COVID-19 and Poverty: It Doesn’t Feel Much Different

Originally published in An Injustice on 17th April 2020

COVID-19 has proven what we can achieve together during a pandemic, poverty is the biggest pandemic on earth and it won’t stop until we address it

Many believe that the COVID-19 will change the world, and it certainly has given people something to talk about. In fact, it slips into most conversations and has disrupted many elements of life. Like something else that is rife in the world but is not talked about: Poverty.

Poverty comes in many forms, it is a broad term. There are people without homes, families and jobs, this will be exacerbated further by this pandemic. There is also in-work poverty which I want to talk about in this article.

In-work poverty is when people who are working still don’t have enough money to meet their family’s needs.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in February 2020 that despite the growing employment rates in the UK more families are being pulled into poverty. One in five adults lives in poverty despite many having a job.

The reasons for this are lack of access to working hours, increasing home costs and limited access to childcare along with transport issues. They conclude that increasing the number of jobs and hourly pay is no substitute for a weakened social security system.

Being from a poor background is stressful, but also having no money can put stress on anyone. If you haven’t been able to pay your bills at the end of the month, struggled for cash at university or had your mobile phone cut off you will know what I mean. We can all be faced with the prospect of having no money at some point. Whether that is long term or short term.

It’s not about class, it is about resources

The old notions of working, middle and upper class still survive, just not in the stereotypes in which we perceive them. In Britain’s largest class survey, carried out by the BBC, they make a distinction between seven classes for today. However, I’m not going to talk about them, I want to talk about the three forms of capital that help distinguish between them. One specifically.

Capital is better thought of as a person’s access to resources. Social, cultural and economic resources.

Social resources include what groups you are part of and who you know (and who your parents and friends know too). Basically, the amount of social contacts that you have, and what circles you mix in.

Going to university, speaking more than one language, dressing nicely and being able to speak in a correct tone when the audience warrants it all make up our cultural resources. They are accumulated over time, but the higher up we start on the cultural ladder the more we collect.

Economic resources are a different matter. Social backgrounds exist but you can morph your future with education, making the right friends or by marrying above your own social class. But lack of access to economic resources makes life harder the less you have of it. In some cases, like losing a job or getting in debt, your access to money can disappear overnight, or maybe you are born poor.

If your parents don’t have much money, you can’t magic it out of thin air, and even if you do with a credit card, you have to pay it back at some point. Being economically poor can affect everyone no matter what class you are from.

I lived paycheck to paycheck at the start of my adult life, sometimes I bridged the gaps between with loans and credit cards. Not because I was from an extremely poor background ̶̶ we weren’t mega rich either but because I wanted to be happy, money gave me that feeling for brief time.

Growing up post-2000, pre-2008, I had easy access to credit cards and loans and no access to common sense. I had never learnt the value of money and hid my debts.

I got my first loan at 18 and had numerous credit cards throughout my early twenties. It paid for drinking, smoking, partying, computer games and escaping life. I was coming up with a new scheme to pay it off every time I swiped the credit card through the machine.

I would try to pay it off every month, but it just mounted up and up. I was chronically stressed when I had no money, which was normally the last two weeks of every month. Then I could borrow no more. At 23 I couldn’t get a student bank account to go to university.

Whilst I take responsibility for my actions, and others should, I just wanted to highlight that this situation can happen to anyone and often does. It is not talked about in our society because we are anxious about how others will see us. That’s why I hid my debt. This led to a spiralling depression that took me years to come out of.

How this relates to COVID-19 lockdown

I have been in lockdown for over a month here in Madrid, Spain. Currently, the centre of this pandemic. And whilst I am lucky to have money and a place to live, some feelings from the past came rushing back. The feeling of lack of control, hopelessness and helplessness just to name a few.

Experiencing poverty shapes your outlook on life, it affects your relationships with people, your spending habits, how you value money and ultimately how you value yourself.

Being Helpless and lack of freedom

Status anxiety is fearing how people will judge you, and also seeing yourself in the eyes of others.

In our money-based society, people are increasingly attributing their own worth, and that of others, depending on the amount of cash, and the value of the material goods they own.

This has been increasing for years.

Having a lack of cash and having to tell our friends we cannot afford to do something makes us feel terrible. Most people make up excuses which deepens the sense of failure. Learning to say no can take some longer than others. Some don’t learn at all.

Income security

Jobs that many thought in the past were secure are now looking like less of a sure thing.

People in certain jobs thought, even if they had to stop working for a month, that they would still get paid. That dream has been crushed for some.

Whilst governments will help, it won’t be everything. Not being sure if you will have a paycheck at the end of the month, or even if you do, not knowing how much it will be: This is the reality of being on a zero hours contract or being a small scale self-employed worker.

Not having secure specific hours increases your stress levels. It is also the reason employment figures are going up, but in-work poverty is remaining stubbornly high.

A roof over your head

Mortgage holidays, rent relaxation and housing benefit will hopefully cover us for the pandemic. However, calculating how you can navigate the system, what you are entitled to and what you can manage, these are the stresses that poor and in-working poor people go through daily.

State bureaucracy. Calculating which bills you can and cannot pay, jumping through embarrassing hoops and dealing with faceless decision makers. All of this whilst managing what little finances you have. These feelings of lack of control and frustration have negative effects on people, more so if it is over a lengthy period.

In-work poverty is when people who are working still don’t have enough money to meet their family’s needs.

The inability to plan long term makes you concentrate on the short term.This often leads to ‘bad’ decisions. Your mental capacity is exhausted by thinking in the short term, and sometimes people make a decision they may not normally have made, if they had not been stressed. We call this Poor Brain.

Poor Brain is a thing

If you are poor or in-working poor, it’s hard to explain to yourself, let alone others, why you made certain choices.

Rich or poor, we will all make stupid decisions during this lockdown because of the prolonged stress of the situation. Poor and in-working poor people have the stress of making hard decisions every day. Sometimes they have a terrible outcome, at points they feel right at the moment, and other times ‘it’s just like that’. Your ability to make choices, and the stress you are under all affect what decisions you make.

Studies have now shown, I can vouch for this from experience, that if you are stressed about money, your mental capacity to decide is different. You plan short term because that is where the stress is. The here and now. Your mental ability to plan for the long term is non-existent because you are too stressed thinking about now.

It shows financial problems put a burden on the person. The difference is 13 IQ points, equivalent to an entire night’s sleep. Or the difference between an alcoholic adult and a normal adult. This isn’t to say that people with lower IQs end up poor, it’s about being in economic poverty that causes all the above.

It affects everyone, even children.

Scientists have known for years that children growing up in poorer households do worse at school, have lower levels of cognitive functioning and are likely to develop emotional problems. However, they could not tell us why.

Further studies comparing children from families, with different levels of economic capital, showed that children from poorer backgrounds developed differences in their brain structure. These structures were more evident in areas such as decision-making and self-control.

The studies also showed access to nurturing parents, and access to books, musical instruments and trips (essentially cultural resources) lightened the influence that economic poverty would have on the children’s development.

This is easier to provide for your child the more access you have to economic resources. Books don’t take precedence over food and school trips don’t pay for themselves.

Think before you speak

People with access to economic resources like giving advice to people who are worse off. They see it as easy and don’t see the stress. Many see it as a lack of character and cannot understand why the person ‘can’t manage’, to them decisions seem like common sense. Often this lecture ends in some form of shallow “if I was you” comment.

For people lucky enough never to experience the stress of having no money, please reflect on your time in isolation and think before giving advice.

The same studies above show that financial programs help poor people. It gives them more room to think and that way they don’t have the associated problems listed above. This is one argument for Universal Basic Income, the system where everyone has a guaranteed form of income. Who knows, with the way the economy is going we may even get it.

What do we do now

Experiencing poverty shapes your outlook on life, it affects your relationships with people, your spending habits, how you value money and ultimately how you value yourself. Yes, people have to take responsibly for their lives and many will have to face challenges and overcome hurdles. But this does not change the fact that some people have more resources than others to achieve their goals.

If you are poor talk about it, money is not taboo. We need to break the stigma. Then we can start to help each other.

Get help. Someone has been here before, probably in a similar or worse situation than you. Money comes and goes (sometimes too quickly) just as the feeling of frustration and despair will go to.

The gap between the people with access to the resources, and those that must struggle without, grows on a daily basis. This is why we must change the way our society sees poverty and reacts to it. To do this, we need to talk about it and help people in whatever way we can.

Via the ballot box, mutual aid schemes, giving practical advice or helping out a friend, we can eradicate poverty in our generation if the will is there. COVID-19 has proved what we can achieve together during a pandemic, poverty is the biggest pandemic on earth and it won’t stop until we address it.

I hope that the COVID-19 pandemic does not make you poor, but should you experience any of the emotions and stresses I have talked about, remember that poor people deal with these every day of their lives, not just when the country is shut down. It is time we changed that.

Just like COVID-19, Poverty can affect us all

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