What is it like to live in poverty? No, what is it really like to live in poverty? How does it feel? What does it do to your sense of dignity and self-worth? How does it feel when you can’t afford the school uniform? What does it do to you to be treated as a number not a person?
These are some of the questions explored by the Scottish Poverty Truth Commission, whose latest report, ‘Names not numbers’ was published last month. A Poverty Truth Commission is radical in its simplicity, and simple in its message:’Nothing about us without us is for us.’
A group of people – some with firsthand experience of living with poverty and others with positions of power and influence in politics, public service and the arts, who met together regularly and on an equal basis over 18 months. The process involved learning what it means to listen deeply and having the courage to speak out. The stories heard and shared are powerful in the way they change those involved.
An incubator of hope
As Fergus McNeill, one of the Commissioners observed:
“When we meet, as far as possible, we leave titles, positions and qualifications at the door and meet first and foremost as human beings, known by our first names. We meet to do two things: listen to one another’s stories and share our own. This sounds simple, but it can often be profound. It allows (and requires) the Commission to be a place of connection between people who may have led quite different lives but who also have a very great deal in common. Because we connect through our stories and learn to listen deeply and respectfully to one another, truths emerge. Since we are confronting difficult issues this is often a painful process, but we also laugh a lot and find inspiration together. So the Poverty Truth Commission becomes an incubator for hope.”
Over the past year, Commissioners have looked at three issues: The cost of school; food poverty and dignity and the power of stories.
The cost of food
Commissioners shared stories about the cost of blazers, PE kits, school bags, shoes and winter coats all on top of the basic school uniform – and how this results in many parents on low incomes start the school year in debt. With many children and young people still seeing school clothing as the main indicator of income, it’s also easy to see how stigma, embarrassment and bullying follow.
“There is a lot of pressure to fit in at school and to buy the brands that are popular. I borrowed £200 to buy uniforms and I still had to add to that. It’s about not wanting your child to be picked on because of what they are wearing. They are defined by each other by what brand of clothing/shoes they have on. Even a school bag is scrutinised.”
In relation to food poverty, the Commissioner’s message is equally clear:
“We believe it is a scandal that we need to have food banks and emergency food aid in modern, wealthy Scotland. On one level they are fantastic examples of communities supporting those in need. However, they are only a crisis response and we know that some people do not go to them due to stigma and transport costs. We have listened to many stories of life in food poverty, and we are firm in our belief that we will only find solutions by directly involving those with experience in the decision making. We need empowering and sustainable answers to food poverty, emergency food aid is not the answer. We need a food justice movement led by people with direct experience of poverty.”
Dignity and the power of stories
Lastly, many testified to the fact that their experiences at the Job Centre, Borders Agency and other public services are too often exhausting, distressing and completely lacking in dignity. Target driven and disbelieving cultures of enforcement and punishment lead to many people feeling they have been stripped of their dignity and left with nothing.
“I always get a crumbling feeling when I go into the Job Centre. It feels as if someone is sitting in there waiting for me to come in and make a mistake, waiting to tell me I haven’t been trying hard enough. They treat me like a number not a person. I can feel my dignity crumbling away.”
The good news is that the Poverty Truth Commission process is starting to catch on. After five years work in Glasgow, and two years in Leeds, moves are now afoot to develop Commissions amongst other places in Salford, Birmingham, West Cheshire, Blackpool and Cardiff.
Those in authority must confront and experience the humanity of those whose lives their decisions affect. Those living with poverty must do the same, raise their voice and believe in change.
Are we yet up for making this a reality in the churches?
To find out more about the Poverty Truth Commission visit: http://www.faithincommunityscotland.org/poverty-truth-commission/