To follow is Chapter 2 in a series that is my personal tranformative journey from my early years. This story began with me living as a long term unemployed single parent with two children with different fathers, never being married. I was definitely on the bottom rung of society. I lived in the highest unemployed town in the UK with the demise of its Iron and Steel, Chemical and Shipbuilding industries, thus experiencing years of poverty and ostracisation. This is the story of how, supported by a strong Christian faith, I deeply analysed and navigated my way through it all, to an absolutely fulfilling life.
In the light of what’s happening in this chaotic world today, I feel moved to tell my story with all its different facets, because my main hope is that the reader will see the human face of the marginalised. Then, hopefully, gain a more compassionate understanding of all those who live on the margins of society. I hope the reader finds clues on how to make connections with people different from them, or to change the top down competitive economic system so all people are justly valued whether they were in paid work or out of paid work.
I invite the reader to pick any chapter and, if it resonates with you, to organise a zoom working group in the New Republic of the Heart community to discuss and explore any particular issue or let it inform the work you are already doing.
I acknowledge that every single one of us has our own unique experience from our own unique perspective waiting to be heard and learned from. This is simply my experience. I’d love to maybe one day hear and learn from yours.
To read Chapter 1, click HERE.
CHAPTER 2 ~ MARKET CAPITALISM
We in Respond! opened our eyes to the changing scene that was unfolding before us. In his book Short Circuit, Richard Douthwaite told us, “Global economic changes first started taking place in 1971 when America came away from the gold standard, which was the last fixed link between real goods and paper money. The monetary world had no true foundation. Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, curtailing our economic freedom. The Kennedy and Tokyo General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaties (GATT) reduced the rates of duty they imposed on imports from other participants. Britain then had a flood of clothes, shoes and textiles from cheap labour countries, and employment in British firms manufacturing them fell from 973,000 to 412, 000 between 1973-1993. Other industries followed suit. With Margaret Thatcher came complete abolition of exchange controls in 1979. Concessions enabled the banks and financial institutions to move money to wherever in the world they could obtain the highest return.”
This proved that, contrary to popular belief, unemployed people were not responsible for their own unemployment. The change in wording of ‘unemployment benefit’ to ‘jobseeker’s allowance’ emphasised responsibility on the unemployed person to find a job and therefore to blame for not getting one.
Richard Douthwaite shows how grossly unjust that is.
In her book, Poverty Close to Home, Hilary Russel mentioned that, “In some areas the ratio of job vacancies is 30-1.”
The government answer to these economic changes was to advocate full employment as a normal undisputed goal in life at any cost. Why? The setting up of norms is an important part of ideology. An ideology legitimises the status quo and will establish what is ‘normal’ and therefore what is abnormal. It is part and parcel of the power relations in society. The ideology of full employment is so ingrained that when people are outside of it, they’re labelled dole scroungers, always living with the threatening dark cloud of losing benefits forever hovering over their heads, and treated with contempt.
In Brussels, written on the Epitaph of Fr. Joseph Widlenski are his words:
“When I speak to people in extreme poverty they tell me…
It’s not so much the lack of a job that despairs me,
or the lack of bread on the table…
It’s in the contempt of my fellow citizens.
It is this contempt that lies between Despair and Justice and
Basic Human Rights.” Fr. Joseph Widlenski
Fr. Joseph Widlenski was the founder of 4th World ADT, an organisation committed to a world that is free of poverty. He also designated October 17th as the World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty, which simultaneously inspired the UN to declare as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
Members of 4th World ADT in different countries across Europe met monthly in their own areas, discussing in all meetings the same issue related to poverty. This gave a wider perspective and voice to the issue. Every two years representatives would meet to speak to their own Parliament and every four years they spoke at the European Parliament.
On October 17th 1998 I represented Respond! in attending a seminar in the European Parliament in Brussels, chaired by Jack Santer, the then European President. Organised by 4th World ADT, representatives of all the extreme poorest across Europe told their stories. My visit coincided with the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the time the industry was constantly adapting to Market Capitalism. In years past, a large company would employ its own teams of people who could repair anything that went wrong, drivers, cleaners, etc. By the late 90’s, many fewer people were employed who worked longer hours, were paid more highly and constantly being re-trained. Almost everything else was competitively tendered out to the lowest bidder. Local authorities followed industry. There were also big changes in terms of ethos and structure with Social Services, Health and Education. Professional workers still had to meet an array of performance indicators imposed from above. Large competitive business conglomerates now ruled the world, often influencing and overriding a country’s democratic political system.
Competition inevitably implies more losers than winners. What happens to the losers? What happens to the millions of people who don’t wish to work in competition, but prefer cooperation? Poverty is manifested, but not only in the form of long term unemployment and families struggling with very few resources, but also in an upsurge of homelessness, crime and disorder, interracial tension and prejudicial scapegoating. Individuals, neighbourhoods and sometimes whole regions are shut out of the mainstream of social and economic life.
The downside of economic competition was revealed to me when on one occasion in Teesside on behalf of Respond!, I visited two very deprived housing estates just across a minor road from each other. In one of them, the local council had replaced their windows with double glazing. Double glazing is important for people in poverty, because it is better for their health and helps with crippling fuel bills. A short while later both communities had to be in competition with each other to vy for the Government ‘Single Regeneration Budget.’ This competition would give thousands of pounds to the people that won the bid to completely revamp their community. The one with the best bid got the money, but the best bid depended on the expertise that helped put it together, not necessarily the greatest need.
The community with the double glazed windows ‘won’ and the ‘government quangos’, while implementing other regeneration initiatives on the estate, took out their brand new double glazing and replaced them with even newer double glazed windows. This especially led to a lot of anger, resentment and feelings of worthlessness from the community that received nothing. Neighbours that had been friends for years and sometimes family members, with only a narrow minor road dividing them, were now alienated from each other. The competitive market economy was setting poor against poor.
Although the Global Market has given us many positive things, another downside has been gross pollution of the seas and the environment. Any market depends on consumer spending so is only available to those who have the resources to shop for all the goods produced.
In the 1980’s the credit market was relaxed. More people had credit cards, mortgages, high interest loans, interest free credit, student loans etc. TV adverts arrogantly began to invade our living rooms, and still do. Thousands of children today are bullied at school, sometimes with suicidal results because they don’t have the ‘right gear’ and there’s a seriously growing trend for many people who are fearfully confronting loan sharks, not to mention a serious spiralling abyss of debt. People are constantly having to train for new skills to fit into the whims of the market without any basic sense of security. They have to be adaptable, have confidence to move freely between employment, self employment and unemployment. Unfortunately many don’t have these skills and feel thrown on the scrap heap. I knew a number of unemployed people who were doing very worthwhile voluntary work but told to leave it. They were forced into 6-month work programmes with £10 dole top up with the threat of losing benefits, often having nothing to do with their inner yearning to reach their potential. It was a grossly unjust scenario when unemployed people only received a £10 dole top up working next to others who earned a living wage doing exactly the same job. However, society stood back and let it all happen.
“During 1995-1996 over 300,000 people had their benefits cut for failing to attend these programmes. There’s a massive increase as compared to 1993- 1994 when it was 100,000. The regime is being made stricter.” (Unemployment & the Future of Work 1997: p137}
Middlesbrough had over a 12 million pound benefit underclaim. This was a smack in the face for all those people who had contempt for the unemployed, labelling them ‘dole scroungers’. (Tees Valley TEC brochure p.23)
Benefit underclaim in some parts reflected misdirected pride, because men who once were proud of their good paying regular job, suddenly being made redundant, didn’t want others to think they were taking benefits. They probably knew the palpable stigma that was attached to it. Some unemployed and homeless people told me they refuse to buy into a system that had so many compulsory regulations attached and they preferred to go homeless.
I once had a friend who was in this very category. For years, he had his own successful business making racing car bodies. His business collapsed. Then he lost his home, and his family left him. He took to drinking and ended up in a homeless hostel. I visited him there as his lunch was being served. He was served two slices of brown bread with a fried egg on each slice. He asked the man behind the counter to change the brown bread to white bread because the white slice was bigger than the brown slice and he was hungry. He didn’t even ask for extra bread! I’ll never in my life forget the man’s curt reply. ”Eat what you’re given! I pay tax so I paid for this, you didn’t.” I hoped this must have been a one off, because in the few homeless hostels I’ve visited since, I’ve never experienced anything like this – just the opposite. The stricter the regime became, the more people opted out, hence the rise in homelessness.
With this in mind, three of us from Respond! visited a three year pilot part time work programme organised by the Religious of Ireland. It was called the Part Time Jobs Opportunities Programme. We visited it mid term of it’s three year pilot and it was a joy to see self worth in the eyes of all the participants.
The ethos of the pilot programme originated for a concern for the unemployed.
- Firstly, the income the participants received was inadequate.
- Secondly, most of them were forced to remain idle as a condition to receive social welfare and be available for work even though the jobs didn’t exist for them.
- Thirdly, as a result of their non involvement and inadequate income, they were alienated from the mainstream of society.
The Aims of the Part Time Jobs Opportunities Programme were to:
- Enhance the dignity of unemployed people by giving them an opportunity to be involved in some kind of meaningful work.
- Broaden the meaning of work to include, in particular, socially environmentally useful work.
- Begin the process of putting value on this work by having an hourly wage agreed upon.
- Challenge the ‘availability for a job’ rule which demands that unemployed people, as a condition of receiving their unemployment assistance, remain idle. In this initiative, when a person has worked the required hours, they are free for the rest of the week. If they take another part time job, and the income from it brings them into the tax net, they are taxed in the usual way.
- Provide education and training that is relevant to the work being done and enhances the job opportunities and quality of life of the employee. Both the employer and employee participate in designing this education training.
- Pay the ‘going rate for the job’. It is important that employed people are not seen as cheap labour. This also ensures that the jobs of other employees are not undermined by initiatives which take on unemployed people at cheaper rates of pay.
Respond! partnered up with Teesside Industrial Mission, Shape Training, the Church of England and the New Economics Foundation. We tried very hard to implement this as a pilot programme in Teesside, but with just a few alterations to fit more closely to the then current British System. We felt this was an answer to prayer. However it failed because the Irish model depended on the dole being transferred to the employer to enable them to pay the workers with dignity. The British government would not allow that transfer, so we Brits had to still contend with unjust work schemes.
At that time in my status as a single parent, I was not forced into those schemes. This fact gave me a chance to belong to the second largest industry in Britain, the unpaid workers sector worth £41 billion pounds annually to the British Economy.
Voluntary work gave me a choice in the work I was doing, was non compulsory, was very satisfying, enabled myself and the wider community, and involved hours that worked around the needs of my children. However, the downside was that my children and I had to live extremely frugally (and I can’t emphasise that enough) until I discovered Local Exchange & Trading Schemes, or Time Banks as they’re now called. I survived by doing lots of things for other people and different people gave me things I needed such as second hand furniture. This was a natural progression to voluntarily help set up a local Exchange and Trading Scheme (LETS) / (Time Bank) in Teesside.
The true wealth of any community does not rely on money, but in the talents and resources of people.
A Local Exchange and Trading Scheme / Time Bank frees up talent that is often locked away because money isn’t there. People and organisations share their God given skills and resources to help each other without payment. If one person does a job for somebody, but the other person doesn’t have what they need in return, then the person who did the job can take from the pool of skills to get jobs done for them. The person who had the job done can share their unique skills with somebody else when needed. One hour of anybody’s time is worth the same.
It is a great opportunity to re-value women’s work, home workers, care givers, the low paid, the employed and unemployed alike. It combats one of the biggest problems in our society today, i.e. isolation’, by bringing communities together through regular social events with entertainment, food and room hire provided by Time Bank members / organisations. It can cross racial and other social barriers. It can be a stepping stone to employment, and it saves money. It justly values all those at the bottom of the top down economic system who are often marginalised, but also is wider ranging and has the opportunity to value all people in or out of paid work. People not only can get jobs done which normally they could never afford, but importantly people, find a great deal of self worth in using and keeping alive their skills.
To jump ahead about 25 years later and after my retirement to a small rural village on the North Yorkshire coast, one example of self worth happened on a Time Bank I and others were trying to set up across eleven isolated rural villages. A poor bus service was what a lot of these isolated villages had in common. Suddenly bus timetables and routes were changed and some took off altogether or came less frequently. This led a number of people to find it difficult to get to work, visit relatives, get to appointments, or shop in the town they had shopped in for most of their lives. This added to a lot of isolation. My contribution on the Time Bank was to offer meditation groups to help alleviate stress, as well as to offer lifts to the hospital, doctor appointments, shopping, and days out in the country / seaside to help alleviate loneliness and isolation. In return, different members tiled my bathroom, helped to build a fireplace, looked after my plants while on holiday, general DIY jobs and helped with leafleting.
Edna was 95 and our oldest member of theTime Bank. She was my next door neighbour. I was about to put leaflets around the village advertising the Time Bank when Edna asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I’m just putting leaflets around the village,” and as a simple throw away remark I continued…”You can help me if you like”. Not really expecting a reply, her face lit up and she excitedly replied , “Can I? Does that mean I’ll be useful?” Edna leafleted one side of the village and I did the other. Fifteen years previously when she lived at the bottom of the hill of the coastal village, she had been flooded out twice and lost everything she had and was moved higher up the hill in the village away from the friends and neighbours she had known for eighty years. I was keeping an eye on her and could see her happily chatting to everybody who opened their door. She later confessed how much she had enjoyed talking to friends she hadn’t seen for years. When she returned from leafleting, she turned to me and enthusiastically asked “Am I useful now?”
This for me epitomises the ‘giving’ side of the Time Bank. It promotes ‘self worth’ among those who often feel useless to society. It also showed it was for all age groups.
