Safety Nets

When I lived in Edinburgh for a few years, I got in a bit of debt. By no means was I was poorly paid, but I was self-indulgent in an expensive city, living a Reiss lifestyle on an H&M salary. I was able to live out with my means because I had access to easy and relatively cheap credit. I could perform high wire acts each month, because I had a safety net. In reality, my safety net had a safety net. My life progressed in such a fashion that I got on a solid footing easily enough.

Last night’s furore about the nurse who said she used a food bank during the Scottish Leader’s debate was more than just another act in the grotesque pantomime that is Scotland’s constitutional politics. I think it tells us something about how we think about poverty and desperation.

Picture a nurse and what do we see? We imagine an indefatigable super woman in our mind’s eye. A noble avatar for our most cherished institution. They might be underappreciated,undervalued and underpaid, but they should not be desperate. They should remain quiet, dignified and indefatigable heroes in our national consciousness. Matron doesn’t use a food bank surely.

Yes. Yes she might, and not necessarily because that person conforms to a narrow definition of in work poverty.

People screw up. They might buy a TV that is too big, before going a bit overboard on the family holiday, and when they get home the boiler packs up and the car fails the MOT. These things happen. Folk over extend themselves. This is especially understandable at a time when wages, particularly for public sector workers, are not matching the rise in living costs. These are human mistakes, and errors in financial planning do not deserve moral opprobrium.

I think we would rather deal with a saccharine tinged and idealised fantasy about foodbanks, than deal with the reality. The myth is more comforting the truth. I think even the most well-meaning of us, would like to ‘other’ the people who use them.

I don’t know the life story of the nurse from the leader’s debate. Her story might be entirely credible. It might not be. Ultimately, I don’t think that is the point. The point is that it could be. NHS workers are using food banks for lots of different reasons.

The truth, is that at least for some of us, it is easier to ridicule and demonise the idea that a nurse might need a food bank than it is to actually absorb it. We don’t want to think that our friends and family might need to use one. We don’t want to think that we might need one. Poverty is something that happens to other people. We reject these stories, not because they are incredible, but because we want them to be.

The reality is that financial hardship isn’t consistent and uniform; it can be almost capricious in its capacity to ensnare people. That is scary. Life is scary. Even very well-paid people can be left without a chair when the music stops. A new promotion can easily turn into a disappointing redundancy package and an unaffordable mortgage. That person won’t necessarily need a food bank or go hungry, but they might need to rely on a partner, or borrow money from parents. We can, all of us, end up in too deep and experience what feels like the shame and embarrassment of asking for help.

So let’s not rush to judgement on who deserves to use a food bank and who does not. We can all fall and need a safety net. And when we do, we don’t deserve a pointed finger, but a helping hand.

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