Monthly Archives: July 2012

They didn’t teach me how to be poor

When I listen to arguments about how those living in poverty only have themselves to blame and how welfare payments pamper these lazy, unmotivated people, to be honest, I have a tendency to shut off; to stop listening. I’ve heard all of these arguments, spun in hundreds of different ways; they still don’t wash with me. For me these arguments are irrational, based on twisting the truth and playing a blame game which makes it easier for those not in poverty to accept and be proud of their own situation. After all, They deserve it! They’re motivated! They’re not lazy!  We are taught to believe that life is what you make it, that there are no barriers to our progress except those which we create ourselves. We are taught to believe that if you reach your goals you are deserving of the success that comes with it; you obviously made sacrifices and chose that way of life! We are taught to believe that poor people chose that way of life, it’s their own fault. What they don’t teach us though is how to be poor. They don’t teach us how to make ends meet when there isn’t enough money to go around. They don’t teach us how to cope with the stigma, the embarrassment and the sense of failure one feels because they are poor. They don’t teach us how it’s inequality, unequal distribution of resources and stratification that keeps people in poverty. After all, all you have to do to escape poverty is stop being lazy, take responsibility, be motivated, quit scrounging. It is the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with those who are poor that this piece is concerned. Additionally, this piece will comment on the mismatch that is often presented of how simple getting out of poverty is, and the actualities of lifting oneself out of poverty.  It is the defamatory and vilifying treatment of those who are living in poverty by the recent Coalition government that provides the motivation behind this piece.

In a recent interview with the Independent on Sunday Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles stated that ‘we need to eradicate poverty…. [by being] a little less understanding [of those] fluent in social work’. Pickles went further stating that ‘Sometimes we’ve run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame… [we need to use] more forceful language”. Pickles made these comments alongside a claim that is currently being pushed forward by Government. The Government is claiming that there are 120,000 ‘Troubled families’ who are costing the state £9 billion a year. More serious than this the government is claiming that those suffering from multiple deprivations are the “source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations” (Cameron, 2011).

Let me explore further my first concern regards the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with being in poverty or multiply deprived. When following the commentary around which the Coalition has based their claims on the need to eradicate the ‘culture of poverty’ two things soon became apparent. Firstly, the much documented and repeated figure of what the government calls the ‘120,000 Troubled Families’ is based on a complete misuse of statistics and research. The 120,000 figure comes from an eight year old study on multiple deprivation which found that 2% of families surveyed had 5 or more of 7 characteristics: no parent in work; lives in overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; mother has mental health problems; at least one parents has a long-standing limiting illness or disability; has low income (below 60% of median income – the mid-point of the distribution); cannot afford a number of food and clothing items. What is clear from the original findings of this research is that these people are multiply deprived and surely living in poverty. What is not clear by the way the figure is currently being utilised is the link between how these people living in multiple deprivations are causing a large proportion of our problems. Essentially families suffering from multiple deprivations are transformed into troublesome families with the implication that they are dysfunctional and cause trouble. In other words the government is actively front lining and promoting the perception, based on inaccurate data, that the poor are lazy, scum and shameless.

Secondly I became almost instantly aware of the anecdotal evidence that the government has a tendency to use when talking about the poor.  It goes something like this “Take an alcoholic parent”, “Take a family where both parents are addicted to drugs”, “Take a struggling lone mother”. In fact every single piece of anecdotal evidence that the government uses is very much suited to the story. I have yet to hear of anecdotal evidence which goes like this “Take a PhD college graduate who can’t get a job”, “Take a young entrepreneur trying to get his feet off the ground” ,“Take a minimum wage worker” or all of the other zillion examples that I could give you regarding people I know who are in poverty but their ‘story’ doesn’t match the characteristics set down by the current Government of what someone in poverty looks like. Primarily I have yet to come across someone in poverty who boasts about it! The key reason why I’m writing this piece is because I feel that there is a need to present a case which illustrates to the powers that be that it is not just the feckless, the lazy, the unmotivated, and the scroungers who are living in poverty. There are also hard-working, motivated, highly educated, non-criminal, non-drug-addicts who are living in poverty. I know quite a lot. I bet most readers do too. By standing back and letting the government continue to erode away our welfare state through convincing us that the only people who use it use are those who can’t be bothered to do anything else about their situation, we are giving in to a future of being on our own, whereby the very social support system that we have built is snagged from right under our noses! By allowing them to convince us that it’s only those with the characteristics that they identify who are in poverty, we are giving in to a life of not only self-denial but also a denial of access to resources which we contribute to gathering.

