Rapping the knuckles of the poor

The cost of living crisis is an act of class warfare

You know that moment just before something painful is going to happen, the anticipation of pain feels as bad as the pain? Just before they put the cannula in. I always remember the way a sadistic teacher made us hold out our hands for ages before she rapped our knuckles with a ruler. That moment, that waiting for the bad thing, is where we are now.

Everything is going to get worse. Heating or eating will be the choice we are told for some. So we hopelessly read our meters, sending the results to websites that are crashed. Undeliverable messages. Can humungous price rises be staved off this way? Who measures the futility meter? Fuel poverty. The Cost of Living Crisis. Inflation! scream the headlines.

Mothers sobbing at food banks are vox-popped. They cannot take home raw, healthy foods as they can’t afford the energy to cook them. They are already skipping meals. The £20 a week given to them during the pandemic has suddenly been lopped off the weekly budget. Something like a boiler breaking down is catastrophic.

All of this could have been made a little better but has been made worse by a man who is married to a woman richer than the queen. Rishi Sunak, who I always refer to as a living emoji, has returned us to “austerity by stealth”.

The figures are there if you need them, the gradations of cruelty are spelled out in percentages. There is to be the biggest hit to household budgets since records began (1956-7). There is nothing for the poorest people and those dependent on benefits. They may get a 3.1 per cent increase while the cost of living rises by ten per cent.

Rental evictions due to default are up by 43 per cent. Food and energy prices are rocketing so much that I even hear middle class people moaning about this huge leap in prices from companies who make huge profits. I am not being disparaging about the middle class – well not much – for I am now one of them and I am not poor, not at all, since I own a house in London. Yet I lie in bed at night worrying about money because I have been poor. I know what it means.

Class is making others feel comfortable not wretched. The current elite has no class whatsoever

I didn’t grow up in a shoebox but my family finances were very dependent on who my mother was married to at the time. “Chaotic” would be the social services way of putting it. When I passed my eleven-plus, my mother was extremely annoyed as we could not afford the uniform. There was some sort of humiliating grant.

All I knew was that I wanted to get away from them and that feeling of being embarrassed about something over which I had no control. I vowed that I would never be financially dependent on any man ever.

Yet I was probably one of the last of a generation who achieved social mobility. I got a grant to college as a mature student at 24. As a result of squatting in a homeless person’s unit with my baby and being evicted, and thus made officially homeless, I got a council flat. Childcare was free as I lived within half a mile of Coram’s Fields. When I started a PhD there was a childcare subsidy. Then, when I realised I could make money writing, I went for it and I have been lucky or you could say simply good at what I do. Women are not allowed to say that about themselves and it took me a long time to be able to say, “Pay me what I am worth.” As much as a man. Or more. How hard it is to voice that, still.

So I am all right Jill, yet the grind of poverty is all around me. The exhausted faces on the bus. The packed lunches of school trips that I have helped out on, that turn out to be a packet of crisps and nothing else; the waiting. That’s what I always think about most.

To be poor is to wait for everything. To stand in line. To be put on hold for ever as your phone credit ticks away. To be impoverished is to be prone to diseases that you have somehow brought upon yourself: diabetes, obesity, heart issues, depression, addiction and covid. Sure, the virus came for everyone, but it affected those who were already struggling the most. 

Every inequality was highlighted during the pandemic and all our financial woes can be blamed on that instead of Brexit. Now the terrible war will also be used as an explanation for a drop in living standards, but not everyone’s will drop equally. What is certain is that the price for all of this is now to be paid by those with the very least.

“Poverty is the worst form of violence,” said Gandhi. But I am not Gandhi-like and this makes me feel murderous. We now appear to be living not just with neo-liberalism but also feudalism. The government is composed of extremely rich people who spend their time doing pretend jobs for photo opportunities. They have no clue about how many people live. Nor do my fellow metropolitan elite friends. They are homeowners with pensions. They are not terrible folk; they imagine themselves to be liberal and caring but they live alongside those who will never have their own homes or decent pensions. This is not out of laziness or lack of education but because fiscal redistribution is not a political goal. Instead, we have the dizzying purity spirals of identity politics which divide us.

There is no war but the class war.

How quaint that now sounds. Does no one understand that the supreme triumph of identity politics is not arguing over gender-neutral toilets but Brexit? The binary that really has been smashed is the one between left and right and the result is this ever-widening gap between the extremely wealthy and those who can never escape their circumstances.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us what we can already observe: those households on the lowest incomes are about to have their budgets devastated. They will be spending eighteen per cent of their income on energy costs alone. Eighteen per cent? It makes me pine for the days of finding someone who knew how to fiddle the meter so electricity was free. As ever, women and children will be hit the hardest with about a third of single parents already having to cut back on food and heating. Nursery costs soar and universal credit payments fall way below the rate of inflation.

I worry for friends and family who have no savings at all, who cannot afford rent increases, who are stuck. Some of them live in “genteel” poverty: you wouldn’t really know about it unless you wanted to. They live all week on the price of a meal in a decent restaurant and they are a whizz at keeping up appearances. Too many women I know live like this as they have slipped through the net, with no state pension till they are 67 but deemed unemployable because they are middle-aged. What are they to do?

All of these people are judged very harshly. Melville was right when he said: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

That is still an innate part of public discourse, it plays well. Poverty is a result of poor choices, not a lack of actual money. It is a moral failing for these neo-Thatcherites.

They are truly shameless. Class is making others feel comfortable not wretched. The current elite has no class whatsoever as far as I am concerned. Their deprivation is not material, it is moral. They are deficient.

When I can’t sleep for worrying about how my children will live in the city they grew up in – for housing is fundamental to all this – I tell myself don’t be silly, there are worse things happening. War and possible nuclear destruction and floods and global warming. Money isn’t everything. I have more than enough.

But because I didn’t always have that, I know too that sometimes money is everything. The only thing. I know there are too many afraid of bills they cannot pay – Gandhi was right: poverty is violence because it is so slow, deliberate and lifelong and drags you under. But it is always seen as self-harm. A victimless crime.

I say otherwise. This violence is being done, never forget, by the very wealthiest to the poorest for “the nation’s good”. The cost of living crisis is a choice not an inevitability.

Make no mistake.

Those who perpetrate it are criminals.

Suzanne Moore is a writer and columnist who has written for just about everything from Marxism Today to The Spectator. She has been a columnist for The Independent, The New Statesman , The Mail on Sunday, The Guardian and is currently at The Daily Telegraph. She won the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism in 2019. She has three children and no hobbies

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • I couldn’t agree more. In France, the government there put in place a price cap on energy for the rest of this year at least, to protect consumers. Why can’t we have that here? And we haven’t even seen the worst of it yet!

    Reply
  • I’m old, about to get my pension, delayed by six years because I was born in 1956, my pension is enough to buy wine and drugs, I’m worried about my old age, it’s horrible to see the poverty in my neighbourhood, this is more than a crisis, this entire society is going down…we’re governed by the richest and they don’t care. I’m middle class, or I was once, we’ve all gone down a notch while the rich haven’t even noticed…they’re pushing everone to the brink because they’re heartless and they don’t even care…this country and so many others in this world are just finished. My friend called because her friend in Turkey has just been jailed for years along with many others for taking part in a protest…this will happen soon in the UK…the hosue of Lords has given up trying to fight this government and we the people are drowning in a worsening scenario, and I’m not living on paycheck to paycheck but my old age is going to be very hard, and I’m one of the better-off

    Reply

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