When ideology supersedes humanity.
“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” ― Eli Khamarov
As Sunday dawns upon us and the clocks go back, where have we gone back to? It appears the days of Oliver Twist, where brutal levels of poverty, hopelessness, degradation and hunger play a salient part in the lives of millions of children in Britain. Back to the days where silence and emotional distancing from those suffering pushes their cries for help further into silence. Perhaps these days were never a thing of the past but rather our uncomfortable relationship with poverty was suppressed for so long it became a “normal”, “expected” and dare I say, “common sense” way of life in Britain.
We are still in 2020 and the world is still on its knees. The glimmer of hope in such unprecedented times comes in the form of a Footballer – Marcus Rashford. The 22-yeard-old Manchester United and England forward has fought tirelessly to help raise awareness of and find proactive solutions to child hunger in Britain. His work has been remarkable, yet just days after being awarded an MBE, which was recommended by the Prime Minister himself, this week 322 MPs voted against providing the most disadvantaged children free meals over school holidays. Marcus Rashford has made us all think about poverty in a more humane way.
“Stick to football, Marcus.”
“He needs to focus on the pitch.”
“It isn’t your battle, Rashford.”
These are three comments I heard before Manchester United’s Champions League game on Tuesday. In the 87th minute, Rashford buried a beautiful winner to silence the doubters. Truth be told, he did stick to his job. A forwards role is to score and make goals – objective complete. Through interviews with Rashford, we know he wants to use his platform to support children who are entitled to free school meals, children just like him. When the results came in from the 2019 general election, the post-Brexit prosperity sentiment was wheeled out. The government assured us they would help “level up” Britain. Perhaps if they stuck to their job in this “levelling up” process, we would not have children starving.
My own experience of poverty is not something I have talked about openly. Growing up, whatever my family could not provide materially, they made up with love. However, it became painfully obvious that in our highly competitive playgrounds at school, not having what others had was alienating. I was ashamed to ask for help, the stigma was surreal but the hope that things would improve meant I placed all my faith in education. We reap the fruits of our labour but “making it” and having a voice only takes me back to the days of sharing a single bowl of cereal with my siblings. Also, the days where we would feel so ashamed to ask for seconds and thirds at lunch time. These pains were not just hunger pains, these are the pains of inequality that remain eternal.
Jodie and Melissa
I wanted to share two very powerful stories with you. Both stories made me reconnect with the inequalities I have faced during my own life. Please note that both people in this story were signposted to support by multiple agencies. Let’s call them Jodie and Melissa.
Jodie is a single mum of two. She works two part-time jobs, both on zero hours contracts and with the continued rise of living costs, Jodie struggles to make ends meet. As a regular food bank user, I met Jodie at a local café where she was waitressing. After finishing my newspaper, I spotted her gather an uneaten sandwich from departed customers table. Making nothing of it until later I saw her wrap it in foil and place it in her bag. She immediately began to tear up, knowing that I saw her doing this and said, “please don’t tell my manager, I need my job. This is for my kids.” As someone who has always been able to articulate their words, I was speechless. As the café emptied, I waited for her and over a cup of tea she revealed her awful predicament. As a single widowed mum, who also cares for an elderly family member, Jodie was balancing all of society’s expectations and the weight of her children’s dreams. She was adamant her children would not have to endure the poverty she was facing and faced as a child herself. I could see first-hand how this very malnourished lady was almost at breaking point where diving into bins at work was the only way to make sure she could get through a shift at work. We are the 5th richest country in the world and I can only imagine out of the 14 million plus people in Britain who live in some form of poverty, this is a daily reality.
Melissa was a teacher but after a mental health breakdown, she left her role. Unable to provide for herself, she moved into accommodation provided by the local authority. I met Melissa at our local food bank where I was dropping off some donations. We struck up a conversation after I mentioned being an educator and within minutes, I was wiping away tears. It struck me. Poverty and food insecurity can happen to anyone at any given time. Melissa explained how she went from a somewhat privileged white, able-bodied young professional female and within six months of purchasing her first home, her life was turned upside down. With no real family to turn to after relocating for her teaching post, Melissa’s mental health breakdown was the result of chronic stress and depression. I sat listening to her and it was heart-breaking. A teaching or any professional salary provides us with some form of comfort and status, losing it all in the blink of an eye is such a scary thought. It can happen to anyone at any time and we would hope that the system we endorse so blindly through taxation would provide us with a safety net if such times do come. Melissa was living off a mere £72 a week, which was to cover her rent, expenses and basic necessities. From living in a new-build home, she now lived off cans of beans, free teas and coffees at her support group and the kind donations at the food bank. This is reality for so many. I truly believe we wear the weight of the things we see and hear. I am Melissa, we are Melissa. Again, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, how are such levels of inequality accepted?
“Take some responsibility”
I did not want to bombard my readers with data and the fact we do have over four million children living in poverty. The global pandemic has exposed the deeply entrenched inequalities in Britain as well as the flaws in our approach towards humanitarian issues on our own shores. I just want to unpack this past weeks vote against providing the most disadvantaged children free meals over school holidays.
Culture of poverty – This is a farce and a fallacy. Whenever we read about poverty, the poverty porn or fetishisation of deprivation is the frame used to conceptualise, simplify and down peg the true complexity of poverty. Telling someone who is poor to, “take some responsibility” for themselves and their loved ones is the most reductive thing to say. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Repeatedly providing this nebulous rhetoric brings exactly what to the table? It certainly doesn’t bring groceries to it or fill the tummy of a poor child. Britain does operate with this very neo-liberal Thatcherite veneer of poverty. At a time of austerity, cuts to mainline services and growing disparity between the haves and have nots, telling someone to “take responsibility” is such back-handed ideological commentary. When did it become a crime to cry out for help? When did we become so entrenched with political zealousness that we regurgitate the callous rhetoric of our political leaders who have denied the most disadvantaged children the basic human right to be fed? A commentary that is Dickensian in nature, built upon shaming the most deprived. Also, to depoliticise and individualise poverty, as if to render the polarised social structures invisible in dialogue about inequality. This ideological ping-pong is used as an “intellectual” argument to continue downsizing structures of support for the most disadvantaged and dismantle any form of opposition to a status quo that already represents elitist and corporate interests rather than those of the general public. I am sick to the core of the Vicky Pollard or Benefits Street tunnel vision we have of those in poverty. The notion of “if they chose to feed their children rather than smoke and drink.” This offers nothing. It creates further emotional distancing and pits us against people whose children may share the same classroom as our own. I am never one to deny agency but without considering the impacts of social structures, blaming individual’s and their lifestyles as opposed to inequalities simply exacerbate those inequalities further. How is it ever ok for MPs to get a pay rise whilst millions are trapped in poverty or in fear of losing their jobs during a pandemic? Poverty is political in the sense that it has been formed out of political choices and failures to adequately tackle structural inequalities around us. Blasé explanations and nebulous comments from people who have lived in their own realm of social prestige will never tackle poverty. In fact, this culture of poverty is the noose around the neck of the most disadvantaged who are grasping for every breath as Marcus Rashford fights for every meal.
Uncomfortable truths – I think since the pandemic started and Black Lives Matter began to expose the fragility in the psyche of the status quo, Britain has had to face some uncomfortable truths. Marcus Rashford has got us talking about poverty in a more humane and kinder way. His social media threads show people connecting, networking, supporting one another and helping find proactive solutions to many uncomfortable truths. Part of the British experience is the acceptance poverty and inequality with little efforts to tackle the true causes of it. A lot of this comes down to paddling through and being rewarded by our own hard work that we are self-driven success stories and “making it” means leaving behind generations of inequality. Meritocracy is a myth and this is succinctly illustrated by the stagnation of social mobility and underachievement of children who are entitled to free school meals. Poverty is the proverbial elephant in the room. It is also an inter-generational wound that will not disappear by providing children with laptops (10,000 which remain missing), through planting magic money trees, Pupil Premium coupons or broadcasting our donations. Confronting the uncomfortable truths of poverty is done through understanding, empathy and compassion, all of which Marcus Rashford encompasses. Only when we realign ourselves with these principles and not ideology, can we then mobilise and offer support to our most disadvantaged.
Are we being voyeuristic? Let’s face it, out of those 322 MPs, how many have experienced poverty or hunger? How many voted in favour of austerity? How many claimed to want to “level up” Britain but are now complicit in starving disadvantaged children? There is a clear and obvious disconnect between what is morally right and what is ideologically “right.” We watch on in disgust as Williamson, Gibb, Donelan, Keegan and Ford – all of whom have a vest interest in education and our young people voted against feeding our most disadvantaged children over the summer. I am going to make this crystal clear too, the way the disadvantaged children narrative was bastardised to unsafely reopen schools is absolutely disgraceful. These MPs should be ashamed of themselves and to hear former Education Secretary say that she took offence to being branded a “Tory Scum” thus out of contempt voted against the free meal scheme. Goodness gracious me. What an absolute disgrace. To be so triggered, fragile and incensed by accountability and social justice, beggars belief why these people even decided to go into politics. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak ploughed £500 million into his second-wave of COVID-inducing eat out to help out scheme, but they couldn’t spare £1 million to feed the most disadvantaged children, you cannot feel any more astounded. Or perhaps the fact we have lived under austerity for a decade, saving an estimated £12 billion annually, how on Earth has national borrowing gone up? How is the country still broke? Dearie me! This is not a lefty liberal intelligentsia critique, these are stone cold facts about how the country is being run. The fact there was a vote to feed our most disadvantaged is a damning inditement of this country. What a time to be alive! However, we can be the change as individuals and we are the change that Marcus Rashford is looking for and inspiring. Hundreds of businesses, many of which are on the brink of closure because of the pandemic have opened their door this half term to provide meals for these deprived children. We can be voyeurs, watch on feeling outraged or we can donate to a food bank, volunteer at a local charity, support our local businesses, the list is endless. Ultimately, if we carry on waiting for Superman to save us in the form of political personnel, poverty, inequality and hopelessness will only worsen. Nothing ever changes if we watch on from a position of comfort and detachment. It is on us to do what Marcus Rashford is doing. To be inspired, use our platforms in whichever capacity they come, to never turn our heads at injustice and create a better future for us all. We may not be able to solve all of humanity’s problems, so let’s make it our goal not to add to them either.
