Poverty Perceptions

I wrote a tweet that pissed some people off, so I better expand upon it, as I knew at the time the fact that I couldn’t fit in “more often than not” would push buttons. But I was in that kind of mood.

It’s because of the latest round of Jamie Oliver bashing, which happens whenever he resurfaces to promote his new book/show/whatever – which is what celebrities do. It’s their job. It’s how they earn a living. Yes, he’s worth millions now but not everyone wants to just sit back once they’ve achieved that, so I don’t really see a problem simply with being a self-publicist.

I’ve defended him before because even though he’s obviously got his flaws – latest comments being no exception – at least he’s tried to do something to help children eat better in the UK. And that is no small thing.

What I’d like to say, though, isn’t really about him, but about some people who have a go at him, and others, when they talk about UK poverty (<60% median income). It’s a complicated topic, and it’s easy to end up with your foot in your mouth, but I do think this is one of those cases where a lot of people throwing stones may also be living in glass houses.

Edit: I wouldn’t bother defending him any more since he’s only doubled down on his anti-poor nonsense since, so, past me – shh.


There are, as with most social issues, many angles from which to look at low-income families. It might be that your family is – in which case this post isn’t really aimed at you at all, but equally such families may not even have access to the internet, which is probably a genuine sign of poverty at present, and won’t be reading anyway. Or your family struggled when you grew up some years ago – again my rant isn’t really about you, and I hope you can relate to some of my points – feel free to comment.

As I have tried to articulate before, it is much easier to analyse other people’s lives when you’re very far removed from them. The left suffers from this in a similar manner to the right, often, but with different consequences. The broad solution posited by the left is generally one of support and aid to solve underlying problems (a more sensible view, I feel) while the right would advocate punishment for the inevitable negative outcomes of inequality, all the while increasing that causal inequality – a system that benefits only those blessed with a good start in life.

While people of certain political persuasions no doubt come from many different walks of life, it is natural that the right harbors more well-off individuals and families, while the left appears more of a mixture, but (I would guess) is mostly populated by the middle class* and politically-active others. 

I say both the left and right suffer from distance-based judgments because, if you have the luxury of time to think about and means to research political issues, you’re probably not falling within the poverty brackets. If you are, you’ll likely have bigger things to worry about – like putting food on the table.

Irreconcilable observations

Oliver commented that he found it hard to reconcile seeing people eating very badly, while also apparently having personal wealth in the form of new technology. Now, there may well be simple explanations and reasons to dismiss this as a crass and unthinking statement on his part – TVs aren’t that expensive now; television is an information-rich medium; people who don’t particularly like or care about their kids may find it a worthwhile investment to distract and/or educate them; TV is now an essential item for social reasons; how people spend what money they do have is no one else’s business, etc.

However, I’d advocate for a bit of understanding here. Oliver’s parents run a pub in an Essex village, he’s grammar school educated (like me) and might be fairly sheltered – but he has at least made an effort to understand and help people less fortunate than himself. I’m not saying his comments aren’t worthy of analysis and correction at all but I think he has a point, it just didn’t come out well.

For my part**, I can completely see how hard it is to fit together the ideas that people are poor and disadvantaged with them having a lot of things. Before I managed to get to a good school, I attended my local primary on a council estate. I spent a lot of time with people less privileged than me – mainly because their parents left education early and in many cases had personal problems ranging from drug addiction to abusive partners, leading to general neglect of said peers. From a distance, it’s easy to have sympathy for these people and their situations, to see the big pictures and underlying social problems that should be addressed if people know how.

Gardens often become dumping grounds in deprived neighbourhoods – and a health hazard

But in proximity? Not so much. When people suffer first-hand the social effects of local poverty it can be nearly impossible to be understanding and to reconcile these conflicting images of apparent material wealth (or at least a seemingly reasonable standard of living) and being seriously disadvantaged. Troubled childhoods create bullies and class troublemakers, which are not fun to be around, to put it mildly. Un-cared-for children exhibit antisocial behaviour and make neighbourhoods unpleasant to be in: visually, physically, in many ways.

Out of sight, out of mind

If someone has never actually heard someone say “If I have a baby I’ll get a flat” then of course they’re unlikely to believe it ever happens. Of course it’s very rare in the grand scheme, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real phenomenon. It’s genuinely difficult to see your own family work hard for what little you have and others, who (in your immediate view) cause problems, receive things like furniture and TV or a place to live that you cannot afford, despite your best efforts.  So I can completely see why it’s perplexing to know that families are feeding their children badly and expensively (although there’s evidence that eating well is too expensive for many, so those kinds of comments may well be ill-advised) while seemingly affording other things.

People who have never lived in such a community, or had such problems in their family, generally won’t understand. They’ll see a right-wing commenter make a sweeping statement about benefit frauds and say “it doesn’t happen!” and “they’re so prejudiced”. Of course it’s rare, but if you’ve seen it, you’re more likely to be angered or at least confused by it. They might talk about all the big issues like teenage pregnancy and domestic violence but they won’t have experienced the results, first or second hand.

I’m not in any way trying to imply that living around people with problems is worse than actually having them yourself, that would be ridiculous***. But I’m trying to point out that commenters on either side – whether it’s misunderstanding the effects of poverty or complaining about that misunderstanding – probably don’t have a particularly deep grasp of any of it.

Again, of course some people will have grown up with just those tough decisions; whether you can afford to eat a meal or if you have to give all of the allowance to the kids’ budget, whether you have to get a loan to fix something that’s broken in the house and then can’t afford the repayments. Whether you can afford to stay in your house at all. But there’s also a spectrum to consider here; with the poverty line starting at 60% income, those at that margin are likely to have less difficult decisions to make than those further down the scale, who have every right to dismiss criticism aimed at them. We can’t choose what we’re born into.

But for my part, most of the criticisms I see come from people who have never had to deal with these problems first or second-hand, but instead criticise everyone but themselves without thinking where such views might come from, and perhaps whether their criticism could be better placed.

Yes it’s a bit hypocritical of Oliver to point at people’s spending on food when his restaurants are pricey and his products aren’t exactly budget. The criticism is not undeserved. But there is a problem to address – people don’t know where to buy food, how to cook, or what a balanced diet is like. That’s both a problem with education and access (physically and financially) so I’ll direct most of my anger there, I think.

There’s a McDonald’s at the ground floor of Guy’s Hospital. Happy Meals are still a thing. There are people who give their children money for takeaways at lunch times. More children are having to undergo treatment for obesity-related health problems. Children and families are also suffering with malnutrition.

These are problems the government must address, however many inches of television can be found in each household, but the people with the power to change things are generally even less likely to have first-hand experience. Would it help if they did?


*I have very little idea about the class system, it’s never been particularly relevant to my life. I suppose the idea of social mobility is, since my generation is the first in my family (immediate family… that we know of – we’re not particularly close) to have people go to university, or indeed get two degrees.

**Given both my parents had manual jobs and my late father could have gone to university, I find the definitions very fuzzy and have never really identified with any particular class. The fact that they worked hard suggested to me working class would be a suitable label if one had to choose.

***I didn’t get the option of designer brands, we didn’t have a satellite subscription. We couldn’t afford it. So yes it was unpleasant to have to put up with bullying because my clothes weren’t good enough or I was too clever, but in the end my parents loved me and supported me, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the people I grew up with, who were put down by parents who didn’t have much opportunity before them anyway.

I’ve refrained from anecdotes that are too specific because I don’t think it would be fair to the subjects of the stories. I’ve no doubt others have far worse to tell, anyway, but the severity isn’t really my point. It’s that we are all sheltered to some extent… and that’s about it.

Edit: some more links

Oh dear, I appear to agree (for the most part) with Grace Dent. Not that he’s “earned” the right to say those things, necessarily, but yes, the impoverished resent each other as much as anything else, because it’s what is closer to home. It’s what the news rags marketed to them promote.

12 thoughts on “Poverty Perceptions

  1. I think this is a brave and interesting article, but would be interested to see if there is any correlation between wealth and political preferences. Even if we assume conservative/liberal is an easy distinction to make, I understand that studies show that education brings both an increase in liberal attitudes and wealth, whereas lack of education is the breeding ground for lack of wealth and conservative views. Saying that, maybe I’m just showing my own bias.

    I actually think that Oliver has a point with his opinions, but that he’s confusing correlation and causation. As Michael Story said about Trump and his branding yesterday in another thread, there is so much aspirational crap out there, that is marketed strongly at the less well off because they’re taught to think it’s how the rich live, when in fact, those with real money spend it on health, education, experiences, not depreciating assets, shiny trinkets and white goods. Takeaways are just at the bottom end of that curve. They aren’t buying flat screen TVs because they’re poor; they’re buying it because all the marketing is aimed at them, and they haven’t the education or wherewithal to resist.

    Just as Oliver has previously very bravely pushed for education over healthy food, (stabbing many of his corporate sponsors in the process) maybe his conclusion here should be that the poor also need education over economics, resisting aspirational marketing and strategic financial planning. If this is successful, we may also as a by-product totally eradicate Wonga.

  2. The only TVs you can get on tick are flatscreen. Whatever the modern equivalent of Radio Rentals is, that’ll be all they have. Nobody who’s properly poor BUYS a TV, just like they don’t buy houses. They rent them.
    I also suspect the <60% median income thing is a big problem. Most people in that bracket don't consider themselves poor, just like (untill you get to the top 5% of the population) nobody who is above average considers themselves rich. Everyone thinks they are normal. This means that even people who actually are poor, think of other people when the media rant on about the poor until you get to the really REALLY poor.
    Also, I fall into the bottom 6% of income in the UK, despite (or possibly because of) my grammar school education – that's WHY I MAKE TIME to deal with politics, because I'm sick of people in my income bracket being assumed to be stupid and/or apathetic.
    I agree with your points that education is the way out of this, but not just for the poor.

    1. You’re right, Jennie – and I should have been more clear about calling for more education for everyone, not just for those living below the poverty line.

      A lack of understanding of what living on a low income means also feeds into policies that make it even harder for people to ‘do better’, as it were.

  3. ashleyjamespryce

    I think poverty is something many dont understand. We think of poverty as being 6 people living in one room eating last nights left overs. Yet, thats an unfair outlook as it ignores we are a first world country. we still have poverty – and some of it is really like that- but a lot of those who would be below the poverty line are living – if not extravagantly- but comfortably.

    For two years I lived below the poverty line (or at least damn close on the button). I had a short fall of around £400 a month which has lead to my current state of debt. But I had TVs, DVD players, computers and gadgets- mainly all bought BEFORE I fell on hard times, so this is another area people miss – people who are financially okay can indeed fall into the poverty and debt traps.

    Also on your point about cheap TVS- thanks to places like cash generator people can buy quite expensive and extravagant things at a weekly cost- say £5 a week- and so after a period of time you can find yourself to appear outwardly quite flash but in reality still living on a very low income.

    Also, what are poor people supposed to do or expected to do? Should we only consider people poor if they have nothing but a roof, some clothes and a functioning kettle? Anything else and they aren’t poor?

    Poverty and being poor are very different in the Western world especially, but it still doesn’t stop it being seriously damaging and as you say, some people dont quite understand what being poor means.

    1. Good points, Ash.

      I remember people being shocked that you had games etc. when you were hard-up and as you say it’s stupid to tell people to sell possessions when they fall on hard times. Of course most of us can afford to get rid of some stuff, but what’s the point of selling a thing that makes your life better to eat for a week? When that food’s gone, you’re left without your fun thing *and* in the same situation with the other stuff as before. No win there.

  4. Clio

    Great post Marianne, insightful, articulate and thoughtful as always – but do you mind if I pick you up on a couple of things?
    “people who don’t particularly like or care about their kids may find it a worthwhile investment to distract and/or educate them; TV is now an essential item for social reasons”
    These 2 statements are contradictory: you don’t have to not like your kids to want them to be able to join in the Eastenders game on the playground – if that’s what they want.

    “When people suffer first-hand the social effects of local poverty it can be nearly impossible to be understanding and to reconcile these conflicting images of apparent material wealth (or at least a seemingly reasonable standard of living) and being seriously disadvantaged. Troubled childhoods create bullies and class troublemakers, which are not fun to be around, to put it mildly. Un-cared-for children exhibit antisocial behaviour and make neighbourhoods unpleasant to be in: visually, physically, in many ways.”
    Here you’re conflating 2 different things. 1 is the one-off investment in something like a TV (or whatever) and other material tokens; the other is the ability to make a child feel secure, loved and validated. A spoilt child isn’t one who is given too much materially, it’s one who is given material stuff INSTEAD of the real care they need.Even gross poverty doesn’t stop the most able and caring of parents bringing up a secure child. You’re referring to the cycle of disadvantage, where parents haven’t a clue because their parents didn’t either (think Harlow’s monkeys)

    But these are minor points from my perspective – which is different from yours, but equally complicated!

    1. “Here you’re conflating 2 different things…” not sure that’s quite right: it’s the coexistence of prosperity tokens and disadvantage that can be confusing to those who associate deprivation only with material goods. The fact that a child can grow up in a reasonably comfortable house and yet be totally uncared (or vice versa) for is the point I think.
      I really found this post interesting- it just shows how far deprivation can reach out of a troubled family and into the surrounding neighbourhood or school and how the people who most suffer the externalities are those who have to share public space.

  5. I thought this was a great article. I know I’m annoyed with Jamie, but it’s not because I dislike him or I think his basic point is wrong. It’s because (and I sound like my mum) I’m disappointed in him. He is so well placed to help here and instead he went for carping and criticising people who are struggling in the biggest economic difficulty ever and suffering crippling benefit changes and under employment. Hell, he suggested people should be working 100 hour weeks and buying mussels from the market…

    I’m pretty privileged in many ways. I had a prep school and grammar school education then a Russell Group uni. I’m white, middle class and articulate. I also got sick at 14, have only the basic qualifications due to it, a CV that an employment consultant would laugh at and I’m called a scrounger everyday by the government and forced to beg Atos for my £100 a week. I went from posh uni to homeless hostels.

    But one thing I’ve always tried to do is not assume I’m an expert (hence I don’t tell families of four how to eat) and I don’t say rude and judgemental things to people along the way. I do judge, I just do it silently (it’s a compromise!) and Jamie should know better. He was great with the school dinners and the Ministry of Food. Going all ‘get off my lawn’ now is disappointing and a waste of his position where he could really be helping!

    1. Thanks for your comment, and yes, hopefully he’ll avoid such ill-judged comments in future. I’ve a few more insights to get down due to further conversations, hopefully that’ll clarify things a bit more!

  6. I want to add some things (bulleted) based on further discussions, and will quote a friend without attribution (but with permission).

    – I think it’s important for everyone to remember that there’s a range of people out there. The frauds and the genuinely lazy people may be rare pretty much to the point of insignificance in economic terms, but they do exist and can have a wider sphere of influence than some care to take into account, because it’s uncomfortable for them to do so (or something).

    “I do think that it depends on people’s priorities. Ex: my family always had money for simple (healthy) food (we shopped at wholesale stores & stocked up on frozen veg and pasta and potatoes) but I had friends who didn’t have good food, etc.
    However, they had cable TV, parents on a pack a day, etc. We had a broken TV that sometimes worked and my parents didn’t smoke/drink/etc.
    [My mum] always said: you’ll find a way to afford your priorities. I think she’s right with that; you can be poor but loving/supportive and do your best to give your kids the best chance. Or you can be poor and selfish (or just ignorant to health/etc.) and, in retrospect, make bad decisions. I really think it goes both ways. As for TVs as gifts? [My mum] would say your friends should get you a better gift!

    “I’m half defending [Oliver’s] comment, half not. I see where he’s coming from but I also know what happens when you’re in it. E.g. I’ve got a friend who has the money to get a new smartphone contract, weed and pills, alcohol… but can’t pay rent. You know?”

    “She says she & my dad spent all their money on giving us a chance. No savings for college, but we went to a private school (grandparents money for tuition as our birthday/Christmas gifts) and had fruits and veg with every meal (even if they were from the wholesale freezer). We didn’t have a fully working TV, cable, internet – or a computer at that! We got one later, but it was an old one that only did MS DOS.”

    – There are people who do the best they can for their children, and there are people who absolutely don’t – for whatever reason. Those people are visible to others, whether you like it or not. Tabloids do inflate their importance and breed hatred, but people’s actions are also responsible.

    – I’m reminded of Scroobius Pip’s “Get Better” song. There are unfortunate circumstances, and there are poor decisions. Giving people the means to help themselves – why ever it is they are disadvantaged in the first place – is a good cause and a necessary one, however close it comes to Tory rhetoric about all in this together and bollocks like that.

    “[Going] out for pizzas, etc. We knew it was special. A real treat… It felt so weird being around kids with a well-off background and being able to afford what they had even though I wasn’t used it it… Know what’s weirder than having money & being able to go places and do things? Going “home” and struggling to relate to childhood friends.”

    – I struggled with school friends who wanted to eat out a lot once we were becoming ‘grown-ups’ and some of us had jobs. I saved a lot of the money I worked for because I had nothing to fall back on and thought that was more important than spending £9 on a pizza or a bowl of pasta that I know I could get for cheaper elsewhere. I still have anxieties about overspending on social things, even though I don’t really need to.

    – A lot of people are crap at managing their money and have no idea how much they could get out of a food budget, maybe because they never had to, or just weren’t shown how. There needs to be help to give people life skills, but pretending there isn’t a lack, or that people who make bad decisions don’t exist, doesn’t help anyone.

    – I also feel uncomfortable around people who are obviously well-off, and in neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in. The former because I don’t really know how to relate to them and I worry I’ll make a bad impression (if it’s important to me that they feel positively about me), the latter because I don’t feel safe due to past experiences.

    – These things are partly why I love London – people know me, backgrounds don’t matter much, there’s diversity and it’s celebrated. Not that there aren’t problems, but it feels far more exaggerated in other suburbs and little villages.

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