You can’t even change the colour of your front door


I’m  posting this from today’s Times because it deserves to be out there; not behind a paywall.  Caitlin Moran usually tickles my funny bone but today she’s smashed right into my head; my past life, my current life.  Reading this made me have a little cry because it’s simply so TRUE.  The dead, leaden weight of poverty fits me like a pair of iron boots as I wade through the ocean of life, keeping me on the bottom & away from the air & blue sky.  I lived a childhood of lentils & sheep’s heads, spoiled vegetables & bags of broken biscuits; black PE pumps instead of shoes & never owning a waterproof coat until I got a boy’s Snorkel Parka; a Christmas Compendium of games printed on paper & not a board – just the thing for an only child!  Life got better, but I never really got rid of those iron boots & now they’re back with bells on thanks to MS & a future stretching out ahead of me dependent on Benefits.  If I start sighing about it, the exhalation will last all day so please read this & think.  You’ll either identify with it, as I did, or realise how tough things are for some people.


The Poverty Trap by Caitlin Moran (The Times 15/10/11)

‘There is one massive difference between being rich and being poor, and it is this: when you are poor, you feel heavy’

We’ve recently heard a lot about the gulf between the rich and the poor – the difference between those with money, and those without.

Well, I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. When I was poor, I knew I was poor because we lived on benefits, slept on mattresses on the floor, and would share a Mars Bar between ten for pudding.

Now I’m rich, I know I’m rich because I’ve got underfloor heating and could afford to eat out at Pizza Express up to three times a week, if I so chose. I’m basically living the life of a billionaire. I am loaded.

So, having been a rich person and a poor person, what I notice is how similar they both are, really. There’s not that much difference at all. Everyone cheerfully plays the system they find themselves in.

In Wolverhampton, when you needed a dodgy MOT for the car, an uncle’s mate would be given a tenner “for a pint”, and an exhaust pipe would magically appear out of somewhere – to the ultimate financial detriment of the garage it had been lifted from, but hey-ho.

Now I’m in London, friends of friends recommend good accountants who will “sort out” your VAT problem for a pint-equivalent fee – to the ultimate economic detriment of the country, but hey-ho.

We’re all just monkeys using sticks to get grubs out of logs, really. However. There is one, massive difference between being rich and being poor, and it is this: when you are poor, you feel heavy. Heavy like your limbs are filled with water. Perhaps it is rainwater – there is a lot more rain in your life, when you are poor. Rain that can’t be escaped in a cab. Rain that has to be stood in, until the bus comes. Rain that gets into cheap shoes and coats, and through old windows – often followed by cold, and then mildew. A little bit damp, a little bit dirty, a little bit cold – you are never at your best, or ready to shine. You always need something to pep you up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio.

But the heaviness is not really, of course, from the rain. The heaviness comes from the sclerosis of being broke. Because when you’re poor, nothing ever changes. Every idea you have for moving things on is quashed through there never being any money. You dream of a house with sky-blue walls; wearing a coat with red buttons; going out on Saturday and walking by a river. Instead, you see the same crack in the same wall, push-start the same car down the same hill, and nothing ever changes, except for the worse: the things you originally had are now slowly wearing out – breaking under your fingertips, and left unreplaced.

This has the effect of making your limbs feel heavy, like you’re perpetually slightly drowning. You’re dragging ten years of non-progress behind you like a wheel-less cart. Perhaps there’s something out there you would be superlatively good at – something that would give you so much joy, you feel like you are flying. But you’ll never find out: the world is a shop and it is closed to your empty pockets, and you are standing still, heavy, in the dead centre of your life. You look around, and start to suspect you might not exist. After all, you appear not to be able to make an impression on the world – you can’t even change the colour of your front door. Twenty-six years, now; forty-two, and you’ve never even been to your neighbouring town – it’s too far away. And so you sit. You sit still. Because your limbs are so heavy. They are full of rain.

If you’ve never been poor, I don’t think you could imagine what it’s like – simply because of the timescale. You could envision a day, maybe, or a year – but not a lifetime. Not generations of it, passed down like drizzle, or a blindness. Not how, if kids from a poor background achieve something, it’s while dragging this weight behind them. How it takes ten times the effort to get anywhere from a bad postcode.

My children can’t imagine it. They love to play at their Sylvanian Family rabbits being “poor”: they love the ingenuity of a sofa turning into a bed for five rabbits; of having only one thing to wear. “It’s all cosy,” they say. “It’s all – little.”

