Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013: The relentless rise of the Working Poor

Even a year ago the phrase "Working Poor" was not widely used. There have always been  historically low paid workers, both employed and self employed, such as hospital porters, cleaners, sales reps and unskilled factory workers. While home ownership and a foreign holiday every year may have alluded this group in the main, the common bond we all share is that work used to pay more than being unemployed. Work meant bills were paid and there was enough money for the odd meal out, a night in the pub, a basic weeks holiday for the family,  household items replaced when broken or new items needed and perhaps  a few pounds a week squirrelled away in a Christmas savings club. In fact the very people lauded by John Major and the Tories back in the early 1990s as people doing their best to get by. Then we were "low paid workers" Now we are the army that is rising relentlessly under this Coalition : the Working Poor.

What does it mean to be "Working Poor"? Different people will have different views. For some it will mean that after paying bills there is virtually nothing left over each month anymore. Others will inform you that being working poor means you can no longer afford treats for the children and the latest trainers, clothes like their classmates, no extra curricular activities like cinema visits. At the foot of the scale some working poor will tell you of their visits to Foodbanks as after paying bills there is no money left for food. This is exasperated if you have children as the working poor are not entitled to free school meals. Nick Clegg is bringing in universal free school meals for reception class children. All very well that millionaires children get free school meals when older working poor children get nothing..

Being working poor makes you feel resentful. Despite being a socialist  I am given to human frailties and sometimes I feel resentful of the unemployed. I know the Government are tricking me into feeling like this. It's the old maxim of setting us against each other in our struggles. Who is more worthy of help Poor v Working Poor, Old v Young, Sick v Disabled, British v Immigrant. I get it and have had it rammed down my throat for nearly 4 years of the coalition. I admit that when I am frantically trying to pay the mortgage, utility and transport bills, feed the family and pay for school lunches I have envied the unemployed who have had their rent paid and free school lunches. But then I immediately think of the Bedroom Tax on the shoulders of the council tenants and the desperation of those poor forced to visit Foodbanks and my politics of envy disintegrates. We are all worthy of Government support in austere times equally. My task is to make sure that message is heard loud and clear.

2013 and indeed the outlook for 2014 is fearful. Whereas now a new carpet for the lounge is needed, the bathroom needs redecorating, our garden wall collapsed in the recent storms and needs rebuilding and the outside paintwork of the house needs re-doing - none of which we can afford,- how long until the bills cannot be covered on our low pay, our food bill has to be cut to the bone, and  a holiday is a thing of the past? Like a gerbil going faster and faster, round and round on its toy wheel, so we, the working poor are trying harder to stand still. The language being spewed from the mouth of the DWP is that of more sanctions, more hardship, more rules; firstly for the unemployed and then it will be the turn of the working poor. While John Major and a few backbench Tories and the  BrightBlue thinktank urge Cameron to give out more positive messages and support the working poor, Iain Duncan-Smith and the DWP seem set on a collision course to demonise the low paid. Under Universal Credit the mantra seems to be "If you are low paid, you must get a better job or take on another job" to increase your income. If self employed like my household, if you do not earn £11k per year you will be given a few months to increase your earnings. If you do not, you will be stripped of self employment, switched to JSA and forced to seek employment. Working is not enough. You must gain employment that lifts you entirely out of the tax credit system and thus out of being working poor. This is the fairyland Duncan-Smith exists in. The idea that there are jobs available for all low paid workers to take them out of being low paid is farcical to anyone who has a brain, just the same as saying there are enough jobs for all the unemployed. Only IDS believes this mantra.

So what can the Working Poor look forward to in 2014? Relatively little. Once the DWP under the stewardship of IDS have made the lives of the unemployed unbearable and Foodbank use a complete norm for anyone on benefit, it will be our turn next. The message will be that we should be doing more work for more money. Ed Miliband has stated that if Labour gain power in 2015 he will set up a  board to look in detail at how Universal Credit will be implemented. We can only hope that demonising the working poor is not on the agenda and the draconian methods employed by Duncan-Smith will be scrapped. Then the low paid either continue to be supported in the form of tax credits or better still Miliband is successful in bringing in a Living Wage for those both employed and self employed.

