Listen to the voices of those who endure poverty

The Saturday Essay: Bob Holman; I saw his knee, beaten in by a baseball bat - he had stolen from me to avoid another beating by the loan sharks
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It was revealed in The Independent this week that Sir Donald Acheson, the former chief medical officer, is worried that it is almost impossible for many poor people to obtain adequate nourishment. He is preparing a report for Tony Blair about the health effects of poverty in Britain today. His conclusion is certainly true, in my experience, but that is hardly the only problem faced by poor people.

I live in Easterhouse, the huge estate on the eastern edge of Glasgow, which tends to get a bad press. The writer Alan Massie once declared that "the word Easterhouse represents failure, deprivation, poverty and squalor. Would anyone live there of choice?"

Many residents resent this negative image. In recent years much of the housing stock has been refurbished, and a strong sense of community has always sustained people through hard times. Two weeks ago, I was in a local project when a woman came in distressed, dishevelled and penniless; it was neighbours who comforted her, looked after her baby, found her somewhere to stay.

But it cannot be denied that enormous deprivations exist in Easterhouse. It has never recovered from the closure of coalmines (the estate is built over mine shafts), the docks and the steel industry. Consequently, male unemployment is above 40 per cent. And those in work tend to be on low wages. In Easterhouse, more than 80 per cent qualify for school clothing grants, which are given to families with low incomes, whether working or not.

As Sir Donald has noted, this long-term poverty has undermined health. Children born in places such as Easterhouse often begin their lives with a low birth-weight, and as they grow up they tend to suffer respiratory diseases and heart disease. Deaths in the first year of life in Easterhouse have been around 46 per 1,000, compared with only 10 per 1,000 in nearby affluent suburbs. And adults are likely to die several years earlier than their counterparts elsewhere.

Children in Easterhouse are also twice as likely as children elsewhere to be involved in serious road accidents. This is despite the fact that only one in five households has the use of a car, compared with four out of five elsewhere. The explanation is that many people live in blocks of flats without gardens, so children play in the streets that drivers from outside Easterhouse use as a short cut.

Long-term poverty hurts in other ways, too. The poor do less well at school. Research compiled by the Glasgow Health Board shows that children coming from an advantaged home in an advantaged area have a 70 per cent chance of attaining three or more Highers (the Scottish equivalent of A-levels). Those from a disadvantaged home and area have only a 3 per cent chance. Of course, there are exceptions, but that doesn't soften the brute fact that it is unusual for Easterhouse children to get to university.

Long-term poverty makes parenting more difficult. Recently, a young mother brought her three children in to our flat. They were cold and hungry. They did not ask, but I gave them food. The mother did ask for candles, as her power had been disconnected. They were living in a block where drug abuse was common, and she was terrified that the kids would pick up one of the needles on the stairs.

"I can't go on," she sobbed. Most parents do go on, but it is not surprising that the stress of poverty causes some families to disintegrate.

Poverty breeds debt. Banks and building societies are rarely interested in poor areas. Yet poor people need credit, not for mortgages or cars, but for fridges, fires, clothes and food. And changes in government policy have made matters worse.

Before 1988, social security claimants were entitled to grants to replace worn-out domestic essentials. The Conservative government abolished most grants and installed discretionary Social Fund loans, by which loans for the items are deducted from weekly Giro cheques. Thus a family may have pounds 30 a week taken from an income that is supposed to be a minimum. This loan system, on its own, increased the number of poor debtors by more than a million.

Sadly, New Labour, which condemned the Conservative changes, now upholds them. Meanwhile, what happens to applicants whose requests for an official loan are turned down? Some turn to legal, high-interest shops. In Easterhouse, one shop draws in the poor by offering goods without deposit or credit checks. The advertised interest rate is a high 29.9 per cent. But the small print entails obligations that - according to the Glasgow City Council which has taken the firm to court - raises them to 55 per cent.

Others turn to illegal loan-sharks who may charge 50 per cent or more interest per week, which is enforced by a threat of violence. A young man who had stolen my wallet from our flat later showed me his knee, beaten in by a baseball bat. He had borrowed to buy goods for his kids and could not keep up the repayments. He stole from me in order to avoid another beating.

This is what it is like to live in a deprived area, as I know from personal experience over 20 years. But I am not poor. Don't just listen to me; listen to the voices of those who endure poverty.

Some years ago, I visited a widow with a large family. She told me that when social workers called, she could not speak. She added, "It's not that I don't have feelings. I just clam up."

She then explained that she wrote her feelings down. She showed me sheets of paper, torn out of school exercise books, and, as I read them, I was moved not just by her descriptions of life in Easterhouse, but by the power and clarity of her words. I encouraged her and other residents to write more, and their contributions have recently been published in a book, which I have edited. Their words, more graphically than mine, reveal what life is like, as two examples will show.

One woman, living on income support, with a partner and three children, kept a detailed diary for two weeks of how she spent every penny. Here is a typical day:

"Went to shop and spent money like this:

69p - 5lb potatoes

69p- loaf

pounds 5 - electric token

pounds 2.93- cigs

60p - 2 tins beans

pounds 1.77 - 3 tins meat balls

pounds 1.98 - box soap powder

"I've got pounds 5.07 left. I need another gas token, because it is so cold in this house, but I can't afford it this week. Tea-time again. We are having mashed potatoes and meat balls in gravy. Then we all did the washing- up, and sat and watched a film on telly. We all went to bed early."

