By Anne Southern
‘WE are not concerned with the very poor, they are unthinkable …’ wrote EM Forster in his 1910 novel ‘Howards End’. When I first read this, I found it to be shocking, and could accept it only as a satirical comment on the main characters, whose charity extends to helping a lower middle class clerk with aspirations to culture and education.
And yet this comment could be applied to the attitudes of many in affluent Jersey after more than 100 years of so-called progress.
I once met someone who had been in Jersey for only a few weeks who claimed, ‘There are no poor in Jersey’. This was met with an offer to take her to the food bank – for where else can the poor be encountered? Their poverty renders them invisible, as they are seemingly unable to participate in the lives that the rest of us take for granted.
I cannot imagine how someone on income support is expected to live on £100 a week, even if bills and housing costs are taken care of. But for now I’ll focus on pensioner poverty.
A pensioner couple in receipt of a pension based on 45 years’ contributions would have about £18,000 a year. This is the amount that the Which? report said was needed in 2021 in the UK to cover only the essentials. According to the Numbeo website the cost of living in Jersey is 32% higher than in the UK. That, together with rampant inflation, would suggest that those reliant on a full social security pension in Jersey (and only a third of the 13,000 pensioners in Jersey have enough contributions to claim the full amount) won’t even be able to afford the basics, and must therefore be living in poverty. Those without sufficient contributions, the majority, may need to claim income support – not payable to those who own a property, and any savings above some £22,000 are deemed to be receiving 20% interest – I’d like whoever thought of that one to tell me who their financial adviser is. The recently announced extra £20 per month boost to those on low incomes is little more than a shaky sticking plaster. Those who are able to enjoy a comfortable retirement are those lucky ones who have an occupational pension (though the final salary pension is becoming a thing of the past); a third of pensioners are living in relative low income.
I spent a week considering how my life would have to change without my teacher’s pension. No foreign holidays or going out for lunch; I’d have to shop carefully for food, and wrap myself in a blanket while turning the heating down. What would I do if I needed dental work or the vacuum cleaner broke? Unable to walk far, I wouldn’t be able to get the exercise I needed by cycling on an e-bike or swimming – though maybe that extra payment could buy me a swim pass at £21 per month. I wouldn’t be able to run a car, so would be reliant on buses, though to walk to the nearest bus stop is a struggle. Gardening would be out, assuming I didn’t have to downsize to a flat without a garden, as I wouldn’t be able to afford new plants or carry them home. Perhaps the odd packet of seeds would suffice.
It occurs to me that what I could still do to have some quality of life is attend my u3a groups. The u3a, of which I am the local chair, is an organisation for people who want to keep active in their retirement. An annual payment of £18 gives you access to about 30 groups as varied as walking, literature, canasta, films or language learning. It is a self-help organisation, where groups are led by volunteers. Those who have larger homes host groups and provide tea and biscuits, but no one objects if members are unable to do this, and those who would like to offer an activity but can’t host it are helped to find a suitable venue. Groups that require a more expensive venue are subsidised by those that operate at no cost. It is an apolitical group, and though some members would clutch their pearls if I pointed out that it operates along Marxist principles – ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,’ I can’t help feeling that we operate as a model for wider society.
If we had members living in poverty we wouldn’t necessarily know, but I suspect we don’t have many. Poverty is demoralising, and those who suffer from it tend to stay indoors and let themselves become ‘unthinkable’. Except, that is, as EM Forster says, ‘by statisticians and poets’. To that I would add, our government, for it is they who should overhaul our social security system, and it is they who bear the shame of allowing poverty to exist in a wealthy island.