John Bird: Hey big spenders, try stopping poverty at source

It will take more than regime change to create the new completely grown-up social system that reaches the parts others don’t

A man approached me on a station platform and with poor English indicated to me that a small child of his was at Heathrow airport and his pockets were empty. “No nothing,” he said. I gave him £20. When I got on the next train he was still on the platform talking to other people with his hand out.

Once in Los Angeles I met a woman in a laundromat and she asked me for $5 for her gas bill. I said that seems a very small bill and she screwed up her face and said, “Don’t motherfuck me man, I’m just trying to get $5 from a lot a people.” I said “So how much is the bill?” She said $320.

I had just sold three prints of some drawings I had done and made $360. I gave her the money and she was astonished as I handed over loads of used notes.

Back in the car someone I was working with was astonished when she heard I had given all the money to this woman. But what a joy it was! Money that I didn’t need going to someone in need.

“That’ll be in the liquor store in minutes.” I said, “I fulfilled my part of the equation. It’s up to her to complete the deal.”

Every summer when in my twenties I would hitchhike around Europe with my fiancée and always run out of money. And have to beg to survive. Of course if I had husbanded my money well and been careful, as advised by my abstemious fiancée, all would have been well. But I had been brought up in the school of finance where a pound had no right to sit idle in your pocket.

So relying on the generosity of strangers was always a part of the holiday plan and I was superb at it. Having so often ‘panhandled’ as the Americans call it, as with prospectors getting gold out of Klondike rivers, it is impossible for me to miss a chance of passing something around to someone with a story.

Of course I did not do any more than bring temporary relief to the man on the platform, or the woman in the laundromat; nor did those who saved my bacon temporarily do me any lasting service or favours.

They just showed their humanity and back in the Sixties I took full advantage.

Now as we build up to year’s end and streets full of rough sleepers, our conscience is often pricked by a person in need. But do we help by constant relief?

My life was diverted from begging continuously by falling in with a good family, serenading their daughter and climbing on board their prosperity. It was begging by another name. And eventually skills I had picked up coalesced into starting The Big Issue. One of them was to separate wealthy people from their money for the common good. And my good also.

For decades I have advocated that we should not keep people on the streets. That the streets should not be the overflow of the A&E department, nor the overflow from social services. Nor should it be where our mentally ill are warehoused.

Places of safety and therapeutic communities seem the answer to me. But not where the service and shelter offered only hold people in need ‘under starter’s orders’, meaning they don’t get the chance of transformation.

Soon the papers and media will start worrying about street dwellers, or seeming to, with colder weather arriving. Yet coping, holding, but not exiting the problems of homelessness, is where all the energies go.

The day last week when I was begged at on a station platform was also the day that Boris Johnson lost his chance to do what he wished; which was try and get through to an October 31 Brexit come hell or high water. He may pull something off, but concessions have been made.


The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

Will a new form of politics come out of this punch-up between Parliament and Downing Street? Is there any sign of a growing awareness of thoughtfulness around investing in preventing people falling into poverty? Is Boris Johnson better than others when it comes to the social justice of opportunity?

The problem though is deeper than governmental intention. Big bucks have been mooted by Chancellor Sajid Javid and there are suggestions of a ‘goodbye to austerity’. But it will take more than regime change to create the new completely grown-up social system that reaches the parts others don’t, and allow prevention to stop poverty from coming into being, to stop it in its tracks.

The problem is deeper than governmental intention

Most of the people I speak to who wish to remain in the EU suggest that the poor will be worse off under Brexit. That the EU institutions have done wonders to alleviate our poverty.

Strange then that most of the people I meet who are in poverty see this poverty trap as the EU’s doing.

All I will say is that if Europe was that generous then we missed the chance to spread the largesse wider than we did. And we failed in educating all of the wonders of Europe. As communities fell apart. As services shrivelled on the vine. All no doubt the result of UK governments’ failures.

While we are busy deciding the relationship between Parliament and the government, perhaps we might look at the big budgets that seem to keep poverty very much alive – in body, mind and soul.

And mostly in the thinking of our decision-makers.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.