8 Things People Don't Tell You About Growing Up Poor
My childhood is my greatest source of shame, and my greatest source of strength.
1. The sense of embarrassment never leaves you.
I was born slap-bang in the middle of the early-'80s recession. My mum was an unemployed single parent, which was considered a pretty big no-no during the heavy-handed, moralising days of Thatcher's Britain. And the government didn't offer any real help with childcare to get single mums back into work, either.
Most of my clothes came from charity shops. I'll never forget the horror I felt when my mum packed me off to school in a pair of flared, brown corduroy dungarees. My friends were rocking ra-ra skirts and looked like miniature Madonnas. I looked like something from the back pages of a '70s Littlewoods catalogue. Everyone laughed, and I felt ashamed.
As public shamings go, it was fairly minor. But that and about a hundred similar incidents all marked me out as someone who was less than my classmates – as if I had an indelible stain on my character, something I should try to hide.
2. People don't get what poverty really means.
A few years ago, I worked at a university as a volunteering service manager. A lot of students would come into my office saying “I want to go to Africa and help poor people.” I’d say: “Well that’s great, but what about poverty in the UK?” “Oh no, we don’t really have it here.”
But the fact is: We absolutely do. When I was growing up, we had almost no money at all. During the ’80s and ’90s, unemployment benefit averaged around £40 a week; child benefit was around £20 a week. My friends were given their child benefit as pocket money. My mum used it to pay for basic essentials.
We had an electricity prepayment meter that we often couldn’t afford to top up, so we’d sit in the dark, reading by candlelight. We didn’t have a car, carpets, an iron, or a washing machine. Our phone was cut off, and we had little food – although my mum could (and still can) do very impressive things with lentils.
3. It's really hard to do well at school.
I spent as long as possible in the library after school, trying to do my homework before the building closed. Home was cold, dark, and noisy. None of these things made it particularly easy to concentrate on the ways Jane Austen reveals the theme of snobbery in Pride and Prejudice, or how to add two fractions together.
The main issues facing kids beneath the poverty line are noise, disruption, no study space, inadequate food and heating, and – crucially – a lack of electricity. According to Citizen's Advice, 1.62 million prepayment energy consumers are cut off each year, and it doesn't matter to the companies if they have kids or not.
My teachers were rarely forgiving if I showed up with unfinished homework because I couldn't see in the dark. In fact, they often made things worse by telling me off, or saying that I wouldn't amount to anything, which was particularly hard to hear. After all, it wasn’t as if I didn't tell myself that all the time already.
4. You feel incredibly exposed and alone.
The stigma of being a poor kid follows you into adulthood. I feel so self-conscious about my upbringing, and worry that when people look at me they'll somehow know that we were homeless when I was 7, or that a charity called Bolton Lions paid for our holidays. It even makes me cringe a little bit just admitting that here.
According to research by the Child Poverty Action Group, almost 1 in 3 British children (28%) grow up beneath the poverty line. But despite that, you often feel like you're the only one. Also, it's hard to convince yourself that your cold, hungry life is "normal" when you see how the majority of people live.
I didn't know anyone else who was as skint as we were. My aunt and uncle worked as a cook and a mechanic respectively, and also lived in a housing association property, but they seemed super rich to me. They had fun size Mars bars in the fridge, a TV that wasn't rented, and carpets. Imagine that!
5. And it massively damages your confidence.
In 2003 I went to a careers service talk about journalism at my uni. One of the speakers – a plummy-voiced reporter from the BBC – said, "There's no point applying if you're not confident and well-spoken. You have to be able to knock on a bereaved mum's door and get a quote. If you can't do that, don't bother."
He went on to say a few other things, but I barely heard them. I wasn't confident at all. Impostor syndrome affects everyone to some extent, but I've never felt like anything other than a fraud. The sense of being undeserving and less than other people had never left me. I was the kid who "wouldn't amount to anything".
How can you be confident when your head is so full of negative comments and crappy memories? I took the BBC reporter's comment at face value, stood up and left, walking away from a career I was interested in as a result. I ended up working in shitty jobs for years, secretly convinced it was all I deserved.
6. It also damages your mental health.
Mum would often have to prioritise buying food and topping up the electricity over things like the phone bill. After a while, the company would issue a county court judgment to reclaim the debt, which meant beefy guys could muscle their way into our home to take our stuff: A terrifying prospect when you're a kid.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, childhood exposure to stress affects the brain's amygdala and adrenaline gland function, which in turn affects a child's mental health and capacity for learning. And unfortunately there aren't many things that are more stressful than repeatedly hiding from bailiffs.
People who feel threatened and worried as kids often take that into adulthood in the form of anxiety. I never feel relaxed about my situation. I feel like I'm always only one or two steps away from hiding from bailiffs or losing my home: It sucks.
7. The way the media talks about us can be hurtful.
Search online for articles about UK unemployment and you'll inevitably end up seeing at least one screechy tabloid headline like "Shameless Work-Shy Parents Claim Handouts For Their Five Kids", or "Scrounger Claims £70,000 A Year To Support Her Benefits Brood."
The majority of these types of article use the phrase "brood" to describe the children of parents on benefits (or even "feral brood") as if these families were spawning mutant ASBO scum rather than human children.
I was the kid that the tabloids label as a member of "a benefits brood": apparently born into a life of sponging off the state, or to secure its mum a council house. A useless burden, in other words. It doesn't really help your self-esteem when you're regularly described as a drain on society by the Daily Mail.
8. But you can learn to accept that it doesn't define you.
Yes, you grew up poor, but it wasn't your fault. Even the angry tabloids would agree that you didn't ask to be born. In fact, your experiences as a kid and as an adult have shaped you into the person you are today: a person who is the opposite of a drain on society, because everyone has worth, especially you.
You’re a person who understands what it means to have nothing, and so appreciates what they have. A person who is sensitive to what other people go through, and doesn’t judge them for having crumpled clothes, or worn shoes.
It's incredibly hard to break out of the cycle of poverty and many people don't. That's why they call it a cycle. Our children will grow up lacking in confidence too, they won't fulfil their potential, neither will their children. It's a national tragedy.
It won't be straightforward to end poverty in the UK, but we should all work to end the stigma associated with it. After all, our whole society is poorer as a result.
If you're a young person currently living in poverty, or a parent concerned about your child's health and development, Barnardo's children's centres offer a range of services, including mental health care, advice, and support.