One in Five

By Louisa Britain

An anthology of stories about the realities of living in poverty

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.

Sometimes, I think of everything I might have accomplished if I hadn't been forced to delegate so much mental space to memorising supermarket mark-down schedules and so much time to hand-scrubbing stains out of my family’s pants. I might have kept up with the other languages I have sporadically started learning, or even invested in some Open University courses. If I hadn't been absolutely hammered by trying to eke out twenty quid of value from every tenner, I might have kept up with the charity I started setting up in 2018 and had to let go. I might even have just spent more time taking walks on the beach, spent better quality time with my children or read more books.

Instead, I am calling on other people living in poverty to write one, to let people know about our lives. Because, contrary to the popular view, we’re not all slackers off Benefits Street. Some of us have full-time jobs, and others don’t. Some of us live with disabilities or chronic illness. We’re all ages and ethnicities and we come from all kinds of backgrounds – even yours. And we have a huge amount to contribute. Even if we can’t live on raw potatoes.

* For legal reasons, all the above advice is written for narrative rather than instructional purposes. The author takes absolutely no responsibility for any damage incurred if you try them out. If the author can't afford to purchase a simple stick of manufactured stain remover, neither can she afford to replace your smalls. Living in poverty is at your own risk.

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