The next concern of this article is to explore the misconception often put forward that getting out of poverty is easy. That those living in poverty only have themselves to blame because they choose that way of life. I can’t fully understand the logic behind this argument; I mean why would anybody choose a life of deprivation? Or put differently, if it is so easy to get out of poverty and poverty is only associated with negatives then, why would one choose to remain there? My only conclusion is similar to Furedi (2003), through the government promoting, creating and recreating an individualistic perception of poverty, which is chosen by those who suffer its consequences, the end amounts to nothing but an ‘attempt to dress up social problems as emotional problems’. Those who hold this view ignore the significant societal barriers which exist in society which often prevent certain groups from getting out of poverty.

The easiest way to illustrate this is through exploring the life of someone on minimum wage. Now consider what the actual cost is in your area for the following – housing (rented or privately owned), lighting, heating and hot water, food (3 meals a day), clothes, public transport or private transport to get to work for 5 days a week, communication (phone/internet), TV, entertainment (one evening socialising with a friend and one outing at the weekend), modest savings (for emergencies, treats etc).

In the end, any government which reckons it can save money tackling the problem of poverty is deluded!


Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized


Life as a Census Enumerator

My life as a census enumerator began at a training event in early spring last year. I remember it because it became symbolic of all the training events which I was required to attend before and during my time as a census enumerator. These training events soon became boring, bureaucratic processes which I had to endure. Trying to keep my eyes open and remain interested in these back-patting events became one of the duties of being a census enumerator that I hadn’t foreseen. In fact, I was amazed how quickly these training events made something as exciting, informative and revealing as the census sound mundane, statistical and routine!! Thank god for coffee and tray bakes! I had to watch a video on how to lift a box without injury; another on storing census forms safely; another on the administrative tasks that had to be completed throughout our post; another which involved a role play of a census enumerator carrying out his role. As these were the highlight tasks at training days, I sighed as I began to regret what I had let myself in for.

The reality of being a census enumerator, thankfully, came to be quite different. The census well and truly is exciting, informative and revealing. I received many lessons in life simply because of the diversity of people that I was coming across and the stories that I was being told. I seen and heard things, some good others bad, that I never would, had I not took the census enumerator position. It wasn’t the information that was collected on the census form that was most revealing of the day-to-day characteristics and life of the population in my census area. Actually, it was probably the opposite. The reality and, at times, truth of life is often very different both from what a routine training day can prepare us for and what the information provided on a census form can tell us about the characteristics of a population. I have since deliberated many times over the reliability and validity of information collected on the census form. When we collect data on every member of the population how can there be issues of reliability and validity? I sat with countless people who had some questions about the census. These included, but by no means was confined to questions such as why questions were being asked, what questions asked meant, how information provided on the census form was going to be used, who has access to their responses, what was the point in some of the questions. It turns out that it is not just social scientists that scrutinise the value of questions on a questionnaire.

My main task as census enumerator involved carrying out three reminder visits to houses that hadn’t sent back their completed census form. I had very specific tasks to complete, but reality was getting in the way! It was at this stage that most of the bureaucratic, rationalised training went out the window. I helped people complete their census forms. I explained to people what the census was. I heard countless illuminating narratives of life. I drank tea. I saw absolute poverty. I witnessed the value of social connections. My concern though – none of this information is captured in the census form. I’ve thought considerably about the extent that the census misses capturing reality in favour of the collection of data which can be statistically analysed. How can we overcome this though? How can we collect information on the characteristics of the population from every single person who lives in the country, without making it manageable and adaptable to statistical manipulation? I have a tendency to ask myself this question differently. At what stage can standardised, descriptive questions which are necessary when collecting data on such a mass scale make room for the rich, prescriptive reality of human life? How can we capture the sound of the world in which people navigate their lives, alongside the collection of standardised, statistically robust information? I got some ideas on this while working as a census enumerator.