Let’s name them
This is important.
318 Conservative MPs: Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty), Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden), Adam Afriyie (Windsor), Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield), Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster), Peter Aldous (Waveney), Lucy Allan (Telford), David Amess (Southend West), Lee Anderson (Ashfield), Stuart Anderson (Wolverhampton South West), Stuart Andrew (Pudsey), Edward Argar (Charnwood), Sarah Atherton (Wrexham), Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle), Gareth Bacon (Orpington), Richard Bacon (South Norfolk), Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden), Shaun Bailey (West Bromwich West), Duncan Baker (North Norfolk), Steve Baker (Wycombe), Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire), Steve Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire), Simon Baynes (Clwyd South), Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Scott Benton (Blackpool South), Paul Beresford (Mole Valley), Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen), Saqib Bhatti (Meriden), Bob Blackman (Harrow East), Crispin Blunt (Reigate), Peter Bone (Wellingborough), Peter Bottomley (Worthing West), Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine), Ben Bradley (Mansfield), Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands), Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West), Suella Braverman (Fareham), Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South), Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire), Steve Brine (Winchester), Paul Bristow (Peterborough), Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn), James Brokenshire (Old Bexley and Sidcup), Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire), Fiona Bruce (Congleton), Felicity Buchan (Kensington), Robert Buckland (South Swindon), Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar), Conor Burns (Bournemouth West), Rob Butler (Aylesbury), Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan), Andy Carter (Warrington South), James Cartlidge (South Suffolk), William Cash (Stone), Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge), Maria Caulfield (Lewes), Alex Chalk (Cheltenham), Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham), Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds), Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells), Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland), Theo Clarke (Stafford), Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw), Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton), James Cleverly (Braintree), Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe), Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire), Robert Courts (Witney), Claire Coutinho (East Surrey), Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon), Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn), James Daly (Bury North), David T C Davies (Monmouth), James Davies (Vale of Clwyd), Gareth Davies (Grantham and Stamford), Mims Davies (Mid Sussex), Philip Davies (Shipley), David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden), Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland), Caroline Dinenage (Gosport), Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales), Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon), Michelle Donelan (Chippenham), Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire), Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay), Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere), Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock), Richard Drax (South Dorset), Flick Drummond (Meon Valley), David Duguid (Banff and Buchan), Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green), Philip Dunne (Ludlow), Mark Eastwood (Dewsbury), Ruth Edwards (Rushcliffe), Michael Ellis (Northampton North), Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East), Natalie Elphicke (Dover), George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth), Luke Evans (Bosworth), David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford), Ben Everitt (Milton Keynes North), Michael Fabricant (Lichfield), Laura Farris (Newbury), Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness), Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble), Mark Fletcher (Bolsover), Nick Fletcher (Don Valley), Vicky Ford (Chelmsford), Kevin Foster (Torbay), Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford), Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire), George Freeman (Mid Norfolk), Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green), Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire), Marcus Fysh (Yeovil), Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest), Nusrat Ghani (Wealden), Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton), Peter Gibson (Darlington), Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central), Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham), John Glen (Salisbury), Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby), Michael Gove (Surrey Heath), Richard Graham (Gloucester), Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald), James Gray (North Wiltshire), Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell), Chris Green (Bolton West), Damian Green (Ashford), Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs), Kate Griffiths (Burton), James Grundy (Leigh), Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North), Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate), Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon), Matt Hancock (West Suffolk), Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham), Mark Harper (Forest of Dean), Rebecca Harris (Castle Point), Trudy Harrison (Copeland), Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye), Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire), John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings), Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire), Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry), Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey), Darren Henry (Broxtowe), Antony Higginbotham (Burnley), Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), Adam Holloway (Gravesham), Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), John Howell (Henley), Paul Howell (Sedgefield), Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire), Eddie Hughes (Walsall North), Jane Hunt (Loughborough), Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey), Tom Hunt (Ipswich), Alister Jack (Dumfries and Galloway), Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire), Mark Jenkinson (Workington), Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood), Robert Jenrick (Newark), Boris Johnson (Uxbridge and South Ruislip), Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham), Gareth Johnson (Dartford), David Johnston (Wantage), Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough), Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire), David Jones (Clwyd West), Marcus Jones (Nuneaton), Simon Jupp (East Devon), Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham), Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton), Gillian Keegan (Chichester), Julian