This army is getting bigger daily and feeling more ostracised by this Government than ever before. I know of Tory voting low paid workers who really believed the mantra of "hard working people doing the right thing". They believed they were in that club of  "strivers" - cleaning streets during hours David Cameron was asleep behind closed curtains. Now they feel desperate, unable to pay bills and feed families and have some kind of life other than low paid soulless work many people would not do. Many of them have to care for sick or disabled family members on top of their low paid work too. Thankfully many of them have seen the light and won't be voting Tory in 2015. But they need to know there is a socialist Labour Party who will protect them. Let's have some firm policies on the
working poor, not promises of a board of people to look at how Universal Credit will be implemented and how the working poor will be dealt with post 2015.

I will be telling the Labour Party what I expect from them to gain my vote. It's not a given. My vote is too precious for that. I hope the rest of the Working Poor Army will do the same.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Working Poor Christmas...

November. My husband and I gathered the boys around for a talk about Christmas. Well, not so much about Christmas but about Christmas finances. Being a large family with 4 sons, we have always told them the truth about what we can and what we cannot do as regards presents in the past. Brand new games consoles that come out in time for December have never been a priority.. We have bought a console or two in the past when they have been plentiful the year after, rather than promising the new pricey version for Christmas.

But our talk this year for 2013 has been a little different. Scrap that. To be truthful it has been blunt and to the point. The money is not there to do the "full works" any longer and pay the December bills. Our boys are old enough to understand that mortgages have to be paid in December too, as well as the utility bills and council tax. I have made up a "December Budget" sheet and as a family we decided which items on the list were higher priority than others and which things could be scrapped altogether.

We put the bill budget to one side as we all agreed no payments would be missed. Everyone saw my point that a bill missed in December would be hanging round our necks in the New Year. There would be no loans from anywhere, as we have booked a summer holiday to Scotland as a treat for the post GCSES our younger boys are taking and we need to pay for that. Christmas 2013 will be done on the money we have.

Christmas cards that needed posting were discussed. We agreed to cut this to the bone and phone people to say why. This has worked as the same people said it was a relief to them too as postage is so high. Normally we post large parcels to my sisters families and children, but agreed vouchers would be sent instead.  We explained to grandparents that we are not in a position this year to do what we have done in the past with £50 average spend on interflora arrangements or luxury jumpers etc. Smaller gifts would be given and we told them  to spend a minimum amount on the boys as they are older now.

We agreed the younger boys at school could attend Christmas parties and the like, but my husband and I would turn our invitations down for meal nights etc. The expense on these nights was a luxury
that we can no longer afford or prioritise.Cinema or a theatre trip was also considered excessive and was cut likewise. There are four close family members with birthdays over Christmas and early January. Normally a birthday card containing money or a gift card would be sent. Instead, we agreed it would again be necessary to phone and explain that a birthday card only would be sent this year due to our circumstances. It risked upsetting family, but it had to be done and faced.

We all decided the actual Christmas Day feast and extras like chocolates, mince pies, cream, cheeseboard, crackers were more important than Christmas presents. It is probably easier to deal with 4 sons like mine who are older, than younger children who want to see dozens of presents lined up on Christmas morning, but again talking to children and asking them what their priorities are is a real
incite. The boys agreed that smaller, cheaper gifts were less important than the merriment of the day itself, so the present budget was cut accordingly. I am very astute  at shopping in stores from Aldi- Tesco - M+S for the Christmas food shop to get basics and the nicer Christmas foods on offer, but it was agreed we should shop just enough for the set days we needed ie Dec 23rd - Dec 27th as the supermarkets will be open again after Boxing Day. Every year we have tended to buy too much fresh food and so this year we will buy exactly what is needed for the few days, then more after the 27th. There will be a donation to the local Foodbank as we firmly hold the belief that "there but for the grace of  God go I".... If IDS gets his way about low income self employed being forced to move to JSA under Universal Credit, if they don't earn the minimum income floor of 11k, we may indeed be future Foodbank clients ourselves.

My husband said he would slash the Christmas drinks budget. In the past he would buy a full range of
spirits in case guests turned up unexpectedly as well as a few crates of beer. This year he will buy a
bottle of whiskey and a crate of beer as we are not expecting anyone. This decision was not popular
with our older boys, but acknowledged as a necessary budget cut.

