Kindness in the face of Adversity

By Sue McDermott, Programme Manager

Last week Comic Relief raised £63 million, but there was also criticism levelled at the BBC for an unrealistic portrayal of poverty in Britain.

Was that criticism justified?

I have managed projects funded through Comic Relief, so I know the difference it makes to local charities and people first hand. But Comic Relief’s action on poverty is nothing new – in the UK, we have held a long-standing concern for people poorer than ourselves, wherever they may be.

As far back as the 16th century, Poor Law Tax recognised that support for the poor should be a shared social responsibility and required every parish to find work for the unemployed and set up parish houses for people who could not support themselves.

In 1901, Quaker philanthropist Joseph Rowntree undertook a study of the poor and so began a growing understanding that living in poverty impacted on health, school achievement and employment. Beveridge’s plan for the new welfare state was the first co-ordinated response to poverty, and ever since then, there has been continued attention paid to the impacts of deprivation on people’s lives.

It is true that the U.K. has been one of the wealthiest countries for centuries, so you may be wondering how can there also be poverty?

When I think back over my lifetime, incredible societal changes have occurred: many of the industries Britain was famous for have disappeared or drastically altered.  The coal mines in south Wales and the north of England, the shipbuilding on the Tyne and the Clyde, the steel industry in Sheffield, the tin mines in Cornwall, North Sea oil, and Ford at Dagenham.

As industries and therefore jobs declined, so did the local communities and some have yet to recover their affluence, pride or hope. These changes mainly happened in the seventies and eighties, but since then, washing machines, computers and mobile phones have gone from being luxuries to essential items – isn’t that progress?  Even with ten years of austerity and the growth of foodbanks, can we really say poverty has got worse?

Well, apparently we can. The UK’s Policy and Social Exclusion (PSE) research team has examined trends over thirty years (1983 – 2013) and found that the proportions of the population falling below the standards set by society were higher in 2013 than in 1983, and there are significant signs that poverty has increased since 2013.

Currently, an estimated 13.5 million people live below the poverty line in the UK.

Last year, one in five people struggled to put food on their table, with more than half a million people reliant on food banks in order to feed themselves and their families, More than one in four adults (28%) skimped on their own food last year so that others in their households could eat.

We know over that more than 30 million people in the UK (almost half the population) are suffering some degree of financial insecurity and more than one in five adults had to borrow money last year to pay for their day to day expenses.

The primary driver of poverty in the U.K. has to be the rise in the living costs which between 2008 and 2014, have risen three times faster than the average wage. Since 2016 and the looming prospect of Brexit – sugar has gone up again by 20%, butter by 30%, bread by 10%, sausages by 10%, and coffee by 9%.

The problem is that poverty doesn’t stop at having insufficient money to eat or heat your home. It affects nutrition and therefore physical health and growth, and also concentration. Lack of money leads to increased worry, stress, depression and consequently, it has a detrimental effect on mental health.

Poverty is no respecter of age, it can, and it does effect all age groups with older people receiving pensions, equally as susceptible as young people struggling to find jobs and everyone in between.

The good news is that even if we don’t have any spare cash to donate or buy items to go in the foodbank box at the supermarket, most of us have time. Even a few minutes making conversation with someone we don’t know, genuinely showing care and interest can make a difference.

You would be amazed by the difference you can make by small acts of kindness which could mean checking in on an elderly neighbour, giving them a lift shopping, to the hospital or the vets, or helping out at a coffee morning or lunch club, or at the other end of the scale by mentoring young people.

Sometimes events like Comic Relief remind us of what we can do, and that we don’t need permission to be a good neighbour or be kind to others. Dismissing poverty as fake news does not make it go away. On the contrary, it draws attention to the reality, the reality that is the day to day for millions of people in all our communities.