I decided to write Lowborn because I had come to believe, having left the extreme poverty and the tough environments I grew up in, that being poor was not simply a matter of economics or situation but a psychology all of its own. I wanted to write a book that would help me untangle society’s constant message that to be born poor is also to be inherently inferior, to be feckless, that any hardship endured must have been brought on by my own poor decisions. A notion that, two decades later, is still sewn right through me.
In my case, it’s true – I made a lot of poor decisions. I started drinking heavily aged 14, left school at 15 and got pregnant twice before I was 17. But I was also brought up with often substandard education; with terrible, unstable housing; with the belief that I was destined for nothing, often because of what seemingly respectable, better-off people clearly thought of me.
I’d argue society failed me long before I started to fail society.
In fact, recent research by LSE and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed that, despite those living in poverty having a “significantly lower sense of self-worth” and experiencing “feelings of exclusion from society”, the decisions made are “not always bad ones, but are adapted to the constraints of life with very few resources”. Far from being reckless, people living in poverty are, in fact, “less likely to take risks”, which is “reflected in stricter parenting styles and career choices oriented towards job and financial security”. In short, decisions that make no sense to an outsider or someone who has never experienced poverty are often the most rational when your options are either a rock or a hard place.
Of course, it is all too easy to see how the idea of the “feckless poor” has transcended assumption and become a firm belief for so many. As Owen Jones brilliantly outlined in his book, Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, the poor have long been considered fair game. Those wide, lazy stereotypical strokes are everywhere – on the telly, in newspapers, books and magazines. As long as I can remember, since growing up hearing about benefit-scrounging single-mums on breakfast TV, the poor have been an acceptable target.
In an era when it’s survival of the most clickbait-worthy, the press will often lead with a headline designed to provoke moralistic outrage. Remember, “Mum on benefits spends £2,000 on 66 Christmas presents for her children” (spoiler: she saves every penny all year to pay for them)?
Then there are the real-world incidents such as the Leeds University women's hockey club “chav party” , where they were told to dress as “lower-class” people and to “set aside all that we believe to be good, honest and noble”, or the young Conservative activists who suggested on a “professional discussion board” WhatsApp group that chavs should be gassed or that they should “use them as substitutes for animals when testing”.
These are extreme examples, but the truth is the advocates for those experiencing poverty and social exclusion are far fewer than those who will take whatever the media give them and treat it as gospel. Never was this more evident than after the Brexit Leave vote, when I watched the “happy with yourselves, Northern idiots?” rhetoric scroll down my social-media timelines with a sick feeling in my stomach.
What surprised me was that many of those who were so quick to turn post-Brexit were the same people who circulated online petitions and Guardian articles, who recycled and bought only high-welfare meat and Fairtrade coffee. People who I knew would never dream of uttering a racist, sexist or homophobic word had, in their frustration and disappointment, let their true feelings about poor people, people so different from them, rise quickly and audibly to the surface.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I’d been an uneasy witness to that sort of knee-jerk preconception many times, especially since I’d learnt to “pass” in this new world (people often say, as though it’s a compliment, “You’d never guess, you know”). I’ll never forget a man I worked with at a charity getting off the phone and telling me, “They sounded like the sort of person who lived on a council estate,” in the same tone you reserve for saying, “That person shits in their pants and sits in it all day.” I was his boss at the time and asked, “And what sort of person is that?” before walking out of the office, afraid I’d lose my temper and respond in exactly the way he might expect of someone from a council estate. Often enough, I’ve witnessed expressions of reasonable, decent people change to one of aversion when confronted with someone from my background. Occasionally, they’d seek out my gaze, hoping to find solidarity in their antipathy. Because they didn’t know who I was and where I’d come from.
It took me a long time, shamefully long, to challenge, even in my own friends, negative assumptions about poor people. It took so long because I was frightened – I didn’t want to jeopardise my place in this comfortable world
For a long time, I stayed quiet because I justified this behaviour. I convinced myself it was benign, simply a fear of something different, a misunderstanding of another sort of life. But that argument didn’t hold up. Those people were well read and well travelled; they loved meeting people from other cultures and countries. They prided themselves on their curiosity about the world around them.
It took me a long time, shamefully long, to challenge, even in my own friends, those negative assumptions about poor people. Truthfully, it took so long because I was frightened – I didn’t want to jeopardise my place in this comfortable world. Even when I did start to speak up, the conversations were often fraught with difficulty – of course, they liked me; I wasn’t like those people. But I was. I am. And I should have owned that a lot sooner than I did.
We live in a society that relentlessly feeds us a well-worn narrative about those living in poverty, but we do have choices. We can choose whether or not to try to find deeper meaning within that simplistic narrative. We can choose to acknowledge wider reasons, motivations and implications; choose to understand that there is always a context to decision-making and that we are all a part of, all contribute to, that wider context, too. I can choose what I feel about myself and about my life. I can write my own narrative.
And, yes, those are difficult, complex conversations. But sometimes the most important ones are.
This blog is part of series written by Kerry Hudson as she researches her new book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns