Monday, 9 November 2015

David Cameron's Working Poor - Why I'm all fur coat, champagne and no knickers

Skint professional with GSOH seeks new life

I'm a 21st century cheapskate in the age of austerity – My mate Emma said to me few years ago: 'If there's a war, I'm with you.' It was the greatest compliment I've ever received. I reckon if there's a war, you should all be with me. Because I'll take care of you. 

I've been poor for almost two decades and I spent a short time being homeless in my early twenties, this was just after I got pregnant at 19, so I've put the hours in. Honest.  

I'm that very special strata of working poor. You know the type: business class flights to Asia on work trips, five-star hotels, champagne lifestyle on cider money, dinner with the King and Queen of Sweden; my own chauffeur on a [window-] shopping trip in UAE, dinner with Ambassadors and diplomats, my teenage son has a full scholarship to one of UK's top independent schools. I'm encouraging him to tip the Tory balance with our socialist leaning ways.

Let me be clear, I (still) haven't actually got a pot to piss in myself. And I'm 37.

The other week I discovered that for almost two years I've been living well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's definition of the poverty line. THIS CAME AS QUITE A SHOCK TO ME as I'd been very confused about why I was so skint all the time. I felt well off, sort of, even though I generally have no money at all.

I've always thought I was in an average income bracket, at least.

But it turns out – I'm POOR!

Very special things happen to you when you are poor. Like…The other week I talked my way out of being gang raped by seven young men. Actually, that last bit was scarier than I'm letting on. And it's only because I've lived on a council estate on and off for the past 13 years, and fancy myself as an actress, and I've dated some proper rough types, that I could get away with pretending to be an untouchable gangster's moll. (I am not advocating it.)

Back to Emma: she said 'If there's a war, I'm with you' because I make food last FOREVER. I reckon I could even make a three-course meal out of pondweed.

On that afternoon I was serving 'Christmas Turkey Curry' and 'Christmas Turkey Risotto' for a get-together celebratory dinner in my garden. It was a hot August day and we were eating outdoors, we had candles, olives and lots of Prosecco. When we were really drunk, someone broke out into song. (I don't own an iPod. Or an iPod dock. Or Vinyl. We had to be creative.)

We were marking some sort of engagement, book prize, TV commission, triumvirate situation going down. We were all pretty pleased with ourselves: gee aren't WE doing well! (The smug didn't last. OK it did for them, but not for me, the TV commission failed to pay up and then I was poor again.)

Even though I was hosting a celebration dinner, there was no need to be extravagant.

No need to go out and actually buy new food for the occasion or anything. I just needed to redistribute the turkey I'd been hoarding in the freezer for eight months and make the most of some good spices. The trick is to only tell your dinner guests what you have cooked for them after the event, otherwise they'll never eat at yours again.

Don't judge me, but I was tucking into that Christmas Turkey shred-by-shred for a year.

The thing is, I'm used to being poor. I even wrote a book about it (and became less poor for a while until the taxman and literary agent banked 40 per cent of my advance, buy it here ).

I've been poor since my early-twenties. Eight years ago I was so poor I was feeding myself and my son on £8 a week. Something that is impossible now, even if you do snack on other people's nettles and nasturtiums and start cooking their cats.

I'm no longer pedestrian poor, I've gone up a level to aspirational poor, this means that I buy reduced items at Waitrose, I eat quinoa and I tap other people's expense accounts for Champagne.

The Tories don't need to talk to me about austerity measures; I've been known to make everyone in my household use the same bathwater because I needed to reduce the heating bill (yes, I got first dibs on the dip). So until David Cameron has bathed in Sam-Cam's pubic hair bathwater, he should shut up.

Or he should come and live at my house for a bit. I'll show him a thing or two about austerity. He'd be back on that Virgin Pendolino from Manchester to London begging Samantha for some Turkey Twizzlers. He totally would.

Because I'm poor, I'm used to trimming the corners off mouldy bread and whacking it in the toaster. I haven't owned a television for over six months now because my television broke and I can't afford to buy a new one. I don't care if I can get one on freecycle, I don't want to pay for a TV license to watch crap TV. As I work in the arts, this makes me look like an intellectual.

