Conspicuously poor

Katherine Trebeck, is Global Research Policy Adviser in Oxfam’s research team and  Honorary Professor at The University of the West of Scotland.

In a society in which we often judge each other by superficial appearances, it seems individuals are denied empathy or support as ‘poor’ if they are still able to take care of their appearance.

A friend of mine who has lived in poverty for some time – and is an angry, energetic activist – tells of an interview she did with a journalist about her experience of fuel poverty and the choices she has to make living on the breadline.

At the close of the interview, the journalist said to her ‘but you’re not really poor are you?’, with a knowing, conspiratorial nod.

My friend asked ‘what do you mean?’, to which he explained ‘well, you’ve got great hair, posh looking glasses and lipstick.’

So apparently people can’t be poor and have pride in their appearance at the same time.

But the reality is that my friend is one of the world’s best budgeters and is able to find the best bargains (take note Messrs Osbourne, Johnson and Cameron). She chose well when she received her glasses from the NHS. She has her hair done for free at a local training college and her good taste means she selects quality, stylish items from her local charity shop.

But is seems that’s not good enough – she needs to be conspicuously poor.

This story speaks to a much wider issue of hidden poverty, but also assumptions, misunderstandings and stereotypes.

For example, earlier this year I was part of a radio phone-in about people claiming disability related benefits. The allegation was being made – not for the first time – that most people do so fraudulently, when they are actually fit and well and just too lazy to work. The protagonist’s claim was that because he sees people walking around near his local cafe, dragging their walking sticks, rather than leaning on them, and clearly not at work, then they must be faking a disability and thus fraudulently claiming benefits.

But one only needs to remember that we live in a society in which over half of people receiving disability related benefits are doing so on the basis of poor mental health to recognise that people leaning on their walking sticks isn’t a good proxy for the number of people who don’t ‘really need’ benefits. And more than this, the assumptions contained in the journalist’s allegations and assertions are that style and taste is only the prerogative of those with money.

Writ-large this is a dangerous imposition of superiority and social hierarchy, in which people buy taste, and through this demonstrate some sort of higher value – apparently showing the world they have money, are more successful and somehow inherently better than others.

This post was originally posted on the Oxfam blog on 28th Jan 2012. Katherine submitted it to this discussion “unfortunately it is still relevant”. She tweets at @ktrebeck