Later Edna’s house was condemned, and her landlord couldn’t afford the repairs and had to sell the house. After finding a bungalow in the next village, Edna was given only one weeks notice to move into it. When I took her to see it, it was in a terrible state. The Housing Association only provided the bungalow, but left the 95 year old to find a way to decorate it herself. At that time there were deep draconian local government cuts in funding. There was a lot of unrest in the general public because the cuts seemed to land on the most vulnerable. Many good volunteer community groups lost their funding. A lot of Council workers lost their jobs or had to come down in pay and do other people’s jobs.
Time Bank members came to the rescue and helped get Edna rehoused, happily in time. Within that week, we worked early mornings to late evenings to completely re-decorate all the ceilings, the walls, doors and windows, the kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and lobby. Other volunteers from another charity that luckily survived the cuts, emptied her house, delivered her furniture and provided carpets for all the rooms.
I asked myself, “What would have happened if our Time Bank hadn’t been there for Edna? What happens even today to all those vulnerable people who haven’t heard of Timebanks?”
Going back again to 25 years earlier, at that time, unemployed people on a LETScheme / Time Bank would have their benefits cut for joining it. We weren’t even allowed to help each other, even though money was not involved and there was a chronic shortage of paid work. So then, Teesside LETS was at the forefront of a campaign.
Biblical reflection helped our determination to counteract this crazy unjust scenario. In the New Testament, the author of Mark’s Gospel omits the story of Jesus’ birth, but writes two very similar stories of ‘The Feeding of the Five Thousand’ (Mark 6:30-end) and the feeding of the Four Thousand (Mark 8: 1-10) very close to each other. Some people interpret these stories as magical miracles where food suddenly appeared. I asked myself, “Why were these two very similar feeding stories even more important than the story of Jesus’ birth?” I believe it was to reveal the important emphasis of Jesus’ ministry of love and brother / sisterhood and his real demonstration of challenging the deep seated stratified economic structures of his day, that left the rich richer and the poor poorer. This is a reflection of our top down economic structures today.
After the disciple asked Jesus how much money would be needed to feed thousands of people, Jesus didn’t answer. He just emphasised a more egalitarian sharing of resources by sharing the little he was given, and thus, I believe, encouraged people to share the little they had as well, just as we tried to do in the Time Bank. And there was plenty left over. The thing I find significant is that the first one to share with Jesus was a nondescript young boy who was socially low in the pecking order of the day. He started that ball rolling when he gave Jesus his loaves and fishes.
I began to ask myself questions…
“Why does the world ‘economy’ only ever include the word ‘money’?”
“Why do we always look for a money solution when evidence shows that money does not trickle down to the poor in our trickle down economic system?“ The only thing that does trickle down is fear and it goes from top to bottom. Fear of losing government position, fear of losing businesses, fear of losing jobs, fear of losing dole, fear of losing what little we have. Fear is poverty.
Why couldn’t everybody have the potential to gain non compulsory job satisfaction as I had, but without having to live so frugally?
What kind of system could eliminate the unjust stigma of means tested benefits, and the oppressive prejudice and marginalisation that go with them?
What kind of system could justly value the second largest industry in Britain, the unpaid workers sector worth at least £41 billion annually to the British economy, and free the many volunteers from their struggle on the breadline, including single parents and other home-workers and carers?
What kind of system could give people a choice in the work that they did, thus reaching their potential?
What kind of system would value those who worked long hours with low pay and support the growing millions of people in and out of contract or part time jobs?
What kind of system, when all people’s economic freedom is secure, will eliminate prejudicial scapegoating? And believe me, when as a single parent on the dole, I knew a lot about prejudicial scapegoating.
I believe, alongside Time Banks, ‘Citizens Income’ has that potential. (The Part Time Jobs Opportunity Programme in Ireland had an element of Citizens Income.) Citizens Income, sometimes called Basic Income, is an unconditional, non–withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship, just as family allowance in the UK is given to every child. People’s work is separated from pay and every citizen gets a basic income, yet higher than the current benefit level. People argue that
it would be too expensive. However, all current tax systems and benefit rules would be abolished. At a CI conference it was suggested that anybody who does paid work on top of CI should pay a flat rate tax of 37%. This might seem higher than the current 22%, but CI abolishes National Insurance Contributions, VAT (value added tax), and the massive cost of policing the current system. The difference is then only 1-2 %. People who pollute the atmosphere could be taxed.
If our Mission is to promote a more just economic sharing of resources then we need to shout out loud for Citizens Income!
But, if you must insist on sticking to the trickle down economic system….
instead of greed. Let
instead of closing your eyes to reality. Let
STANDING BESIDE YOUR FELLOW WOMAN OR MAN
in whatever condition she or he is in
instead of bigotry. Let
instead of suicidal hopelessness. Let
and let the fear of poverty disappear forever.
To read Chapter 1, click HERE.