I drink wine out of teacups because it's a waste of money to buy fancy glasses now we've smashed them all. As they are from a carboot sale, I look bohemian.

We stopped eating meat a year ago BECAUSE WE CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO BUY MEAT. Therefore, I appear to be a vegetarian.

My personal austerity measures may go further still: 

  • It might be the case I give up drinking alcohol completely, even the free stuff at launch parties, because it has knock-on expenses like taxis, Dr Pepper and a supply of Anadin. But then I'll just look boring.
  •  I only ever buy my clothes from charity shops. Therefore I look ethical.
  •  Last Sunday I began sorting out my wardrobe to find clothes for the Keep Syria Warm campaign. It soon became apparent that my clothes are too crap to donate to Syrian refugees, at which point I binned most of them. Now I look naked.
  • I might sell some furniture. And then I'll look Scandinavian.

  •  I should sell my car. Good grief, then I'll look eco-sensitive.

Given my new image, I should probably move to Levenshulme.

But why am I so poor? It's because I owe the equivalent of A NEW Vauxhall Meriva in accumulated debts – and let's face it, who wants to be forced to own A NEW Vauxhall Meriva? This massive cash flow sink hole comes from a period in 2010 when I didn't get paid for some work, then worked for four years without a pay rise, during inflation, followed by a cut in hours. Now I get paid a decent salary, but the cost of living, combined with debt, keeps rising.

I think Jeremy's been spying on me. Sometimes I leave the house in my fur coat without wearing any knickers – this is because I don't own enough knickers, Jeremy.

And because I'm poor, it's not even a real fur.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Respecting skill and talent

Most importantly I want to point out that my current employer, who I joined in September, takes a respectful and supportive approach to his employees and to myself as his employee.

He has actively and patiently listened to all our views on work, our needs, skills and salaries. Across the board – from senior staff to part-time casual staff – this approach is a paragon of how to keep employees happy and healthy at work. And I'm very happy with my current working situation.

The article in The Telegraph empathises with those who will find themselves in difficulty following the cuts, because I have been in that situation. This is not in any way a reflection on my current employer, or my previous employer, but related to the high cost of living.

I am now – thanks to a recent change to full-time work and a respectful salary – able to find my way back out of previous financial difficulties.

From the JRF report.

Debt and income

I know that if you are vitriolic against single mothers, because you are coming here to find bait for the Telegraph comments section, you won't like this.

An explanation is in a blog post below but I've cut and pasted it here:

But why am I so poor? It's because I owe the equivalent of A NEW Vauxhall Meriva in accumulated debts – and let's face it, who wants to be forced to own A NEW Vauxhall Meriva? This massive cash flow sink hole comes from a period in 2010 when I didn't get paid for some work, then worked for four years without a pay rise, during inflation, followed by a cut in hours. Now I get paid a decent salary, but the cost of living, combined with debt, keeps rising.

Do remember that we have just been through an economic crisis and a triple-dip recession. This was a particularly difficult time for small businesses – and even writers and journalists. No one is to blame for that situation, it is simply what happened, and it takes time to recover from a difficult period, for anyone!

It does not happen overnight and it does not go away overnight: think 'long-term economic recovery' on a micro-scale.

In some of the worst case scenarios writers (though not me) on average earned £11,000. Also for those who think I have a new book to plug – I don't! I'm genuinely worried for the plight of families in the UK.

Or if you think that I made a mint on my book, like JK Rowling: it took a year to write; 15 months to promote: 20 per cent to agent + 17.5% VAT, expenses, then 20% to the tax man. Divide the remainder over two-and-a half years.

The guardian 2104
Authors' incomes collapse to 'abject' levels

What can happen when you are freelance and a writer is that sometimes people DON'T PAY YOU for work you have done, but then you still have to pay your rent and eat.

It happens.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Supporting women writers

As my social media is switched off I can't engage with the comments or opinions. But here's support from the UK's leading publisher of short fiction, the award-winning Comma Press. 


In the words of Taylor Swift 'haters gonna' hate'.

So, thanks for the love, Comma.

Here's a fabulous woman talking about the hatred aimed at women online in The Washington Post. Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire. 

Read also here the trouble experienced by former CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao.

Telegraph article written by a man - no sign of abuse here.

