“Normal” saw millions trapped in the poverty cycle. Is that what we want to return to?

Part 1

“If a person has enough money to choose where they can live, go on holiday even once a year, to eat good healthy food, to not have to work two or three jobs to keep out of debt, then they are going to have a much more comfortable, peaceful and happy life.”

Conversations about the “new normal” and “business as usual” fail to address the fact that our current normal doesn’t work for everyone, and actively harms many. Inequalities in quality of life are not only still present, they’re worsened, and any strategies based on returning to normal need to urgently address this, rather than sweeping it under the rug as per the “old normal”. 14 million people (more than one in five) are estimated to be in poverty in the UK, and this is getting worse year on year. At the same time, we are seeing increasing coverage in the media about the worsening of Britain’s mental health – and the “crisis” or “nosedive” we might experience as a result of the pandemic. 

Through our work with Trust for London, we recently consulted our members in the city where inequalities may be most visible, and where living costs are the highest of anywhere in the country: London. The experiences we heard about from almost 700 individual comments – a total of nearly 20,000 words – paint a bleak picture of needs going unmet right now in housing, work, and the benefits system, as well as a vicious cycle of poverty that traps communities and generations in circles of deprivation and poor mental health. Overall, 73% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that poverty and lack of money has affected their mental health in negative ways.

“Poverty is a way of life, a reality and a state of mind. This cannot go on.”

Mental health does not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by our material and social surroundings. Distress is not a medical phenomenon, separate from issues of poverty and inequality. It is clear that without a basic standard of living it’s almost impossible to get to a place of being stable and well enough to get yourself out of poverty. This was the main theme of the discussion of our focus group and the responses to our survey, as almost everyone echoed the sentiment of the existence of multiple “vicious cycles” relating to mental ill-health and poverty with one leading to the other, or the “poverty trap” that having mental health problems can be. 89% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “when someone in my community experiences mental ill-health, trauma or distress they often end up in financial difficulties.”

“Getting in to debt = poor credit record = can’t access direct debit services for essential fuel services so have to use prepayment cards at 1/3 higher cost, can’t get contract for mobile phone so PAYG, can’t get Wi-Fi contract so hugely inflated mobile data charges only option, borrowing costs literally over 1000% more when credit rating poor and the act of borrowing at these rates gives you poor credit rating so cycles continue. ALL these things compound year after year after year. It is the fundamentals where poverty kills.”

Something else that became apparent is that poverty doesn’t just trap individuals; it traps communities. On the collective level, they have to experience the painful recognition that being stuck in poverty is making the people they love unwell. 90% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Lack of access to money makes people in my community more likely to become unwell or have trouble coping with life”, and 87% agreed or strongly agreed that “difficulties with social security benefits makes life harder than it needs to be for people in my community.” It disempowers and prevents people caring for one another: “Lack of money means that you do not practice generosity often, if at all. You cannot care for others, because you are unable to care for yourself”. There is only so much that solidarity can fix, only so much practical help that can be offered by peers and grassroots groups who may themselves be struggling.

“Because there is still a stigma when it comes to mental health in the community, individuals are unable to get the support from it so have to rely on statutory services or the voluntary sector for support. These services are stretched to the limit and the help they can offer is often time limited.”

In some people and communities, solidarity and support is hindered by pride and the stigma around being in poverty/on benefits or having poor mental health that still exists, often unaddressed. One of our members told us that a conversation with the Imam of a London mosque highlighted the shame folk still feel when they are struggling financially, especially those who were already only just about surviving on the breadline in precarious employment before COVID-19 hit: “speaking as a Pakistani person from a Pakistani community, a lot of people are not going to admit their poverty because there’s all this stuff around pride, and shame… people are not going to speak up to say they can’t afford this or they can’t afford that… If you can’t pay the bills, look after your family, provide electricity, and you’re not going to speak to the Imam, all these things will affect your self worth”. We heard from another member who spoke about the expectation on men in families to be providers, which causes emotional pain and a loss of respect when that role cannot be fulfilled due to deprivation.

“Since having no money, I am dependent on people for money, food or even to travel to my GP. I  don’t have the freedom and it has knocked my confidence, I don’t feel like a man.”

It’s in minoritised and/or racialised communities, overrepresented in the poorest parts of London, where the cyclical impact of poverty becomes apparent over generations: “if you’re poor, your children are going to be poor, and your children’s children are going to be poor… you don’t stand a chance”. Where you grow up matters – it has a profound impact on social mobility later in life.

“It causes constant stress and anxiety that I cannot give my child good food and do the things my friends’ children can like extra activities.”

As we approach another Mental Health Awareness Day, I hope we can shift the spotlight of conversation and attention away from abstract concepts of awareness and towards the unjust causes of distress that are only getting worse throughout the pandemic: in part 2 of this article we explore what our members told us about work, lack of work, housing, the social security system and debt as drivers of the poverty cycle. 

Read part 2: