Rain splashes hard onto the pavement as a woman rushes home from work, her head aching with worry at not being able to make ends meet or, worse still, losing her job and not being entitled to benefits. She fears she will have to leave the capital despite knowing more work is available here.
She knows that the economy – having been through a long period of growth – has slumped and the increasing population – with people moving to the capital from foreign countries and other British cities – means jobs are scarce so many scramble for anything available. She works two jobs and has little to live on, struggling to feed and clothe herself and her children.
She’s not an unusual sight as she walks, her head down against the wind, worry etched in her face. Wages for the few jobs available are low – and shrinking – many are desperate to live near to where work is available but this is almost impossible. So available housing is scarce and increasingly costly, often resulting in overcrowded conditions, particularly for the lowest paid, foreign workers.
‘In big, once handsome houses […] people of all ages may inhabit a single room’,* Meanwhile, landlords make healthy profits from the demand on homes.
She read a speech by an MP and was stunned by his limited understanding of the way she lives.
“Many areas […] are blighted by fractured families, worklessness, educational failure, addictions, serious personal debt, anti-social behaviour and crime. Too many tenants find themselves […] where welfare dependency is a way of life, cut off from the job opportunities, social networks and wealth the rest of us enjoys.”
She knows of young people who have been turned out of home as their families are unable to support them. Living on their wits, stealing and fighting they seem a very real threat in a country where riots are becoming commonplace.
She thinks back to the speech.
“The lack of good male role models in many areas […] makes the next generation of boys susceptible to getting involved in anti-social and criminal behaviour. Family breakdown also makes girls much more vulnerable to early sex and teenage pregnancy, potentially repeating their mother’s life experience.”
She knows of families who desperately try to stay together often moving together – knowing the local council is now responsible to decide upon the amount of money available to the poor in need.
“Social justice can only be achieved in a society in which we each make the contribution we are capable of. Every household should be helped to achieve economic self-sufficiency, even if that can’t always be fully realised.”
Hand-outs are increasingly considered the wrong thing to do for the poor, with philanthropy and charity now seen as ways to help those in genuine need. The government is looking at ways to reduce money intended for the poor, to take beggars off the streets and to encourage poor people to look after themselves. She knows the poor are easy scapegoats, increasingly seen as feckless, lazy or drunks who are unwilling to work.
“Helping workless households move from dependency to independence must be a central objective in tackling poverty and advancing social justice. The back-to-work needs of workless households must be put at the centre of welfare provision.”
She has heard talk of the deserving poor of ‘anyone thrown out of work or into financial straits by events beyond his or her control — elimination of a job, illness or old age, etc’ being accepted in the short-term. And of those seen as ‘made up of that class of people who declined to work, and made a perceived effort to live off the county dole or by conning honest folk, or who were ill or disabled due to their own folly — such as by being a drunkard, or catching a social disease. Such people were not entitled to pity, or really much consideration at all’. ***
She knows that’s how many people see her as she passes by on her way home.
Some of this is from depictions of life in Victorian London and some from London today … I’ll leave you to decide which. The quotes in italics are courtesy of current Work and Pensions Secretary and eager welfare reformer Iain Duncan Smith.
*The Victorian Underworld, Kellow Chesney
***Those That Will Not Work, Henry Mayhew