On another day she wrote: "Up with kids for school. Made tea and toast. Gilbert is still off school, because he has no shoes. I can't help it, but on Wednesday I will go round the second-hand shops to see what I can do, because I must get him back to school quick. Sent Charlotte to the shop."

On a third day, she wrote: "I have pounds 16.95 left. After I came home, I cleaned up and then talked with Ivor [her husband] about how I got on at the social services. I want to trace my son, who was put for adoption before we were married. I told Ivor that, if I want to register with the adoption agency, I have to find pounds 27. But I don't have that kind of money and there is no one left to help me out because I owe them a lot as it is. So I will have to wait and see what happens with my adopted son.

"I made some tea for the kids. Sent for some eggs and some beans, which came to pounds 2.58, so leaving pounds 14.37. Deidre came in with her friend, and asked if she could go to the disco, but I had to tell her no, because the money is tight. She was not pleased, but she had to go along with it."

At the end of the fortnight, the family were left with a few pence. The mother finished her contribution by writing: "I don't want to be stinking rich, I just want to be comfortable. I've got central heating, but I can't afford to turn it on.

"I am still in debt paying for last Christmas. I am still paying for the kids' clothes. Sometimes you have to borrow to eat. Once I lent from a man and put down my child benefit book. I worked out that he took pounds 450 to lend me pounds 220. It was robbery, but I had no other option. I don't like the kids coming home and asking for something and I can't give it to them."

Another of the writers told of having a baby at 19, when the father promptly deserted her. She lived with her parents. "My father got fed up with Alistair crying. If I wanted to go out, I had to ask for my mother to babysit, and my father did not like that, and said that if I had decided to have a baby I should bring it up. So I left home.

"I had no one to turn to. I ended up in the council's homeless unit. We were there for seven months. It was tough. Alistair was a few months old and the hostel was cold. It was only bed and breakfast, so you had to stay out for your lunch and tea. I walked about looking in shops. Sometimes I felt like taking my own life, but I had to think of my son.

"Then I got a flat, where I stayed for a couple of years. Some did not like me because I was a Catholic. When one family had been out drinking, they would shout through my letter box. `You're a Fenian bastard.' I could not take it any more, and I complained to the council. But I had to move myself, and moved in with a girlfriend before the council offered me another place. I was there for a couple of years, but I had to move again because the council was taking off the top storeys of the flats."

She moved in with a partner, John, and had two more children. They remained together for a few stormy years. She continued: "Then everything started going wrong. I caught him taking drugs; he had a syringe sticking in his arm - heroin. When I asked him about it, he told me to shut my mouth. One day, I found the home smelling with glue which John and a friend had been sniffing. I was going out of my head with worry. I was so fed up that I ran away with the kids to another city.

"The police took us to the homeless unit and the council gave us tickets back to Glasgow. Back in Glasgow, the housing department refused to rehouse me, as they said I had made myself intentionally homeless, and [said] that I would have to stay on the streets for a year.

"I went to stay with another girlfriend in Easterhouse. She had a boyfriend and a baby, and it was only a two-bedroomed flat. I ended up going to the homeless unit. I was then moved to another flat. I did not stay long, because something happened to one of my daughters. I asked a neighbour to watch the two girls while I went to the shops. When I got back, my oldest daughter was very upset. She went into the toilet and started screaming. She was saturated with blood. She told me that one of the neighbours had put himself on top of her and done something down below. He then threatened her with a knife.

"I called the police. They took us to the police station and we were there for hours. Then to hospital. Later, I was told that if I did not move out, our place would get petrol-bombed. I phoned the police and the authorities took us to the homeless unit.

"As there were no witnesses, the man was not prosecuted, but my daughter had to have 16 sessions of counselling, and the counsellor said that she had been sexually abused.

"It was terrible in the homeless unit. The children didn't know if they were coming or going. They put us into just one basement room, with a fire with one bar. I was always telling the children to keep the noise down. They had to change schools again. We had to be out for meals, eating bags of chips, sitting in laundrettes. Alistair started being cheeky to me and running away. I felt I could not control him.

In the end, Bob [Holman] phoned to the chief man in the housing and they rehoused me in Easterhouse. The flat was near the school, and was also handy for the Salvation Army where Alistair could go to the clubs which he loved."

The other writers tell similar stories. They are not an inadequate underclass. On the contrary, they are strong people who care for their children, who persist in horrible circumstances.

It is a notable fact that I met most of these people at local projects in Easterhouse; they had settled down and were lending a hand themselves. They possess an altruism and sense of service that should be admired by the rest of society. But they still lack decent incomes.

As a member of the Labour Party for over 35 years, I wait to see whether New Labour will listen to these citizens as closely as it does to millionaires. Will Tony Blair's government ensure that the poor have incomes that will take them out of poverty?

The writer is a visiting professor in the department of social policy at Glasgow University. He lives in Easterhouse