New Years Eve will be spent at home. The sheer expense of a NYE night out is not on our horizon.
The older boys aged 24 and 21 will go out as they both work and are of the age to enjoy and look forward to NYE, but the rest of us will stay at home with a DVD or two. We
are even cutting out the Radio Times expense as it is over £3 to buy. Staying in on NYE also
eliminates the expense of new clothes and a trip to the hairdressers, something I never used to think
about pre 2010.  Likewise a couple of nights in the pub over Christmas week, a nice day out on the N Wales Coast where we live and a Christmas pub lunch with the boys are now off the list. Memories of what we used to be able to do as well as paying bills hit home. Not extravagant excesses, just a Christmas that made life and work worthwhile. A time when work paid for a few extra treats at Christmas time. Of course I am aware that our choices are not as anywhere near difficult as those people facing heat or eat this Christmas, and who are already in  rent arrears or moving out due to bedroom tax or will be visiting Foodbanks this year. But  I do know that in future we are only a few steps away from being in that situation unless there is a change in Government and policies protecting the Working Poor and disabled.

I am hoping quality family time makes up for the budget cuts necessary this year. We don't like making them, but we believe that by being truthful with the children, it is better than owing WONGA and the loan companies huge debts in the new year. I feel bitter that even though we work, it has been made necessary to make swingeing cuts to our family Christmas while Cameron, Osborne and Clegg
 will no doubt be choosing between the goose, swan or pheasant or enjoying all three for Christmas lunch. Being self employed there is no one to turn to in order to demand a minimum or a Living Wage. My husbands overall cost for DJ'ing  a party night hasn't risen in 10 years! He will also be working over the entire Christmas fortnight. The days when a premium could be expected to work Christmas Eve and NYE are gone. Many landlords of pubs/clubs will not pay larger amounts any longer, and simply cut entertainment altogether if faced with a higher price for those nights.

We always thought being self employed, caring for our sons and our youngest who is autistic was
enough to keep us from poverty. I fear poverty has arrived and becoming an increasing reality in 2014 for many Working Poor families like mine. Trouble is, the belts have been tightened. If our standard of living falls again next year, there will be no difference in working and not working at all. I would think that statement alone would ring alarm bells in the DWP. If work makes you poor, people will question whether working is worthwhile. This is the depth to which this Government has plummeted to. A modern Britain where work no longer pays bills, feeds families and allows for a basic holiday and the odd treat and a comfortable Christmas.
Merry Christmas Mr Cameron.. Enjoy your Christmas lunch on the backs of the Poor.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Inside the Supermarket Christmas Foodbank Appeals....

Saturday at my local Tesco. Tesco have teamed up with The Trussell Trust to allow local TT Foodbanks to stand front of store, and ask shoppers to donate items for the local Community from a small list each interested shopper was given, on one of three days between Nov 29- Dec 1st.

Tesco were doing their bit. A huge selection of their value basics range was on show, so shoppers could instantly grab items ranging from value orange juice to value cereal and put it in with their shopping; and after checkout then put the items into the donation marked trollies. Customer service staff were wheeling them away to the storage area and then apparently Tesco will match whatever is donated with 30% more.

Sounds fine in theory. But as I stood talking to the Foodbank volunteers, watching our MP turn up to promote the event, and then watching shoppers scurrying past, I felt uncomfortable on many fronts.

The Tesco literature and the tabards each volunteer wore did not mention the word "Foodbank" only the following "Together we can help feed people in need and build a stronger neighbourhood". On the tabards were tiny mentions of Fareshare and Trussell Trust. TT as we know are the trust behind the setting up of Foodbanks across the UK. I felt annoyed that the word Foodbank had been omitted from Tesco literature. I asked a Tesco employee about it.

"The food donated is going to the local Foodbank (I will dispute this fact later) but perhaps the term was too emotive for management to use. The words community and neighbourhood were probably felt to be more appealing to those people who wish to donate."

My view is a more cynical one: borne out of 3 years of the Coalition Government. Foodbank use has soared unmercifully since 2010. Using the term Foodbank was probably seen by Tesco to be too political a word to use yet in reality the food donated was indeed going to one!

The volunteers on the day I was there, were all elderly genteel folk, who were asking very politely to everyone who came through the doors whether they would like to donate.

 I asked where the food was going to.

"To the local Foodbank." Said the TT co-ordinator.
"Are you certain?" I asked . "the local Foodbank that serves this town and Rhyl down the road is independent and not run by the TT. Will they benefit from 3 days of donations?"
"Well We are from a Foodbank in the same county but as the local Foodbank is not TT or
part of the FareShare scheme they will not benefit from the collection at all sorry."

