Let them eat handbags

The UK appears to be having one of its periodic outbreaks of idiocy when affluent people claim that they could absolutely feed a family of 12 on 23p a week and have money left over. So Twitter is currently full of people claiming you can buy a chicken in Aldi for £2 (this, clearly, is the branch of Aldi in Madeupshire) and that with that, a carrot and the Blitz spirit you can eat like kings for a fortnight.

You can’t.

Jack Monroe literally wrote the book on this stuff: she’s been helping people make tasty and nutritious food on low budgets for years. And she’s absolutely furious at the people sharing selected bits of her advice as if it’s evidence that struggling to afford food is the result of personal failings, not poverty.

As she wrote two years ago:

Again, having choices around the food you eat is a privilege. Not having to shop exclusively from the white labels of the value ranges, or raiding the battered old veg at the end of the day at the market, is a privilege. Not mentally calculating the pennies difference in every item that goes into your shopping basket is a privilege, and one that millions of people in the UK (and across the world) increasingly do not have. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and the means with which to buy them, is a privilege.

And it’s not just buying core ingredients. All those kitchen cupboard essentials, the seasonings and the spices and the stock cubes, have to be bought too. You need pots and pans and utensils and something to cook on, and the money to pay for the energy to cook with. And so on, and so on, and so on.

One of the problems with this blame-the-poor narrative, which returns far too frequently, is that you absolutely can survive on sod-all money when your cupboards are already stocked, all your bills are paid and you’re only doing it for a week. But all you are doing is having a holiday in somebody else’s misery. Poverty means not just buying your food from the bargain aisle – an aisle that, when I was living in a leafy suburb, was always picked clean by affluent women of a certain age who’d block the area with their trollies until they’d had their pick of the reduced items – but being unable to pay bills, replace the clothes your children have outgrown or gone through and all the other things that demand what little money you have.

Not only that, but being poor is expensive. You can’t stock the freezer, assuming you have a freezer, with bulk buys because you can’t afford to buy in bulk. You can’t get the best price on energy because you’re on a prepay meter. You can’t buy things that last because they are simply too expensive.

If you were a satirist, you’d struggle to come up with a better villain in this than Nick Clarke, who suggested that parents struggling to feed their children should not only skip their own meals, but “sell assets”. What assets? “Handbag, pearls, mobile phone?”

Imagine being so removed from reality that you think the poor are bouncing around with designer handbags and strings of pearls. Poor people don’t have “assets”. They have debt.

One of the best descriptions of poverty I’ve ever read was by the late Terry Pratchett:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.