Poverty, fear and loathing

One of the books I read on holiday this past week was Alan Johnson’s memoir, [amazon_link id=”0593069641″ target=”_blank” ]This Boy.[/amazon_link] It’s a very moving testament of love to his mother, who was abandoned by her feckless husband and died young, and his older sister, who subsequently brought him up despite being just a teenager herself. Born in 1950, he grew up in extreme poverty in wast London. Few people who experience that kind of deprivation – cold, damp, cramped rented housing, hunger, constant debt, second hand clothes, lack of hot water, power being cut off – write about it or are paid any attention if they do so. It was Mr Johnson’s success, via his union, in politics that gave him a voice and an audience. His story is both a great family saga, both sad and uplifting, and an unusually authentic account of being brought up in material poverty. It is especially revealing to see how hard it is for anybody – even someone as hardworking and determined as his mother Lily – to safeguard children from their circumstances. It must be heartbreaking for parents not to be able to stop their children being hungry, not to be able to protect them from the everyday violence of the streets.

[amazon_image id=”0593069641″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]This Boy[/amazon_image]

It would be a mistake to think that this kind of poverty is history. Conditions are somewhat better than in the 1950s and 60s, but it is still hard for most of us to appreciate the lives of people on low incomes. This column by food blogger Jack Monroe recounts how scarily easy it is, too, to become poor – as she points out forcefully here, she did not fall in to any of the usual tabloid blame categories. Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has written a marvellous book, [amazon_link id=”1907994165″ target=”_blank” ]Why Fight Poverty[/amazon_link], out soon in a new series I’ve been editing, in which she highlights both the standard failure of imagination about poverty, and the fear that either makes us unwilling to think about the lives of people who do not have enough money, or turns into loathing and blame.

[amazon_image id=”1907994165″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Fight Poverty?: And Why it is So Hard (Perspectives)[/amazon_image]

I think she’s right to draw our attention to the emotional baggage we bring to the subject, and the barriers to tackling poverty created by our unacknowledged fear. I do recommend reading [amazon_link id=”0593069641″ target=”_blank” ]This Boy[/amazon_link].

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