This year, in the course of writing my next book, Lowborn, I’ve been exposed to an incredible wealth of writing about class and poverty. But I found my single most affecting read on these issues in the last place I would ever expect it. A piece that is both precise and full of emotion. It is one of the few works I’ve read that, for me, truly captures the difficulties of being poor, the intense emotional strain and the underlying reasons for that poverty and suffering. It frequently brought me to tears while reading it, and I sped through it like a thriller – though I knew the ending all too well.
My read of the year is the United Nations report on poverty in the UK. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would resonate so deeply with me. The premise was Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, coming to the UK to speak with people suffering the privations of austerity across the country, as well as local authorities, charities, MPs and think tanks. It’s something I can relate to. While writing my book, I’ve been returning to the deprived towns I grew up in and asking many of the same questions they have. So, I read the report with the conversations I’d had with those people, and my own experiences of hardship, echoing in my ears.
What most touched me about the report, though, was how clearly this person cared. How he genuinely sought to understand, to show compassion, to treat people as human and worth thought and time. It is written implicitly on every page of the report. Alston is mad as hell about the fact that 14 million people – a fifth of the population – live in poverty, and I found it deeply moving.
Like many people who grew up in poverty, I was brought up to believe the establishment was the enemy. Indeed, the report concludes much the same, saying, “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach.” Yet here is someone from the UN speaking up for the “hardest hit”, stating that: “The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, single parents and people with disabilities.”
Alston, and the global organisation he represents, are standing up for our most vulnerable: the homeless; the teens in zero-hour, minimum-wage jobs; those with no internet who’ll struggle to fill out Universal Credit forms; those with disabilities forced into humiliating, unnecessary investigations around their benefits. And he didn’t just make assumptions about these vulnerable people – he took the time to actually listen to them, and then publicly state that, if they’d been consulted before, policymakers would have had better knowledge about what was likely to fail, and how brutal and far-reaching those failures would be for our communities. Certainly, the incredibly harmful “test and learn” approach to Universal Credit (“Universal Discredit”, as it is termed in the report) might have been avoided.
I sent Lowborn to my editor the same day as the report came out. It was the culmination of the year’s inspiring, if sometimes gruelling, journey through my own past and others' present within the cities, towns and villages I once lived in, frustrated and frightened about the future. From my own lived experience and the past 12 months’ observations, I can tell you that this report has nailed the immense problems facing Britain’s poorest and correctly lays the blame firmly at the feet of the government, which “has remained determinedly in a state of denial”.
I would ask: what could be more political than a fifth of people living in poverty in the world’s sixth-richest economy?
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that Amber Rudd, secretary of state for work and pensions, dismissed the report because of its tone, saying she was, “…disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of his language” and “…that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and discredited a lot of what he was saying.”
I would ask: what could be more political than a fifth of people living in poverty in the world’s sixth-richest economy? In local governments in England seeing a 49% reduction in government funding since 2010-11. In 500 children’s centres being closed in the past eight years and more than 340 libraries closed between 2010 and 2016, with the accompanying loss of 8,000 library jobs.
Rudd’s real disappointment must come from the fact that this report laid out, in transparent and tangible terms, to any reader, how little the government cares for the most vulnerable in this country, how meagre its understanding is of the true climate and culture of communities for which it implements policies. It is, in fact, straightforward, clear and implicitly humane – which is exactly what you’d hope from a report that details that 14 million people are now living in poverty and that this figure, and the related suffering, will only increase in the coming years.
The report concludes that “poverty is a political choice”. “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”
When I read this, I felt that something I had experienced had been genuinely seen and comprehended by someone else. That is the true virtue and beauty of writing. I urge you, if you want to read something heartbreaking, terrifying, true and empowering, please read the full report. It is truly the best thing I’ve read all year.