Charity? Not for us, surely (2): A Tory success story that went awry

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Joseph Wong, aged 29, has been awarded a First in administrative management and offered a place to do an MSc at Humberside University. Yet he feels no joy, only panic, because of the poverty that has been creeping up on him since he lost his job and opted for higher education, something he had been taught to value.

Mr Wong's father, an enterprising Chinese businessman, brought him up strictly, with an almost manic emphasis on success. 'My father and his relatives despise failure. You had to be highly motivated and self-reliant, and make money. If you didn't, you were nothing.

'I was sent to a convent school at the age of three, and at 13 I was expected to help in the family business after school and still achieve academically. I suppose that is why I am so driven.'

He worked at a freight company for eight years, as an operations manager for the last four, before the company went bust. 'We had a lovely house in a nice area in the western suburb of Hull. Our neighbours were mainly professional people.' Now the house has gone. The car, jewellery, anything of value was sold, and they moved to a council house in a rough part of Hull.

With two children, aged seven and four, going in and out of hospital with serious asthma and eczema, and money problems, including a large overdraft, things became desperate. Joseph approached the students' union, which referred him to the Family Welfare Association. He applied for a sum to tide them over. All they had to live on was a basic student grant of around pounds 3,000 plus a lump sum of pounds 28 from the university's access fund.

Mr Wong says, 'The FWA were very sympathetic and gave me pounds 200, but it's still asking for charity, isn't it? I could have gone on the dole and vegetated - at least my house would have been secure.

'I know that isn't the right way to think, but you can't help it. Sometimes I feel very bitter. I worked all those years, put in all this money and the state turned its back on us.

'I saw myself as a Conservative success story. Self-help, training, all that. Moved to where there was work, up here. Five years ago, I thought I was on my way. Married life was great.'

At this point he feels too emotional to talk and there is a pause. 'People must understand that poverty is not self- inflicted, it can strike anyone, any time. But you tell me, what could I have done? I followed their advice, got on my bike, now this.'

He describes how his sense of self- worth was eroded. The first thing to go, he says, is pride. 'That just goes out of the window. You feel worthless, dead inside. You don't feel like a man. You think charities are for all those people in Africa, and then when you have to beg, you know you can do anything to survive. But it is a terrible feeling'.

At times his mother-in-law, a pensioner, has had to provide meals for the family. A working-class Yorkshire woman, she didn't take to Joseph when he first went out with her daughter.

'She wasn't too keen on my flash car, my big ideas. Now, though, I really appreciate her - she never turned away from us and gave us what little she had.'

His middle-class friends displayed no such loyalty. 'We were all young, successful people, we'd get together on Saturday nights. Suddenly, no calls, not even a response to the calls you make. My daughter still asks why her friends never come.

'I do feel such despair. Sometimes I tell my wife she'd be better off without me and she should go.'

In fact his wife did leave at one point, when she found she couldn't cope with the escalating problems. Now things are better and there seems to be a deeper bond between them. But she still finds it too upsetting to talk about any of this.

'You know, it sometimes feels like a dream, or a book I read,' Mr Wong says, 'but it is no good wallowing in self-pity. I know that I have a supportive wife, but it is not fair. And now I am on the dole, at least we have regular money coming in.

'But it makes me think. If the state can't support you when you go and get the qualifications they say the country needs, what kind of country is this going to be for our children?'

His mother has died, and he says his father's side of the family has cut off all contact. 'They just don't understand, they blame me for something that is beyond my control. I would never do that to my kids.'

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