POVERTY – COPING
“If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” T.S.ELLIOT
The ability to cope is a double-edged sword when it comes to poverty. On one hand it can enable you to survive. On the other hand it can hide how bad your situation is as you get used to coping.
I recall sitting down with a single parent of five children in a house with no carpets, failing wallpaper, no TV on the only chair with wooden boxes and a set of steps used as chairs and a cable drum as a table. The father explained to me that he had had social services call in the previous morning as he cooked his kids breakfast. What had happened is that his children had friends visit and once they had told their mothers about the lack of furniture, wallpaper and a TV they decided to inform social services that he was neglecting his children. “That showed them, just as I was doing eggs and bacon, they saw they were fed and clothed and I cope.” He was very resourceful and had the ability to cope on very low income. But coping hid the problem of poverty and the effect it was having. His children were being socially excluded by not having access to internet, devices, video games or even TV programs as a common reference with other schoolchildren. Coping hid the missing out on school trips, going out and other experiences that aid both educational and social development. Interestingly social services had no concerns because he was coping. But equally they were of no help because they missed the fact that he wasn’t getting free school meals for the kids; he wasn’t even claiming the correct tax credits. The ability to cope is laudable, but people that cope fall through the net of any assistance that may be help.
In my opinion the ability to cope tends to be greater for the rural dweller. Looking at my note books I have experienced at least seven tenant farmers and 13 farm workers that were experiencing poverty but were coping with the situation. They had the ability to repair cars, heating systems and domestic appliances, they were able to source cheap vegetables and meat, especially game. But in every case they were trapped in a cycle of cost of living exceeding income, in addition some also suffered from poor physical and mental health.
Surprisingly I have come across many more owner-occupied farms locked in a situation of poverty as they desperately seek to retain what they own alongside their homes despite the underlying wealth in their assets. In such circumstances a family farm can be an albatross hung around the necks of the farmer and his family. Many farmers fall into the bottom 40% of median household incomes, bit they cope.
The ability to cope is not a virtue, but a skill that is developed by a combination of experience and past fortune. The ability to cope can prevent low income turning into poverty, but I would argue that good luck and good fortune are also factors. Whilst hard work can help it is a sad fact that hard work alone is seldom the solution. If it was there would be fewer poor farmers.
As discussed in my first post on poverty whilst I have experienced low income I have never experienced poverty. Some of the factors behind this are:
- Owning my own house
- Past ability to save and invest money and so draw on those savings to meet a shortfall.
- Ability to borrow money relatively cheaply
- Low levels of borrowing
- Good family support
- Relative job stability
- Good health
- Ability to cook
- Ability to do certain jobs myself such as decorate or electrics
- Location living in town meaning we only needed on car
- Good ability to manage money
Now I could self-righteously argue that I made good decisions. But those good decisions were reliant upon the way I was brought up, the people around me and the skills I developed whether it be from family, friends and colleagues or by taking note of such wise gurus as Alvin Hall. Key was that I achieved lower housing costs and living costs than most. Most people do not have that advantage and it is through no fault of their own. There is a good argument that such coping skills should be taught in schools. In the meantime we have good work done by the likes of Jack Monroe with food or Martin Lewis with money. The value of these people should not be under-rated.
If I step back a generation my parents were able to cope without any income for a prolonged period due to similar skills. A sewage scheme outside my father’s shop meant virtually no income for over twelve months. The same skills of coping were required, but aided by generosity of others who helped in the local community. Free veg, potatoes and eggs turned up from now-where and much of our meat was game. The freezer was our friend.
Step back a generation further to my grandfather working in the shipyards of Newcastle during the war where people queued at shops for whale meat. He scrounged and ducked and dived getting meals courtesy of the Royal Navy. He had a week’s pass home, but with no transport he bought a motorbike for £12 filled it up with a mixture of paraffin and petrol and road it home to Spalding with newspapers stuffed inside his clothes. He rode it back the following week and sold it at a small profit.
The ability to cope has many forms and changes throughout the ages, locations and circumstances. It can help you prevent poverty, help your survive poverty and help you hide poverty so that you do not receive help. We all need to be aware of this.