Mand they are sat on the stairs of our home crying on Monday, and for once I had no more words. I could not justify my decision to not cook his tiny, budget pizza beyond that of making sure we practiced being poorer. I didn’t feel able to cook it because it would cost too much to turn the oven on for this one small thing.
My 12-year-old son has additional needs and significant sensory processing issues. He has not been in school for almost five months and I am his full-time, unpaid carer of him. I am currently claiming universal credit. Right now, I am furiously paddling to stay afloat and trying to stay far enough away from the edge financially that we don’t lose our home. But even that is not a given.
We have already lost enough, and we are two of many – many millions, in fact – who are struggling right now. As inflation reaches a 40-year high, we feel its impact directly, and we are struggling. Struggling with the fast rise in the cost of living, which feels completely out of control. Struggling because almost every essential part of our budget is spiraling out of control – from the cost of our shopping to our energy bills and high rents from often unscrupulous landlords.
But what truly terrifies me is that we are only going to get poorer. I struggle to sleep at night, knowing things are only going to get harder. Perhaps peace of mind, too, should be seen as another luxury millions of us can no longer afford.
I have seen our gas and electricity charges double. We have just had our toughest winter yet as I couldn’t afford to turn on the heating. Instead, we bundled up in bed to stay warm. There is now a minimum of a third less in my shopping basket for the same money. It’s largely fresh food we are cutting back on, short shelf-life items, tiny luxuries and toiletries too, but even that won’t be enough soon. We are pretty savvy shoppers, people who are used to life on a low income, but this is absolutely impossible to manage and we cannot plan for this as costs continue to rise, and a terrifying winter comes into view.
We watch in disbelief as the government continues to fail to support families like mine, as we are told by politicians that food-bank users just need to learn how to cook, or those in working poverty just need to get better-paid jobs. How dare they gloss over rising food-bank use as if it’s normal in one of the richest countries in the world. How dare those in power tell us how to spend the appallingly low budgets we receive on social security while we perform the mental gymnastics of just getting through the day on 500 calories. Crying because we know how living in this way will affect our children, how deadly poverty can be for vulnerable people and older people among us. We are making generations of hungry people feel that it is their fault, and after two years of unprecedented strain, people are losing hope at a time when we need it the most.
Becoming poorer hurts. It physically hurts us. Your body tenses so much in the cold that everything aches. You wake up freezing in the night, bringing pain to tired muscles and arthritic bones. My son cried more than once last winter because he was cold. It hurts your fingers and feet and it stops you knowing what is true illness and what is deprivation. In the end, it makes you ill anyway. It mentally hurts us too. It scars us in invisible ways to hear our government, and those who are much better off financially, tell us to manage better. As if that is all that is needed. I am sick of wasting the precious years I have with my son explaining that we just can’t do things or have things. And he’s not immune to the worry, he knows the worst is to come. Poverty hurts him now, and he will continue to do so long into the future.
The stigma of living like this stops those suffering from speaking out. After all, who wants to be lambasted in public for being poor? An inadequate, stigmatizing and impersonal social security system means we too often feel that this is all that we deserve. But I’m not ashamed to speak out. I don’t want my son and the millions of other children living like this to ever believe they are not worthy of more. Told by those who are paid vast sums of money to make the rules and to wisely use the budgets they are afforded by the public in times of great need, that this is all they are worth.
My son’s response about the tiny pizza was tears and rage at the inequality of it all. As staff at energy companies receive millions in bonuses, we can’t afford to heat a budget pizza. When I said to him that this is why we need to speak out and help people, he told me through his rage: “I can’t help the people mummy, I am the people.” And he is right, we are the people you must listen to. We know how to budget and how to cook and we will never give up fighting for our rightful place at the table as decisions continue to be made on our behalf.
Jo Barker-Marsh is a full-time carer and a participant in the Covid Realities project, which documents life on a low income
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism