Our Lives: Poverty then and now in the UK

A report launched today, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015, captures the humanity of the experience of poverty and calls for change as radical as the social reform in the 1940s.

Fran Bennett
17 April 2015

It was just over a year ago when Bob Holman -  the inspiring activist from Easterhouse on the edge of Glasgow, now retired but still active - issued a challenge in The Guardian newspaper. He called on eight named women to put a spotlight on the lives of people living in poverty in the UK now. (I was the add-on - woman no. 9 - who got roped in as well.) And the report we wrote together, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015, launched today in Newcastle, does just that (#ourlives2015).

Our Lives deliberately harks back in its title to the report Bob Holman wanted us to emulate. Our Towns: A close-up was published in 1943 and written by another group of eight women - members of the Hygiene Committee of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. They were trying to respond to the many complaints made about working class evacuees sent from the East End of London and elsewhere to safer, often richer, places. Bob Holman was himself one of those evacuated children and remembers the experience well.

The host families complained that these children often had nits or fleas; they wet the bed; they didn’t have the proper clothes; and they didn’t behave properly, either. Our Towns was an attempt, by eight women all actively involved in health visiting, teaching or voluntary work, to explain the context of these children’s lives, where they came from, and in particular the structural roots of the poverty they lived. And they spelt out clearly how much the children’s parents cared about them.

Our Towns was of its time, and a report written today is clearly not going to be the same. But Bob Holman saw it as one of the turning points in the Second World War - alongside the better-known Beveridge report - that helped lead to social reform, and in particular to the creation of the post-War welfare state.

Bob argued that there was more solidarity with those living in poverty and more understanding of their lives as a result of Our Towns. He said there was an urgent need to carry out a similar exercise now - especially in the context of the coalition government’s cuts to this post-War welfare state - and named the women who should undertake this task.

They and others (including me) accepted his challenge - and Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015 is the result. It builds up a picture based on individual stories of what living in poverty is like in the UK today and calls for change as radical as in the 1940s.

This is not an academic report, or a document brimming with statistics. Others have written those. As Julia Unwin, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says in her Foreword, the report

“… gives a clear, unflinching account of the state of our nation, and does so in ways that illuminate, and humanise, the dry accounts of trend data. Taken together, [the stories] give a picture of life that is harsh, and difficult, perpetuating inequality, and reducing potential. And they do so in ways that underline the humanity of the experience of poverty.”

The authors of Our Lives have all admired Bob Holman for years for his unflinching commitment to working alongside people in poverty - living in Easterhouse himself for many years. We cannot aspire to be like him. And we do not pretend that we are living in poverty ourselves. In that sense, this report is not ‘the voice of the poor’. But what we have in common is a long history of living and working closely with families and communities grappling with poverty.

One of us is a community development and social policy worker (Tricia Zipfel); one is a former director of a family rights organisation (Jo Tunnard); one is a children’s writer (Josephine Feeney); one is the manager of a food bank (Audrey Flannagan); one works at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau (Loretta Gaffney); one is a social worker (Karen Postle); one works for the voluntary sector (Sally Young); and one is the General Secretary of the TUC (Frances O’Grady). I am an academic and social policy researcher, and would also see myself as an activist, as would many others I’m sure.

Between us, we know many people who are struggling to make ends meet - and doing so against the odds, and often in the face of hostile attitudes, or just incomprehension. So we invited them to tell us their stories. Some of these are about people’s struggles to survive, and about being battered by the benefits system. Some of the stories demonstrate the complexity of people’s lives, and others how families can be fragmented by domestic abuse, or even by the care system. Mental health and disability issues, as well as homelessness and insecure employment, also feature. There are examples of public services treating people in poverty badly. But there are also instances of private companies doing the same.

And, as Julia Unwin says in her Foreword, the stories ‘tell of people faced with the most difficult and disturbing circumstances continuing to care and support those they love’. There are tales of extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness - or just of the powers of daily endurance that living in poverty often entails. Of course some people make mistakes, and some make bad choices. But there are usually reasons. And the stories show that society tends to be much less forgiving when this involves people on low incomes.

So what do we want from the report? We want it to encourage people to oppose cuts that fall heavily and unfairly on those on the lowest incomes. We hope it will counter a public narrative that devalues the welfare state as we know it, and that sees ‘dependency’ instead of survival against the odds.

But this is not just a(nother) report about the coalition government’s austerity programme, either. We also want Our Lives to be a wake-up call, as Our Towns was over seventy years ago. We want it to challenge the common assumption that people in poverty are ‘scroungers and skivers’. We want it to highlight the courage and determination that are needed to cope with life on a low income day after day. And we hope it will also contribute to a wider discussion about the kind of society we want to be.


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