Monday, 3 December 2012
"I don't eat 4 days a week so my kids can". Should the 'middle classes' be accessing food banks?
Yesterday, I was made aware of an article on the Daily Mail website, via a parenting forum. The article tells the story of dubbed "Middle Class Mother" Vickie Robins, who is struggling financially - to the extent that she cannot afford to eat four days a week and has received donations of food from a local food bank.
The article, and Vickie Robins herself has attracted a lot of criticism for bringing the plight of the "squeezed middle classes" into the media. There has been an outcry from those on benefits/low incomes on the Daily Mail website, and on parenting forums, who are saying that the Robins do not know what real poverty is, and that they should essentially not be complaining about their lot in life, and should not be accessing a food bank as they are still a lot better off than others in more desperate situations.
There has also been suggestions that they should sell or give away their pets, and sell their car and the family home if they can't afford to live, rather than complaining to a national newspaper to get 'free presents for Christmas'.
Personally, I applaud Vickie Robins for telling it like it really is. I am glad that someone has finally stood up and highlighted that just because you work and (shock horror) own your own house, it does not mean that you are living in luxury and bathing in milk and honey. In this day and age, the perception is that if you are not claiming benefits and you own your own home, then it means that you are essentially, "rich" and you should not be entitled to any help from anyone. No one seems to want to acknowledge that there are those on perceived "middle class incomes" who are actually struggling to pay the bills, and many who are almost living below the poverty line.
For those on benefits, the thought of someone who earns an income over 20k, actually living in poverty is a very hard concept to grasp as the perception is that if you work, you should not be struggling. However, those on benefits forget that the recession and government cuts have had more of an impact on those who work and are on incomes under 50k, than those who don't.
As a child who grew up with a mother on benefits, I know how hard life on benefits is. However, as much as they are struggling to survive, those on benefits still receive a great proportion of the benefits they always have - regardless of a recession or not. Those on benefits have to acknowledge that as well as money, they are also entitled to income support, child benefit, child tax credits, reduced council tax, housing and rent paid for, milk stamps, food stamps, free childcare, free school meals, free breakfast club access, access to the governments "crisis" fund to buy household goods, free school trips, free/reduced access to adult education, free/reduced access to sports centres and kids activities, free prescriptions, reduced cost stamps for christmas and much more. None of this has been reduced/taken away for those on low incomes in the last few years, if anything, it has been added to.
People on benefits speak about having less money than those who work - and yes often, they do, but when you work out the monetary value of all of the "free extras" those on benefits get, they are often financially, significantly a lot better off than those who work.
Those in the middle income bracket have suffered greatly in the last few years. They have had their own income squeezed by the companies they work for, have not received salary increases in line with inflation, have been asked to work reduced hours, or even been made redundant from jobs with good salaries.
As well as being squeezed by employers, those on middle incomes have also been squeezed by the government. Middle income earners have lost access to tax credits and other benefits, and they are not entitled to any extra help with any costs. People on middle incomes get no help from employers or the government, yet they still have to pay for everything - including things that those on benefits don't have to pay for. Housing, bills, food, school costs, prescriptions, childcare, kids activities and more.
Everyone (no matter what they earn) has been affected by the costs of rising food, energy bills, petrol, clothing, and everything else. However, those not on benefits have to incur all of the costs themselves. The perception is that if you can't afford to pay the mortgage or live, then you should sell and downsize your house and rent or get a council house - but it's not as easy as that. Often renting is more expensive, and many middle income earners would not be eligible for council housing.
I can relate to Vickie's story - however contrived by the daily mail the actual article is. Two years ago I was made redundant. As I had been on maternity leave in the previous year, I was not even able to claim job seekers allowance as my NI contributions had not been enough to qualify whilst I was on maternity leave, yet those who had never worked, but had their NI contributions paid for, were still able to claim. We live on one income, apart from any occasional work I can get. We are not entitled to any benefits and we receive no discounts or government handouts. The perception from members of our family on benefits and lower incomes is that because my husband works full time, we are really rich. However, those on lower incomes are getting all of the government perks that we are not eligible for. We have to pay for everything. Ok, we are not quite at the point of having to ask for hand outs from a food bank, but we have no disposable income. My husband uses two tanks of petrol a week commuting 70 miles a day to work, we have to pay our own mortgage and bills, and we have to think about how to make our income stretch as far as possible each month just to survive. We have been victims of the recession and nothing is free for us.
I find it incredulous that society refuses to acknowledge that the squeezed middle classes have been affected by the recession and government cuts the most. Those who want to work, but are not working in high earning fat cat jobs are being penalised beyond belief by the current government and by the rises in the costs of living. By following the government's benefit checker, I worked out that if my hubby and I didn't work and we lived in social housing, we would be eligible for:
£28,500 tax credits, council tax and housing benefit, income support, child benefit.
£1200 School meals and breakfast club
Winter fuel allowance
Free prescriptions, and all of the benefits listed at the beginning of the article.
You get the picture. Those on benefits are earning more per year, than those on squeezed middle incomes. Pre tax, my hubby and I would have to be earning around 40k to be receiving the same amount of money that we would if we didn't work, lived in social housing and were on benefits. We earn nowhere near that.
People on benefits receiving this amount of money are accessing food banks and charity services without question or prejudice, so why shouldn't those who are struggling on similar incomes but earning them rather than receiving them be able to do the same? The recession has hit everyone hard. Many people are struggling and doing what they can to feed their kids and keep their heads above water.
I think we need to get away from the perception that its only those on benefits who have been affected by the recession and government cuts during the last few years. The rich will always be rich and be taxed on it. The poor will always be given help by the government. But it is those in the middle bracket, whose incomes fluctuate and who receive no government help, but who have lost things like their child tax credits and still have to front the cost of everything in life - they are the ones who have really lost out and are being squeezed, so why shouldn't they also receive help if they need it from those who are willing to give it? The government certainly aren't.
I don't think you can fault this woman for visiting a food bank, and I think she is brave for telling her story in a national newspaper. Wealth should be tested by your disposable income, not how much you earn. I know many friends who are in the same situation, who have husband's in good jobs, who are perceived to be "rich" by society, but who can't afford to pay for their bills and food, who never buy new clothes, go out for dinner, get their hair cut and who go without food so that their kids can eat.
As Atticus in To Kill A Mockigbird says - you never really know someone's situation, until you get in their shoes and walk around in them. You can't vilify this mother for accepting handouts until you spend a day with her and realise her situation.
Rather than belittling this woman, I think we should all be highlighting her cause to the government to question how it is that those on benefits are currently better off than those who work hard for their money, and how the government are planning on helping those on middle incomes who are actually struggling to survive.
If all working families suddenly sold their houses, quit their jobs and applied for social housing, then industry in this country would come to a stand still, the social housing and benefits system would be overworked and maybe the government would listen then. This is not about those who claim benefits vs those who don't. It is about the government realising that by penalising those on middle incomes so much, they are actually sending them spiralling into poverty.
All I can say is, thank goodness that food banks like this exist and perhaps if we can afford to donate, we should donate food to them. If you need to use them, you should be able to access them without prejudice - whether you earn what is perceived to be a 'good income' or not.