As I went door-to-door reminding people to complete their census form I was often asked to come in to help with completion. Although I was supposed to arrange a fulfilment visit and go back with another census enumerator, I often made my own risk assessment and entered numerous households to help with census completion. This made me think about the usefulness of the method that the mass of census forms are collected. Forms are dispensed in the post to each household; the majority of people complete their form and post it back. Most people do not come in contact with a census enumerator. Though already there is a story missed, a part of history left untold. As census enumerator I got a mirror to the lives of many people. The poverty that I saw some people live with was definitely the most eye opening part of being a census enumerator. The difference I saw in living standards from one house to the next was another. I am going to present snippets of life and some of my thoughts on the beat as census enumerator. My only regret is not writing these stories down as they happened. I had many more.

One house I entered there was no paint on the walls, there was ripped lino on the floor of the living room and kitchen, it was cold, and well, frankly, it was run down and in need of maintenance. The elderly pensioner who lived on their own couldn’t carry this out themselves. Their worry was turning on the heater for me whilst I was there. My worry was that the heater would not be on after I’d left! Another house I was met with a gasping woman who had been diagnosed with throat cancer that same day. As she puffed on her cigarette, she told me how she had been worrying about getting the census form filled in. She had seen the advertisements on the television about the legal consequences for not filling in a form. This elderly woman had been in bed sick for the past three weeks and couldn’t believe her luck when I called the same day that she was up and about for her hospital appointment! In her eyes she avoided a day in court. In my eyes the census form tells us nothing about the reality of census completion.

I often noticed a distinct difference between those who had social connections and social support and those who didn’t. Those who did had a home with comforts like cushions and ornaments. Those who didn’t had a house with a roof, a door and basic necessities. Food wasn’t always a necessity. I heard stories about how untimely it was that summer was on its way. For this mother it became a choice between eating and buying new clothes for the children for summer. Relative poverty has a lot to answer for.

I came across numerous people who, when declaring they had a mental illness under the health section of the census form, were very clear about how this mental illness was conveyed. They worded it in ways such as “I get a wee bit of depression from time to time, but I’m not mad or anything!” or “Well I take tablets for bi-polar but I’m normal”. These stories often left untold, even from those closest to them, illuminated, to me, the stigma and the pressures of the social world that people must live. I heard stories from ex-navy and ex-army officers about their life, past and present. These were fascinating insights into how people perceived the world around them and how people choose to construct and explain the reality of living in Northern Ireland.  I saw social support in full swing as children were dropped in neighbour’s houses at the last minute. I saw the social companionship that a cat or a dog can bring. I heard about the comfort and security that having a neighbour’s phone number to ring in an emergency can bring to one’s peace of mind, even if it’s never used. I saw the value of community, as people were concerned with each other’s lives. As I continuously hear Prime Minister David Cameron argue that society is broken. I deliberate over how those in close contact with society can report on the rich societies in which we still live.

Other houses I seen nothing. They had nothing for me to see. I hear that absolute poverty doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland. It does. I saw it.

Life as a census enumerator was one of the most fulfilling, enlightening jobs that I have had. Sadly though most of what I seen is not captured in the census. I am not suggesting here that the census should try to carry out data collection ethnographically. I’m suggesting that perhaps there is a need for the expansion of the role of the census enumerator. Had all census enumerators wrote a detailed diary describing some of the things that they saw on the field, then perhaps we might be better equipped to describe the characteristics of life in Northern Ireland in 2011. My census enumerator experience is one I’ve talked about many times. I wonder how many other census enumerators are in the same position.

A story to be told left untold.


Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Uncategorized