One in Five
By Louisa Britain
An anthology of stories about the realities of living in poverty
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Fourteen and a half million people live in poverty in the UK, according to the government’s own figures. That's about one in five. And that was before the pandemic. So where are their voices?
In this country, we hear about child poverty, in-work poverty, fuel poverty and poverty porn. We read about universal credit cuts, generation rent and Benefits Street. We see a fifth of our population through someone else’s lens, as victims or slackers or - just occasionally and if they’re particularly good at football - inspiring national heroes who turned their lives around. But we rarely hear from people who live with poverty every day.
One in Five is a powerful anthology bringing together just some of the true stories behind the headlines. It explains the reality of spending all day shopping around online for the cheapest school shoes, only to be told off for owning a phone. Of scrubbing stains out of old clothes by hand, and the precise cost of a job interview outfit. It shows how disability, ethnicity, gender, ill health and unstable work or housing can all intersect to create an inescapable poverty trap. And how sometimes, living in poverty becomes a full-time job. Compiled by the campaigning mother better known on social media as Roadside Mum, it collects stories told by people with real, personal experience of poverty, in their own voices.
But One in Five is also a book of ideas. You don’t raise a family in a rented flat on minimum wage without learning a thing or two about life, quick thinking and BOGOFs, and the contributors to this book understand better than most how the system is broken and what could be done to fix it - if the political will existed. By supporting this book you’ll be elevating the voices of the real experts and sending a clear message to those in charge: it’s time to listen and act to make a change.
ABOUT THE BOOK
- A high-quality, B-format paperback book
- Approximately 300 pages and 70,000 words
- Compiled by Louisa Britain, better known as the Twitter campaigner Roadside Mum
- Approximately 20 contributors, to be announced
- Exclusive pledge levels available!
*Book designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.
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Anyone who has experienced poverty for any period of time usually starts to acquire a variety of skills. These are things that never seemed relevant before but which suddenly take on a whole new level of importance.
These are what I call Poverty Skills, and some of us have developed so wide a range of them that I often amuse myself by creating an imaginary Survivor’s Guide to Being Poor. On good days I picture this laid out in the style of the hardback needlework instructional manuals my Nan used to like. But usually it reads like an SAS survival handbook.
Over a lifetime of standing on every rung of the ladder from comfortable to rock bottom - not always in linear order - I have taught myself many flexes. For example, I now possess a detailed knowledge of how to remove nearly any stain I have ever encountered from every fabric I have ever owned. You have to when buying new clothes comes with a heap of provisos. If you are unemployed and have been for months, the Jobcentre may make a discretionary grant towards job interview attire. The one and only time I was able to claim that, it allowed just £20. Even without a blazer, I'd need a blouse, trousers (cheaper than a skirt as they don't require tights) and shoes. I'm frugal but with smart shirts a bargain anywhere under £15, £20 was never going to cut it. Especially not given the restricted number of shops you are allowed to claim that from, given that you have to make the purchase first and be refunded and that all items must go on the same receipt. I failed. My bill came in at £46. Still, that's not that bad. But if you work a desk job you can easily be expected to arrive in a suit every day and still only make the minimum wage. I know of huge Telesales call centres where this was the norm for years.
And so, I have learned the following. Grass stains on school shirts should respond to white vinegar. A smart suit with bus seat bubble-gum stuck to it is best left in the freezer and the gum scraped off once it has solidified. Foundation on a dress neckline must be soaked in biological laundry liquid and carefully, meticulously rubbed out by hand, using only cold running water. It must not be machine washed again until all traces have disappeared. This is much the same process for a period stain, except that you need a bar of hand soap for that, ideally with glycerine.*
I’m not sure whether you expected this book to open with an essay on bodily fluids, but this is a book about modern poverty, how it impacts a person and how to survive it. Dignity is an expensive luxury. If you have to be poor, you should get used to grinding your knuckles into all manner of nasties.
Another obvious skill to master is cookery on a budget. It's hard to say a budget of what exactly, as the link between living costs for essential items and the rate paid for a benefit was severed for Universal Credit. Time was every Citizens Advice Bureau wall had a large poster detailing the breakdown of exactly what you were meant to be able to feed kids on. For a rough rule, if we said £20 to feed a single person for a week, or £60 for a family of 4, that should be low but not punitive.
Whatever you spend on food, you will quickly find that someone on the internet doesn't want you to have it, like Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who helpfully tweeted in 2020 that ‘Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950 own brand chips = £1.35’. Given that 1kg of potatoes would serve a family of 4 for 2 meals, the 26p a day apparent saving here won't make inroads into the family financial problem nearly so well when you factor in the additional water to wash and peel your potatoes, the gas to part-boil them and the oil for the tray. Seriously, if you want to buy chips, do. Such pundits rarely imagine how they'd cope with just a fist full of change, a toaster and a kettle to feed four people, when Tesco is two bus rides away. That's the reality for many of the homeless families all over Britain in council temporary accommodation. Poverty runs significantly deeper than if you eat oven chips.
Other skills I have mastered over years of on/off involuntary impoverishment include: cleaning tips for the poor; how to obtain glasses that don't make you look an idiot when none of the NHS frames suit you; driving while poor (also known as ‘the dashboard lights you can probably ignore and the few you really can’t’); ways never to pay full price for clothing; heating the house with tealights and terracotta flower pots (that isn’t a rogue line from a handbook on hygge, it genuinely can be done in an emergency and you can find instructions on places like YouTube and Instructables); addressing the more expensive kinds of school homework on the cheap (cardboard boxes crop up a lot); foraging and/or skip diving, according to locality; darning and patching holes; and calculating the absolute bare minimum quantity of hot water in which a person can satisfactorily regularly take a ‘bucket bath’ without being hauled in front of their boss to explain their body odour. I could go on.
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