100,000 children fell into poverty in 2015-2016 and analysts predict this pattern will continue. Thirty per cent of British children are now classified as poor and two-thirds of them are from working families. Just like Kate's daughter.
But we're not very good at translating data into humans. A Pilates teacher living in a Conservative town on the south coast is not who most of us imagine to be queueing in a food bank. Why? Because she’s in work, primarily, but also because she doesn’t fit with our archaic notions of poverty – she’s skilled, entrepreneurial, independent, helping middle-class women like my mum become a bit bendier. But poverty doesn't have a face – we just ascribe it one to suit a narrative that props up power structures and keeps everyone firmly in place.
When Theresa May became prime minister, she said that she would fight “against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others”. Instead, May has been fighting mostly against her own party. And the burning injustice continues to burn brightly and viciously. Children are on the sharp end. They are hungry. Meanwhile, the architects of these cuts go back to their Notting Hill Waitrose, get book deals or edit newspapers. Oh, how that injustice burns.
But data *does* become human when they are stood in front of you, in broad daylight, quietly crying in a supermarket because they don’t know how to feed their child – even though they are working hard and doing everything they can. Like tens of thousands of people, Kate is no longer "just about managing". She's not managing.
So, please, Mr Rees-Mogg, tell me: what’s uplifting about this picture?