Monday, 22 March 2010

Endless Counting

Does this situation resonate with you? Worry not, you're not alone. 1 in 6 people in Europe may be endlessly counting pennies, i.e. live below the poverty line. Of course poverty in Europe is not as severe as poverty in developing countries, but that doesn't mean it's anything but inacceptable. 2010 marks the European Year for the Eradication of Poverty and Social Exclusion and today, Glasgow hosted its launch.

The event brought together people passionate about ending poverty in the UK, with participants who had either personal experience of living in poverty or who are working hard to alleviate the effects of poverty in our society. Oh, and we displayed the Museum of Poverty there.

It was refreshing how the organisers actually made sure that it was the people attending who had the floor. Yes, there were two panels of experts, but really, they just sat on their podium and listened to what people had to say. And they had to say rather a lot. There's the trials and tribulations of single parents trying to reskill but not getting any childcare support to do so, leaving them in debt at the end of their course. Elderly people who have lived through rough times and would do anything to not have to rely on handouts - if only the state pension would be sufficient. A holiday a year? Not here, one pensioner was proud to have managed to save up for her first holiday in 19 years. There were many stories of people who were caught in limbo - for so many different reasons, the social net has more holes than most people imagine.

A lot of the talk was about the reluctance of both media and politicians to listen to and take on the poverty agenda. Of course it was easy to blame all on the media and politics, as neither were particularly represented at the Glasgow launch. As far as the media is concerned, of course there are journalists who have a real interest in raising awareness of the massive inequalities that are present in the UK, however, reporting on poverty isn't exactly sexy. On the other hand, the stigma attached to living in poverty makes it hard to find people who will share their experiences with the media and in my working life I'm certainly guilty of being very wary of arranging journalists to meet any of the people I work with for fear they may become the "face of poverty", which, let's be honest, isn't something anyone wants to become. Yet it is also a fact that many people across the UK do not know that there is so much poverty around them and that in the majority of cases, those living in poverty are trying extremely hard to get out of poverty but are presented with one barrier after another. It's not their fault, yet the public likes to believe that it is, and that we are all, as individuals, able to determine our lot. Until you lose your job.

Politicians too seemed reluctant to respond to issues raised in relation to poverty in the UK. At the same time of course, this is the moment to raise poverty with candidates across the political party spectrum and make sure that we know where our potential representatives stand in relation to eradicating poverty. It takes numbers though, lots of people who raise this with the candidates to ensure that poverty is not an issue that can be ignored by anyone.

Personally, I like the economic argument. Apparently, the effects of poverty in the UK is costing us 35 billion a year. So if the government invested in the eradication of poverty, for every pound invested they would save £9 in not having to deal with the effects of poverty. Sounds a pretty convincing argument to me. Of course, it's frontloaded and we're in a recession (Scotland still is, unlike England). And the money needs to come from somewhere.

So we have a choice to make. Do we, as a society, worship the right to make vast amounts of money, for the sake of entrepreneurship or do we believe that a restribution of wealth will actually help us all to live better and more fulfilled lives? What are our priorities of investment? Farslane or ending child poverty?

I know where my priorities lie. Do you know yours? Have you told your MP, MSP and those standing in your area yet?

And once you know where you stand and where the politicians that are fighting to represent you stand, please don't throw away your vote. It's the only one you've got, and there's enough people eligible to vote who have or are experiencing poverty and can make their voices heard. And only if everyone does can we really make a difference.



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