Knight (Solihull), Greg Knight (East Yorkshire), Danny Kruger (Devizes), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk), Robert Largan (High Peak), Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Edward Leigh (Gainsborough), Ian Levy (Blyth Valley), Andrew Lewer (Northampton South), Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth), Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset), Chris Loder (West Dorset), Mark Logan (Bolton North East), Marco Longhi (Dudley North), Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster), Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke), Jonathan Lord (Woking), Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet), Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth), Rachel Maclean (Redditch), Alan Mak (Havant), Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire), Anthony Mangnall (Totnes), Scott Mann (North Cornwall), Julie Marson (Hertford and Stortford), Theresa May (Maidenhead), Jerome Mayhew (Broadland), Karl McCartney (Lincoln), Mark Menzies (Fylde), Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View), Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle), Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Robin Millar (Aberconwy), Maria Miller (Basingstoke), Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase), Nigel Mills (Amber Valley), Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield), Gagan Mohindra (South West Hertfordshire), Robbie Moore (Keighley), Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North), David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale), James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis), Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills), Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich), David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale), Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall), Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire), Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst), Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North), Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire), Neil O’Brien (Harborough), Guy Opperman (Hexham), Owen Paterson (North Shropshire), Mark Pawsey (Rugby), Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead), John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare), Chris Philp (Croydon South), Christopher Pincher (Tamworth), Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane), Victoria Prentis (Banbury), Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin), Jeremy Quin (Horsham), Will Quince (Colchester), Tom Randall (Gedling), John Redwood (Wokingham), Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset), Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East), Angela Richardson (Guildford), Rob Roberts (Delyn), Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury), Mary Robinson (Cheadle), Andrew Rosindell (Romford), Lee Rowley (North East Derbyshire), Dean Russell (Watford), David Rutley (Macclesfield), Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield), Selaine Saxby (North Devon), Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam), Bob Seely (Isle of Wight), Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire), Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), Alok Sharma (Reading West), Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell), David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner), Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), Chloe Smith (Norwich North), Greg Smith (Buckingham), Henry Smith (Crawley), Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon), Amanda Solloway (Derby North), Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge), Mark Spencer (Sherwood), Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley), Andrew Stephenson (Pendle), Jane Stevenson (Wolverhampton North East), John Stevenson (Carlisle), Bob Stewart (Beckenham), Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South), Gary Streeter (South West Devon), Mel Stride (Central Devon), Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)), James Sunderland (Bracknell), Desmond Swayne (New Forest West), Robert Syms (Poole), Derek Thomas (St Ives), Maggie Throup (Erewash), Edward Timpson (Eddisbury), Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood), Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon), Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole), Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire), Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed), Laura Trott (Sevenoaks), Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling), Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes), Matt Vickers (Stockton South), Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet), Robin Walker (Worcester), Charles Walker (Broxbourne), Jamie Wallis (Bridgend), David Warburton (Somerton and Frome), Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness), Giles Watling (Clacton), Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge), Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent), Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire), Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley), John Whittingdale (Maldon), Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire), James Wild (North West Norfolk), Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire), Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire), Mike Wood (Dudley South), William Wragg (Hazel Grove), Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam), Jacob Young (Redcar), Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon).
One Independent MP: Julian Lewis (New Forest East).
Tellers for the noes were Conservative MPs Tom Pursglove (Corby) and Leo Docherty (Aldershot).
This has been an incredibly challenging year for everyone. However, alongside the pandemic, a double disadvantage has hit the most deprived in society. Instead of beating down, we should be helping up those who are in need. No child chooses to grow up in poverty and at a time where asking for help remains taboo, we must change how we frame the battles of others. The stories of Jodie and Melissa illustrate the fragility of status, the hardships of poverty in 21st Century Britain and how it can happen to any of us.
Poverty is inglorious and cannot carry on. No one becomes poor, unworthy or irresponsible overnight. This is political. It always has been. A u-turn is expected as the establishment has been given much food for thought whilst they deprived the most disadvantaged any food at all.
Our MPs have let is down, the 322 disgraced individuals have let down an entire generation of children. These are not leaders or role models. Marcus Rashford is everything they will never be. He is our national treasure. A remarkable human being who is using his platform for the betterment of society. Someone who understands the intricacies and complexities of being disadvantaged. I am inspired and I hope you all are too.
Together we can #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY. Ideology will never overcome human dignity. Ameen.
Thank you for reading.
FareShare – https://fareshare.org.uk/
The FoodAid Network – https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk