I read this article in the Guardian today. It was hard to finish it.
Firstly because it was heartbreaking reading about kids trying to get by, trying to transcend the shit that we subject them to. Trying to hide from the harsh glare of the hierarchy.
Secondly because I was one of those kids.
35 years ago however was a better time to be the child of a single mother living on benefits. They were worth more in real terms than they are now. There was also a generally more benign societal view towards the poor; it was the role of the state to try to support and assist- even though in many ways it always failed, still there was this desire to strive towards a more equal society.
But what I remember most of all was not the lack of stuff, the absence of material possessions, holidays, mobility, choices. What I remember most of all was the shame. I was a head taller than anyone else in my class and it was impossible to hide. I entered every encounter with a sense of being less-than. Things that came easy to others took huge effort. My awkwardness and alienation was like a force field which was every bit as visible as my odd clothing.
It comes to me still, in moments of vulnerability; we never quite escape the children we once were. We are primarily social beings after all…
Perhaps gradation and discrimination over minor difference is a human characteristic- from the playground onwards. But poverty, this is the source of so much ordinary day to day evil. It is not motivating, it is not romantic, it does not forge any kind of community spirit. Poverty brutalises, degrades, isolates and defeats people. It perpetuates itself through a thousand small failures.
I got out. I clambered onto a ledge of safe solid respectability and mostly ignored the vertigo. Most of the others can not. My whole working life has been concerned with trying to grapple with the reality of this for huge sections of our population.
The scary thing is, it is getting worse.
Anyone who grows up poor has a sense of embarrassment, particularly about how one is dressed, not being able to afford to go on school excursions – the things that make one different. At the same time, I think some cultures, societies and ages are more difficult than others and I suspect that poverty as I experienced it in Australia was nowhere near as bad as it was in the UK or the US or many other developed nations.
The reality is that more is done for and given to the poor today than happened when I grew up in the fifties and sixties and perhaps it is too much. It is not an easy topic or subject but one thing I do know is that I also grew up stronger, more resilient and more understanding because of it. Having said that, Australia is a country which has never had the class or social divides which still exist in the UK, albeit in diminished form.