I can see how if you were – say – a coalition government consisting of public school kids and millionaires, you could convince yourself that the poor are snug in their Sylvanian caravans. That all they need to bridge the “gulf” between them and the rich is for things to be less cosy. That making their life harder – withdrawing benefits and council housing – incentivises them in a way similarly incentivising the wealthy – by imposing a higher tax rate – would apparently never work.

But the last thing anyone poor needs is for things to be harder. These limbs are full to bursting.


22 thoughts on “You can’t even change the colour of your front door

  1. Thank you for posting that. I remember those godawful games compendiums. (I was an only child too.) And the permanent smell of mildew, and every cold turning into a chest infection until we eventually got moved to a different house when the old one was condemned. Sounds like something from Dickens, doesn’t it? (It was the 1980s. But if anything I imagine it’d be worse now because of the lack of housing.)

    • Don’t forget the single coal fire for the entire house & permafrost for 3 months on the inside of your bedroom window! Don’t get me started on the state & availability of Social Housing… (I’m a HA tenant btw)

      • We were in London, I don’t think I ever saw a coal fire. (All the blocks of flats had coal chutes though… so it must have existed at some point.) Actually the one thing that old house did have was gas fires, but even then, gas was too expensive to use them much and I’m sure at one point we had it cut off. I remember there being a calor gas fire and us basically living around it in the front room for a time. (I seem to recall at least one occasion when my father, who looked like he’d blow away in a stiff breeze, lugging the calor gas fire upstairs to warm my room up before I went to bed.)

        And yep, on winter mornings I used to see if I could peel away a solid piece of ice off the inside of my window without breaking it.

        But now this is in danger of turning into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, and it really wasn’t fucking funny. I can’t actually imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for my parents.

  2. Thank you for posting this. It is a quite brilliant piece that deserves to be read by as many people as possible. Especially by the 20 or so millionaires who currently make up the Cabinet.

  3. Very touching article. I personally don’t believe in reducing benefits. There are many victims of our current system but there are some abusers as well. Reducing benefits is like chemotherapy, the good suffer along with the bad. Maybe more effort should be put into clamping down on fraudulent claims, although, this will also have a negative effect on the needy.
    This government cannot win, they drastically need to reduce spending/increase revenues to improve macro finances, but where from? Statistic show that higher rates of tax on high earners, than we presently have, actually reduce tax revenues not increase them. Our schools and hospitals are in dire need of a cash injection not withdrawal. Our troops apparently need better equipment too. What to do?

    • You are aware that fraud from Disability benefits run at 0.1% right? DWP errors are 3x that much. This may be cliche but having more people who can actually budget from experience of life on the breadline would be helpful within any government, rather than expecting a group of people with absolutely no CONCEPT to do it with fairness & intelligence. Hammering the poor is NOT the way forward.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this here. How ironic that a piece about poverty is hidden behind a paywall!!

    It’s an excellent piece and should be read by everyone; the poor to let us know that we are not alone, and the rich, to give them some idea of what it’s like to have nothing.

    • Life is full of irony when you’re short of a few bob! I couldn’t NOT post this after reading because it struck such a chord in an incredibly articulate way. She may be Queen of the LOLz but Caitlin can sure play in the big kids’ playground too.

  5. Thanks for posting, it is a brilliant piece that manages to completely capture the desperation of poverty for those trapped in it (and certainly as I remember it growing up). Hopefully this will also give those who have never experienced it and are in a position to change things a better insight, we can but hope.

  6. Good post. I think if the millionaires running the country even *tried* to imagine what being really poor is like then they wouldn’t have had the heart to implement such cuts. It doesn’t affect them so they don’t care and there is no-one to hold them to account. People voted for the conservatives and the lib dems because they wanted ‘a change’ from labour because they had failed. They somehow didn’t realise that voting for the conservatives would be the worst thing they could ever do to themselves. This is a party who within the last hundred years, not only did not want women to have the vote but didn’t want ANY working class people to have the vote. I would like to think they had changed but this dire state of affairs would suggest they haven’t learnt a bloody thing.

  7. This brought tears to my eyes, it is so true and such an accurate description of what it is like to be stranded and stuck in the leaden swamp of poverty. Thanks for this.

  8. Poignant. But the jealous statements about the rich are just an affectation. Jealousy and hatred of success is a poisonous thing. You don’t lift yourself out of poverty by pretending that you’re a victim of the rich, or that the rich have somehow “unfairly” got their wealth. Take some personal responsibility and make success happen for yourself.

  9. Thanks for posting this article. It really is to good to be behind a paywall. One thing that leaves me conflicted is that my children don’t appreciate how much they have now because it’s all they know.

    I sometimes wish they could spend a day living how my brother and I grew up. But I would want to put them through that.

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