The Foodbank that was collecting was actually 15 miles away from the local community/neighbourhood of my own town and the Tesco supermarket.The local community of people in need therefore would not benefit at all by the food donations. I told both Tesco and the TT volunteers I was unhappy that neither of them were pointing this out to local people. Personally I am not bothered that my donation was feeding a family 15 miles away, but I thought that people donating foodstuffs should be in receipt of the full facts that this food would not benefit the neighbourhood and town that this Tesco is located in.

Independent Foodbanks, and my local one told me the reason they remain independent is to have control over the amount of help they give people. Ours for example do not have set rules on the amount of a times a parcel can be given. They receive referrals on the basis of need and much of that need is ongoing and they do not refuse people this help.

Back in Tesco, things were not going well. The elderly volunteers were trying hard to get people to donate but in a very subtle way.. Obviously they had a remit that they could not hassle people. A few
shoppers walked past, heads bowed to avoid being asked, but some openly said "I'm not donating to scroungers" or "People should get a job" and then walked off. Being younger I challenged a few people saying:
"Do you know 80,000 children will wake up homeless and in a B+B on Christmas Day?"
"Do you realise under this government  half a million people will need help from Foodbanks this year compared to 24,000 in 2008?"
"Think how you would feel if you had an accident, a divorce, an illness and you may be forced to claim a state benefit. Imagine that benefit takes six weeks to come through and you have nothing. That's where a Foodbank comes in!"
I got very angry and worked up, not by the people who stopped and said "Sorry but I literally have no spare cash myself for shopping". I actually admired their honesty. But it was the well heeled people who walked on by that upset me most. At times I felt almost Bob Geldof-ish and wanted to shout:
"Give me your f***ing tins!" But couldn't in the confines of the shop.

I turned my attention to the mountains of value everyday basics food on promotion for those who wished to donate. A pile of white tins, packets, jars that screamed "This food is only worthy for the
poor!" Lying in the donated food trollies the anaemic looking tins angered me more. I asked the customer service advisor why Tesco thought their value range only was suitable for donation and on

"Shoppers may not have a lot of money themselves. We are showing them that a tin of beans, a carton of  value juice can be donated with little cost, and people needing Foodbanks are desperate anyway..."

Hardly containing myself I went around  the shop. I came across the tinned fruit aisle. One tin of value orange segments was 32p, yet at 43p Tesco branded orange segments were on a Buy One Get one Free so for 11p more 2 tins could be donated and of  better quality too. A 1kg box of Family Kelloggs cornflakes was on offer at £2 yet the value box at a third of the size was 86p and worse tasting. After having flung in branded items and paid I brought my donated goods to the  volunteers.

"How kind" one said.
"Not kind at all." I said." There are special offers in this store that donators could be pointed to. My kids like Kelloggs cereal so why shouldn't a child whose parents receive a Foodbank parcel enjoy the same quality? Come to think of it, why aren't Christmas type items like small selection boxes, shampoo, shower gel, on this list? Even toys for children. Baby food, baby milk, nappies, sanitary towels, soap, toothpaste.. The list goes on. Do people at Foodbanks not need these things too? Even pet food. Pets still have to be fed or they end up at the RSPCA!"
"We have to stick to the list given, but people are welcome to donate such items if they wish." Said the volunteer.
"But nobody is telling them this information" I sighed. "Tesco are making a fortune out of all this
promoted value basics range being sold over 3 days too, yet they are only matching it by 30%. Whatever happened to the Christmas spirit? A 100% matched donation would not make a dent in their profits,"

Why was there no one either from Trussell Trust or Tesco educating people front of store about the huge rise in Foodbank or forgive me Community Neighbourhood food need? Educating people and getting the wider message out on Foodbanks at this time is almost as crucial as feeding the people in need!

As I put my donated goods into the Foodbank trolley I could almost hear David Cameron laughing at me. You see you and I are "Big Society" in action. We are feeding people Cameron's government have turned their backs on. Yet my feeling of guilt and those of other donators are what is being relied upon. Local communities will not let local people starve and that is the bottom line.

If you are donating to a local Foodbank this Christmas, ask questions. Even ask to volunteer. A lot of volunteers are retired persons and maybe would welcome younger people who may have the mouth, or passion to help those in desperate need of food. This year 2013 we are aghast Foodbank use has risen to 500,000 people. Will we be disgusted or simply shrug when that figure reaches 1 million in years to come? I will be shouting from the rooftops - 'Why do we need Foodbanks in one of the richest countries in the world?'