“To do the right thing you don’t need a high horse, you need a heart”.
On February 25th, 2016, a skinny doe-eyed 18-year-old made his debut for Manchester United. Marcus Rashford. Remember the name. Four years ago, he was stealing our hearts with his pace and trickery, today he is providing light of hope for those in poverty. It almost seems like he is single-handedly took on the political elite. We must rally round him as the time for silence is over.
We need to protect Marcus Rashford. Although he has a PR team and incredible support around him, the public need to get behind his activism. If we can cheer for this performances on the pitch surely we can applause his social activism too. The lad is the epitome of meritocracy, now intent on helping others. His rise from being a child dependent on free school meals to playing for one of the biggest football clubs in the world is no coincidence. Years of personal sacrifice, hard work and commitment, coupled with difficult upbringing, this lad should be celebrated. For many disadvantaged children, education or sport are the best routes to social mobility in a society that is polarised by inequalities. Marcus Rashford is living out his childhood dream and this pledge to help end child food poverty has empowered but also sadly divided so many.
Screenshots or subtweets provide racists, bigots and poverty porn consumers so much satisfaction. Their ‘intellectual’ veneer is exacerbated because they are allegedly the ‘voice’ of the ‘silent majority’. I was even reading the most appalling commentary questioning the whereabout of Rashford’s father. Coming from a single parent household does not mean you are deprived of love and nor is the heteronormative nuclear family the aspiration despite the rose-tinted glasses worn by those on the right. Yet, as a former free school meals, disadvantaged, English as an additional language and special educational needs registered child, I know poverty and I will continue to help raise awareness. Marcus Rashford is a national treasure.
I have been reading Kayleigh Garthwaite’s eloquent Hunger Pains – Life Inside foodbank Britain. This book has not only transformed my own understanding of inequality but also helped place my own experience in context. Hunger pains are awful. They are crippling and having to share one bowl of cereal between three brothers was a sacrifice that was often made in our home. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have the safety net of relatives and local networks and the notion of a ‘foodbank’ did not really register in my mind. We knew we had little and that our daily free schools meal was the best we would get. It was a monumental battle yet nine years on, a professional status gained, I still remember the pains my family would have to go through to say ‘no’.
- “No, we can only buy the essentials”
- “No, we can’t afford that”.
- “No, there isn’t enough money”
- “No, but maybe next time”.
Hearing ‘no’ as a child is devastating but for disadvantaged children, it is the norm. It becomes a normalised part of our upbringing. Although poverty in Britain does not replicate that of third world countries, how is it that we are the six richest country in the world and that as of 2018/19, 4.2 million children live in poverty? It isn’t just the poverty that made the hunger pains worse, it was the inequality that forces not only the starvation of the body but also of aspirations.
When a man in a suit, who has enjoyed the fruits of privilege his entire life casts judgement on those in poverty, as a society, we don’t need to be radical socialists, we need to draw upon lived experiences and not stereotypes or misinformation. Politicians, many of whom work from home whilst our teachers are in classrooms packed to the raptures with limited social distancing opportunities. These same policymakers who tell us “we are in this together”. I still remember a day volunteering at a local foodbank and putting together this food parcel for a young family (picture above). This was one of the luckier days where we had branded food donations too. It meant the world seeing their faces light up but when we compare to, for example, the menu for our MPs in Westminster, “in this together” really does feel like white noise.
No Such Thing as Poverty
I have seen three major criticisms of Marcus Rashford’s efforts to collaborate with the FareShare charity in trying to eliminate child food poverty. This is not an exclusive list of criticisms but the two that deserve to be urgently unpacked with a sociological gaze.
- The culture of poverty/Lifestyle-ism – When Margaret Thatcher so crudely said, “there’s no such thing as society”, something had been awoken on the British psyche. The distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor has been around since the days of Charles Dickens. Thatcher, just like Ronald Reagan provided a neo-liberal veneer for meritocracy to been brandished around like new trendy pair of Dr Martens! The welfare state was no longer considered as a safety net, but rather a noose holding back social progress. Welfare cuts became the norm and poverty became a personal dysfunction rather than a societal problem. We still live with the seeds of this lifestyle-ism as New Labour were, at times, merely paying homage to Thatcher by embracing neo-liberal ideals. Despite Tony Blair consistently telling the electorate that child poverty would cease to exist by 2020, with economic growth hasn’t come social progress. Marcus Rashford’s quest to end child food poverty means he is going up against several generations of this lifestyle-ism view that people who are poor are actively making choices (by smoking, taking drugs, consuming alcohol and have unattainable pastimes) which pull them back into the proverbial sinkhole of poverty. Despite what the tabloids tell us, correlation is not causation. Poverty is indeed a culture and a key ‘criticism’ used to counter supporting foreign aid is the patriotic notion of ‘helping those at home’. As of 2019, we have over 320,000 homeless and over 4.2 million children living in poverty. Calling a spade, a spade, we don’t really even help ‘our own’ do we? Without addressing structural inequalities and the ‘choices’ of individuals in poverty, and what restricts their ‘choices’, the nebulous correlations of lifestyle-ism offer little insight. No one ‘chooses’ to be poor or to starve. Marcus Rashford is allowing the most vulnerable in society to ask for help. He’s offering a helping hand when for so long we were taught to be suspicious about even our most kind hearted donations.
- Disadvantaged children – Marcus Rashford used his platform at the height of the pandemic. The government were keen to cut the free meals voucher scheme for our most deprived children. A scheme that Rashford himself was part of and campaigned for leading to yet another U-turn from the government. The disgraced Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson continued to use this ‘disadvantaged children’ narrative to get schools reopened. ‘Attainment poverty’ was also thrown around the political arena with teachers being scapegoated. Disadvantaged children are not trophies or prizes anyone can just pick off the shelf. This label has been tarnished, worn out and badly represented in a society that remains segregated by social class and classism. If education is seen as the vehicle to alleviate disadvantage and poverty, then why have school budgets been cut? Why are we still living in austerity where frontline children’s services are disappearing? Why is it, that in the six richest country in the world, we are so appallingly dismissive of poverty? Wilkinson and Pickett in the Spirit Level completed a cross-sectional study of many countries. They found that in countries where wealth is more equally distributed, a plethora of socio-economic problems like food poverty have less of an impact or simply don’t exist. The Social Mobility Commission have been calling for the end of austerity for over a decade now to help, as politicians call ‘level up’ society. Why are they being ignored? The cause of this disadvantage, yet again cannot be understated. It is inherently political and what Rashford is doing is political but if empathy and reaching out to help others is political, then let us all be political. Marcus Rashford has done more to unite this country than any government. Those in power are openly turning their backs on expert advice, research informed initiatives are rendered invisible by ideological obsessions and the emotional distancing from those worse off than us is embedded in British folklore.
- It is not your battle, Marcus – I saw several vile tweets directed at Rashford. Many people were even saying, and I will paraphrase “you kick a ball around for a living, what do you know?” It takes tremendous strength and fortitude to fight social injustice and use your platform to elevate the voices of others. The question should not have to be “Why are you doing this, Marcus?” The real question is “Why should anyone have to be fighting for basic human rights at all?” Having a meal is a basic human right and the fact that it has taken a Footballer to come forwards and make a lifelong pledge to end child poverty, this is a reflection of the utterly outdated and inhumane political process we have here in Britain. The disadvantage our most deprived children experience every day is the political love child of a democracy that fails to represent their concerns. Should this be Rashford’s battle? Again, in the sixth richest country in the world, should any child be going to sleep hungry? The fact that we have someone with a high profile, with decency, lived experience and integrity fighting for disadvantaged children whilst our MPs sleep comfortably knowing they could do more is a damning indictment of politics in this country. It is your battle, Marcus. It is everyone’s battles to ensure we have a socially just society that enables everyone, regardless of wealth, income, status, power, gender, religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality or ability to thrive. It has become Rashford’s battle and one he cannot win alone. We all need to stand by him as social progress is always a collective effort. This is collective healing after generations of vicious hatred for those less fortunate than us.
Long live Marcus Rashford. The lad is a national treasure and someone we need to protect at a time where divisions are both the norm and expectation. The personal attacks, racism and criticism will continue when a 22-year-old simply wants to do the right thing by ending child food poverty. I tell you, the hunger pains are real and when you have nothing, you appreciate everything. Thank you, Marcus. You are getting us to reflect, think and care about how we treat another, especially the most vulnerable in society. A true national treasure.
Poverty in Britain is real. Hunger pains do hurt. Some people do have to make the heartbreaking choice between Christmas presents and keeping their homes warm. This is 21st Century Britain but it doesn’t have to be like this. Contrary to popular belief, there is another way. We need change but that starts with how we treat one another. Equality enriches us all. From the cradle, to the classroom, to the workplace, to the grave.
Please donate to FareShare – let’s rally around Marcus. This is Britain. Our Britain.
Long live Marcus Rashford.
Thank you for reading.
FareShare – https://fareshare.org.uk/
The FoodAid Network – https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk