Poverty leaves scars for life – I’m still scared of strangers at the door and bills through the letterbox | Jack Monroe
The current cost of living crisis that threatens to plunge millions more people into poverty is going to have far longer-term impacts than a summer of discontent, a few months of belt-tightening or watching what we all spend at the supermarket. Many well-meaning guides offering advice on “how to cope” have been published over the past few months, and although they offer some practical tips that may help a slender margin of people teetering on the precipice of crisis, the truth is that the majority of those struggling have been sliding into this cesspit of deprivation and destitution for nigh on a decade now .
Twelve years of brutal, deliberate cuts to welfare, social security and health services, 12 years of cuts to mental health services, and the increasing reliance on the voluntary sector to try to catch people as they fall through the gaping holes in the safety net mean that those at the sharp end have very few resources left to turn to in order to cope.
And coping isn’t the only concern. Indeed, talking of “surviving” the crisis or “coping” with it is abhorrently casual rhetoric in one of the richest economies in the world. It is as though our citizens deserve little more than to claw at the periphery of an existence, while strapping hot-water bottles to the smalls of their backs and taping clingfilm over their windowpanes, carefully snipping coupons from the free newspapers and filling in endless marketing surveys for tuppence apiece, wrapping casserole pans in dressing gowns to keep in the heat or “boiling” pasta in a heatproof flask.
Poverty is exhausting. It requires time, effort, energy, organisation, impetus, an internal calculator and steely mental fortitude that those in the Treasury could only dream of possessing. And should it not kill you, in the end, from starvation or cold or mental ill health, should you scrabble somehow to the sunlit uplands of “just about managing”, I’m sorry to tell you that although your bank balance may be in the black one day, so too will your head.
I’ve written extensively over the years about how I often could not open my own front door nor my mail as a result of living in poverty, when the only people who knocked on the door were bailiffs or debt collectors. An unexpected visitor leaves me having a full-blown panic attack. Years of therapy has alleviated some of it, some of the time, but my physical and mental health will probably never make a full recovery. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), arthritis exacerbated by living in cold homes, respiratory difficulties from the damp, complex trauma, an array of mental health issues, a hoarding problem, and a slow burning addiction brought to an almost fatal head last year: my story is by no means unique or exceptional.
Short-term exposure to and experience of poverty – whether fuel poverty, food poverty, period poverty, or the root cause of all of them, the insufficient resources with which to meet your most fundamental human needs – has long-term and disproportionate effects for years to come. Childhood exposure to poverty, deprivation and adversity falls under the umbrella of adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs. It’s on a par with domestic abuse, childhood sexual assault, loss of a parent, parental incarceration, violence and neglect.
Exposure to ACEs increases the risk of trauma later in life, both mentally and physically. Bessel van der Kolk writes extensively on this phenomenon in his book The Body Keeps the Score; the devastating impact of trauma on those who suffer it and witness it, on their families and how it can be handed down through generations. Those who experience trauma often disconnect from their own bodies and minds in extreme and complex ways, and this is largely misunderstood in both the medical and therapeutic fields.
Exposure to adverse experiences increases the risk of trauma later in life, with less favourable health outcomes, a negative impact on general wellbeing, increased likelihood of risky or criminal behaviours , poor educational and academic outcomes , and financial difficulties.
Children who experience food insecurity, even short term, are more likely to fall ill, have a slower recovery rate and are more likely to need hospital admission . Food poverty does not exist in a vacuum, and as one of the fundamental survival instincts of our species, food is one of the last necessities that people will choose to cut in a crisis.
Disabled people are five times more likely to be at risk of food insecurity, poverty and a lack of adequate nutritional food than non-disabled people. And food insecurity at any age is linked to a higher probability of chronic illness . The 14.5 million people living in poverty in the UK today are ticking timebombs of increased toxic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, CPTSD, cognitive difficulties, depression, gum disease, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arterial disease, mental illness, diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, autoimmune disorders, suicidal ideation and suicide.
Choosing to deny people the most basic of human needs for the sake of scraping a few quid off the bottom line today will end up costing us – as a society, as a country and as an economy – far more in the months and years to come. If this government cannot bring itself to repair the shreds of the deliberately decimated social safety net for the sake of empathy, decency and common humanity, it needs to be patched up for the sake of long-term economic recovery. And it needs to start today.
Jack Monroe is a campaigner, columnist and author
The Trussell Trust is an anti-poverty charity that campaigns to end the need for food banks. Show your support at: trusselltrust.org/guardian
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com . In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org