Family Personal Philosophy Politics

Look on the bright side. Who would be poor?

Sainsbury's Active Kids banner at a school in ... As I stood at the checkout at Sainsburys the other day, bemoaning the fact that the self-service tills were closed and I’d have to actually talk to someone if I wanted to purchase my shopping, I actually had chance to consider what I was buying.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t go into autopilot as I stroll along Aisle 12 picking up items pre-programmed into my memory chip. I actually pride myself on the consideration I give to supermarket shopping, planning possible meals as I go, weighing up the pros and cons of B.O.G.O.F. (Buy One Get One Free) against W.N.W.N. (Waste Not, Want Not) and B.I.D.E.L.C.O.G.O.S. (But I Don’t Even Like Caramel Orange Glaze On Sausages).

Furthermore, I work out if the price per kilo on the shelf labels is right or if the eggs of all sizes are actually just one big hen’s egg and the rest just a selection of ants’ ova with pretentions.

But standing watching my consumer choices jerk forward on the conveyer belt inch by inch I was suddenly struck by what I was buying.

It seems I have become the sort of pretentious middle-class twat that I’ve always loathed.

My groceries were all organic-this and “taste the difference” that. My basket was full of fresh, green veg and speciality delicatessen selection.

And I like it like that.

Go back less than 30 years and it was a very different story: own brand tins and packets (the days before value ranges) were the stuff of life. We had a limited budget and we knew how to eke it out. I recall the days when we had so little money that we used to live on the goodwill of friends who would buy us a greasy spoon beefburger for our only meal of the day.

I also recall that when we felt a little more “comfortable” we consciously moved up a grade of economy mince, to one one that didn’t have so much of an “offaly”, gritty taste and texture, all the time mindful of the growing general alarm over something called Mad Crow Disease or similar.

And then there was the time — less than 10 years ago — when I can recall hunting through every drawer, every pocket, every vase and bowl to find enough neglected coinage to buy a bag of old bruised vegetables from the local shop to make a basic (very basic) stew.

And then there’s now, when almost all our veg is organic and we buy our wine in “six-packs” with the justification that you get 5% off when you buy in bulk.

Working Class

Contrast this extravagance with the present doom and gloom regarding housing benefit caps and disablilty allowance cuts and being poor being made illegal, and I sound even more of a middle class prick.

It’s easy for me to say — as I am here — that I know what it’s like to be poor. Easy, but true.

I don’t come from a privileged background. I was brought up in a single-parent family. We lived in a council house. I could claim rightly to be “working class” or at least of “working class extraction”.

But I think that if there was a difference between me back then and those in poverty today it would be this: I never believed it would last. I always expected things to improve and, in general, they always did.

They always have.

Whether this was because I am an optimist — I am — or, alternatively, deluded doesn’t really matter. The fact is I never expected to be like that for the rest of my life.

You could argue that the poor of today don’t believe they will ever get out of poverty.

That’s certainly what some people keep telling them.

Some people kept telling me that too: from a teacher who pronounced that I was aiming too high (well, two teachers actually) to the 100s of rejection letters I got whilst applying for job after job with my “limited skills, qualifications and experience”.

Likewise, there is a theory common today that young black men join gangs and kill each other because they believe that there is no alternative, no way out.

That’s certainly what some people keep telling them.

But you only have to look back at the last 100 years to see that the people who survive and prosper are generally those who refuse to give up, who refuse to except their “inevitable” fate.

Are they just lucky? Thomas Jefferson (or Benjamin Franklin or Samuel Goldwyn or [INSERT QUOTEE HERE, Ed]) once said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get”. Perhaps if you’re constantly told that there’s no point in working — or that there’s no work to be had — you don’t work at all.

The other thing is that when I was poor, I used to look at wealthy people and think: “I wish I was wealthy.” But I didn’t want their wealth, I wanted my own pile, all to myself.

Today, by some standards I am wealthy, though it doesn’t feel like it — expenditure always expands to fill the cash available. Sometimes I even get nostalgic for the low-cost certainties of yesteryear.

But I certainly don’t wish I was poor again. Being poor sucks, but it sucks even more if you think that’s the best that you will ever be.

However, I do think I am more content with what I have. The best things in life are free: family, friendship, laughter.

And if you’ve got those, you can survive anything.