Through all the pandemic talk, the sense that perhaps we’re being given too many conflicting stories of what’s going to happen next, I saw a man walk down a street in what I perceived as wretchedness. I was driving past with my children and wife and looked at this man who seemed completely marooned. He was tall and thin. His face was grim, as if hurt and disappointed too often. Probably between 40 and 50, he had on an old mackintosh and struggled with his bags. He walked carefully, as if uneasy yet seemingly determined. His two big bags, one advertising Tesco, the other a launderette bag, seemed to pull him down as he tried to make his way along the pavement.
Where did his wretchedness come from? I created an imagined journey into wretchedness. I imagined his mean circumstances at birth, and in early childhood. I imagined the struggles he had to bear.
Later I was speaking to a friend who works in a homeless hostel. He told the story of a man who had died in his room, 57 years of age. Dead after many years on the street but taken in recently. With so many health issues it was difficult to imagine him surviving long.
Wretchedness; the wretchedness of the left behind. The stalled in life. The harmed by early childhood. The broken. And then the drink or drugs to compensate, the self-medication, as they call it.
Most of the wretched people I have met come from exactly the same milieu. The ingredients of their failure start often with failing at school. Badly educated, they are unable to get decent work because only their hands were needed. To dig holes or stack things, or sweep up. Perhaps drive and deliver. A stratum of society that was not greatly improved by the coming of the welfare state. Improved only in making available small sums of money, but never enough to invest in reversing the misfortune of school failure.
Of course the saving grace of the welfare state is that, if through all of your poverty and limited finances you became ill, at least the NHS will work hard on bringing you to a fit state. But only if you had first become ill. No prevention was offered by anyone. You couldn’t go to the state and say, “Help me help myself and improve myself.”
With 70 per cent of government time spent on trying to iron out the problems thrown up by poverty you can see that resources are there but not used wisely
If you had passed exams the state would give you the means of going to college and upping your game. You may now have to pay that back, but the state had given you the means to get into debt for the future so you had a future. But no one was going to do that for the wretched. You started in the wretchedly educated, and socially unsupported. And you stayed there. Unless you were one of the exceptions and could lift yourself out into being ex-wretched. Unless you could summon up something from the wretchedness that was gifted you in your early years of nurtured wretchedness.
I guess that the man I saw who brought a sense of loss in me was one of those dealt a bad hand at birth and in his early years. Who knows, though, he might have had opportunities that he threw away. But now he walked along the street as if getting through that moment was the hardest thing of all.
What can we do about the historical failures of the past that produce wretchedness now? Obviously we have to support and give succour to those in need. But we have to stop producing them.
What we have to do is insist that money we gift the government in the form of taxes is spent wisely on preventing the systemic failures in education and social support that lead to an underclass of people who will never reach anywhere near their potential as human beings. For anyone to tell you that there is no real money for bringing change among the most wretched, to help support them, and to get rid of the ‘wretched-making’ system, then they are wrong. The money is there, big time. It’s just wrongly spent.
With 70 per cent of government time spent on trying to iron out the problems thrown up by poverty you can see that resources are there but not used wisely.
Now a big task has been dumped in our laps by the Covid-19 pandemic. It leaves in its trail poverty. But the poverty of the formerly comfortable, those who were not wretched. The poverty of those formerly in work and able to have some quality of life.
That is a why we have to avoid the new wretchedness that will grow out of eviction and homelessness. Why we have to see the ending of the evictions ban on August 23 as a watershed moment. We have to demand that evictions are banned for a longer period, so that people can get back on their feet, post-pandemic.
We have put the Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) campaign together because we want to make sure that a new level of wretchedness isn’t added to our streets and public places: those who formerly had the means of living taken from them.
Seeing a man in torment hit the strings of my heart. None of us want to see an increase in wretchedness. Join our campaign to make sure the government delivers on its promise to not leave anyone behind. Let’s roar for RORA!
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue