Under the arches in Waterloo, a man sits, his head bowed. A scarf is wound tightly around his neck, as if he wants to strangle himself. His hands are grimy and covered in cuts, one suppurating. As I give him some coins and antiseptic plasters, I ask him why he is out there. He doesn’t look at me, and seems unwilling to talk.
I am with a friend. We are going to the screening of a forthcoming BBC TV drama. My friend is impatient and then cross that I have stopped and wasted time (it is barely three minutes) on “these people” – yet after a trip to India my friend told me how awful it was that well-off Indians simply ignored beggars all around them. I remind her of that and she told me: “It’s completely different. They have no welfare there. Here we do. People don’t have to be poor here. It’s a choice.”
I can’t be her friend any more. She is not a bad person but somewhere along this road we are travelling during the recession, she decided that the real enemies within were those who depend on the state or the goodwill of others, “charity pests” as she calls them.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey (2011), 56 per cent of the British population think benefits are too high and stop people looking for work. In 1983, at the height of Thatcherism, the figure was 35 per cent. Today 63 per cent also believe that children are poor because their parents are feckless and lazy.
As life gets hard for the middle classes, they turn harder and the same is happening to those who define themselves as working class. Most of our people, it seems, approve of the benefits cuts, the bedroom tax, substantially reduced disability allowances and a drastic cull of local services. They are now persuaded that the needy are greedy and are a parasitic hoard responsible for our shrinking GDP and economic woes.
Look around you. Listen to the doctors, church leaders, local councillors and workers, homeless and children’s charities, those who run shelters and refuges, and others. They speak to our consciences, tell us what is happening and are not being heard.
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