I had a moment of complete and utter clarity as I arrived at a hotel in Cardiff to attend a course recently. As I booked in, I could hear the hustle and bustle of other hotel guests going on around me, the anniversary couple, the pensioners coach outing, the afternoon tea goers. It hit me like an arrow.
These are people enjoying their lives. These are people enjoying a leisure break. These are people for whom there is more to life than grinding poverty and getting by.
It really was like having a light switched on. The fact is that the less money you have the more your horizons narrow down. For the unemployed and carers, horizons may be as narrow as your own front door. As a Carer myself I know there are days when you don't venture outside, due to caring duties but also due to lack of money. Getting by is an all consuming, draining struggle. I have noticed that even when you explain to people continuously that you can't afford a meal out, you can't afford a trip to the cinema, somehow they don't quite believe it. But for those existing on benefits, and increasingly for those of us who are working poor, horizons are being narrowed like never before.
Somehow you yourself don't feel your horizons being narrowed until you do something completely different like I did, and go on a course to a hotel and see what other people are doing. Or you look at friends and acquaintances on Facebook and see photos of the weekend break, the football away trip, the birthday party, the big shopping expedition and you feel a pang of envy. You say to yourself "When was the last time I did any of those? I can't remember. But there are people out there with lives doing all these things week after week. I should be doing those things too. It isn't fair." A friend spoke about how she was going to splash out in the January sales after Christmas, and I honestly thought to myself that in 25 years since I had my children, I never had a penny to my name to go sales shopping in January. Every effort has been made to pay the December bills and do what I can for Christmas presents, often heaving a sigh of relief when I had managed both without missing a bill!
But the pangs of envy in me subside and turn to guilt, when I see those sanctioned on benefits, where Christmas will involve an emergency Foodbank parcel, or charity gifts from strangers, or indeed seeking shelter and a roof over their heads on Christmas Day. A child caught up in a domestic abuse situation will wish for nothing more than peace over Christmas time, whose horizon is so narrowed that being at home for 2 weeks is a terrifying prospect. A particularly cold December will see many households turning their heating off and wrapping themselves in quilts and going to bed early in a desperate attempt to keep warm. The most vulnerable, the poorest people in our society have no horizons at all. Everything has been taken from them in a vicious pursuit by this ConDem government where the poorest pay the price for the greed of the robber barons, the robber bankers and the posh boy millionaires governing Britain.
Each day becomes a fight to feed yourself and your family, a fight to keep warm and a fight to "appear" like you are living a normal life. For many trying to appear as if nothing is wrong to relatives and friends is a completely draining experience which takes up as much energy as the fight to feed yourself. You become a master of deception. An illness faked as you can't attend a relatives wedding due to cost, the birthday card with money you posted to a sister but somehow it must have got "lost" in the post, the invitation to a child's party your own child receives, but it has to be turned down because "we are doing something else that day unfortunately" as you see the £ signs mount for a birthday present and party outfit and know it is beyond you.
Horizons shutting down are like lights going off one by one, especially for the working poor. I am not demeaning the poor here, but I am focussing on issues I have heard many working poor discuss with me this year. The ConDems "Them v Us" campaign has been hugely successful pitting Working Poor v Poor. Many people working either part time or on minimum wage actually experience jealousy when seeing those existing on JSA get their full housing benefit paid. Many working poor
took out mortgages in better times and are now struggling like hell to keep the roof over their head.
"If only we could get housing benefit to cover part of the mortgage" is what I hear. Others feel resentment they are working and paying rent, while the poor have their full rent paid. Horizons narrow to not being able to move house as you can't get another mortgage or being constantly on the look out for cheaper rented accomodation due to the benefit cap and bedroom tax. Both poor and working poor are experiencing the merry-go-round of annual house moves in many cases, where tenancies are often for 12 months. Sometimes tenancies are terminated after 6 months. The horizon is narrowed to having no stability and moving into one property before being on the look out for another. People feel no need to make a house feel like "home" because it won't be home for any great period of time. The stress to children in particular is great. Often a frequent house move can mean a change of school.
The disabled and carers are probably the most targeted and vulnerable group under this governments pernicious regime. Here, horizons are being narrowed to one day at a time. Huge cuts to services disabled people rely on like public transport ,libraries, leisure facilities and support services are seeing disabled people become more and more isolated. Those living in rural areas are hardest hit. Local councils are starting to cut the unthinkable. My local council is proposing a £25 charge for parents of severely disabled children to access respite care. How low is this? It beggars belief that whilst rich millionaire pensioners enjoy a winter fuel allowance grant, rich children of multi millionaire parents can get a free school lunch age 5-6, disabled children's parents will be charged to
access respite care that is so desperately needed to ease the strain; not just for parents but also the NHS.
So while Cameron and his cronies attend a circus of Christmas drinks and dinner parties, spare a thought for those who wake each morning in dread of the day ahead, where fear, stress and strain are their daily diet, and getting beyond their front door an immense task. This government are guilty of not just narrowing working class horizons, but shutting down working class lives.