I was invited to participate in yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 show Money Box Live. The show included people struggling to make ends meet and worried about what the autumn and winter will bring as the cost of living increases. Front-line service providers talked about what they see on the ground. It was an interesting show with a strong reminder of the struggle that people face. The guests told their stories with dignity, truth and openness. These stories are not, sadly, unique. I have heard them before. We are a wealthy country, yet this is where we are.
This is in a context that is illustrative of our current situation. Dad’s House, which is one of the interviews, is a bit worried about how they will meet the increased demand and continue to provide the great range of community support that is so needed. On the other hand, today’s news reported that the owner of British Gas, one of if not the UK’s major household energy providers, posted billions of profits and are paying dividends to shareholders. One of the interviewees told us, with clear anxiety, how difficult he was finding it to feed his family and how his energy bills have exploded in the recent months and are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter. This is appalling.
The interviewer, like so many do, asked me at the end, “What can people in this situation do?” I knew she was going to ask this question. I was encouraged not to be ‘political’ and just provide advice that households might be able to utilise. I understand where this comes from. There is a clear desire to be helpful and to give people encouragement.
And there are practical things individuals can do. My advice is: Ask your neighbours if they have any tips for how to manage. If you are part of a food club, ask others who are part of that. Share what you do with them. In my research experience, the people living at the sharp end have developed brilliant budgeting strategies and crisis management skills that are effective within the constraints imposed by the wider context and where they live. They know what it is like and have the answers. We should listen to them as they are the experts.
These strategies will help with the stretching, but people and money can only stretch so far. There is only so much elasticity. If the gap is too wide, the money won’t reach and the people will break. This is happening now. I fear for the winter.
When discussing wider contextual changes or ways to intersect with opportunities, that is where academics, service providers and industry experts can provide advice. Martin Lewis is an excellent example. Some of what he says will be relevant, and some won’t. Just take from his toolbox and tell your friends.
The point of this blog post really is to interrogate that question just a little bit more.
This question always makes me uncomfortable because I see it as individualizing what is now largely a social-political-economic problem. It somehow implies that people should be doing more to make their money stretch in this time of a cost of living crisis.
What I want to say in response to this question is:
Push back. Write to your government representative. Join a union if you can. Support the unions if you can’t. Organise one if your sector does not have one. This collective engagement is the opposite of individualization. If we collectively demand better wages and better working conditions, our lives will improve because that will become normal. If we stay quiet or divide ourselves, things will only get worse. Don’t believe the hype. Trickle-down does not ever work and failure is more common than success in business. Very few are actually, truly self-made. Believing you will be the one to succeed where others have failed is highly unlikely. Good on you if that happens, but in a socially just society, it should happen anyway if you have aspiration and drive, regardless of what wages are being paid. So why not live a better life along with your neighbours than suffer on your own? There are clear examples of people achieving individual success in places where the safety net works as it should and where wages and services are sufficient (see for example Sweden).
Individualisation is a neoliberal tactic and, as such, is just as ‘political’ as statements about collectivization. But individualization has become normalised and is perceived as a-political. It is absolutely not. Individualisation is also harmful. It breaks people down and isolates them. It makes them vulnerable to crisis. It creates division and then imposes hierarchies that stigmatise and cause shame. This settles into people. It makes them physically ill and contributes to a further cycle of food insecuirty.
Collective action, mutual support, and community are not the same as state control of everything. It is not communism as far-right cheerleaders would have us believe when they tell us we must sacrifice for the ‘common good’. There is no freedom in hunger.
I always find it ironic that those who dogmatically subscribe to neoliberalism make the arguments about sacrifice and common good. What they are saying is go it alone–survival of the fittest, where the fittest are those who have the most money. Most of whom were born into this wealth. I don’t see those who are advocating this stance making any meaningful sacrifice. Instead, they make more money while those who can bear it least carry all the risk and sacrifice (remember dividends while people starve).
Let us stop asking that question–what can people in those circumstances do? In the current context it is not appropriate. Let us instead ask what needs to change? How is the system creating the conditions of hardship and want? What can we collectively do about it? We are a wealthy country. We have the resources.