In this article written in the Telegraph ahead of the election a MAN raises the issue of the working poor debate.

Working poor is related in the main to the high cost of living – it is high housing and utility costs that are making life more difficult than it needs to be for the average and below average household.

In the article written by me? A gathering angry mob that wants to burn me for all of society's ills.

What has happened to people? Why are you so mean?

Supporting small business

During the recession, followed by a recession, and another recession, many friends of mine and members of my family lost their jobs, those that didn't saw a massive reduction in their incomes. there were also men who, faced with the fear of job losses, took their own lives.

These people worked in the arts and public sector services, where the cuts went deep: the majority worked in social services.

I was lucky during this time because I did hold onto my job during a very difficult time for small businesses, even if my income dipped as the cost of living rose. I was very fortunate that my employer held on tight and kept people in work; I'm not sure I would have been able to succeed in this. I fully respect that he was able to achieve this for so long. Those that run small business deserve a medal – they have the lives of others in their hands.

We might be coming out of a recession but the ripples of it can still be felt - individuals have their own personal economic recovery to deal with: this goes far further the than homeless, unemployed, sick and low-income but also inches into average income families who are finding it hard to 'keep things going' because of the rise in living costs.


We're all in this Together - The Big Society

From five years ago.

What has happened to the Big Society? Why have we descended into a country that uses polarised politics to initiate dangerous rhetorics?

Great Britain is a democracy: this means we have the right to vote and this means that sometimes someone is always unhappy with the party in power. Presently, that's the left versus the Tories.

And to stay in power the leading political party denigrates the opposition.

But we mustn't make it a pit fight. We must speak respectfully about and to one another otherwise we are creating a divided society. And I believe we must work together to make that happen.

No, it shouldn't be the case that we have a society that needs WFTC to fill in the gaps. This has become increasingly the case because of the rise in the cost of living.

Tidying up

In the raft of abusive comments that have accompanied by article on 'the working poor' in the Telegraph - well there's everything, where do do we begin - there are also some people taking a more level headed approach. Thank you. What's most interesting is that my article is published in the WOMEN section, where it seems to be OK to receive a torrent of personal abuse by men. So when women have a voice, we seemingly present an arena that allows men to SET FIRE to them. What nice people we are.

To clarify a few points: because let's face it, if you wanted my life story I'd have to write another book, and I might get paid for it and then you'll hate me even more: 850 words – there are going to be gaps.

I can see how this title is misleading. Because I didn't write it. I pay my bills. It's a struggle, but I do and I always have. Are they talking about me, or other people? I'm not even sure. 'The number of people in-work who fall below the poverty line has risen by 70 per cent in London'.

I don't live in London. It's too expensive. I don't know how anyone can afford to live in London, I tried it and left.

I fully empathise with those that are going to experience further hardship because of the changes not only to their income but the cost of living. As an example, I talked about my own experiences.

There are people far far worse off than me, and I am very concerned about you too.

  • You have a car  – I have worked since I was 14 years-old. I've paid tax since I turned 16 years-old. I've paid road tax since I was 17. Tax on petrol. At various *periods in my life my income has fluctuated. THIS IS TRUE OF MANY PEOPLE. Therefore, yes. I own a car. But it has been increasingly difficult to keep hold of my car and every month I contemplate selling it. As a parent, you try 'to keep things going' for your child when your finances take a nosedive. (I have one, not three!) However, as thankfully my working situation has now changed and I am back in full-time employment, I can try to hold on to it. To cut down on running my car, I cycle. I would have sold my car, but they depreciate so much, that I held onto it knowing it would be difficult to ever buy a car again.
  • Yes it's about choice: do we need a £300 TV to watch The X Factor? No. Do I need lots of make-up and perfume and accessories etc? No. Do I need to travel for work, yes. Do I need to collect my son, do I need to connect with my family? yes.
  • You have a fat face - that cycling isn't doing you any good! I've always had a fat cheeks. What can I say? When I'm rich I'll give into society's demands and get my cheeks chiselled. 
  • I saw on twitter that you once ate sushi - yes it was half price at around £2.50 for loads of it. Seemed like a good deal to me.
  • You can eat chicken drumsticks for £2.50 - and it lasts one meal? I can get a bag of quinoa  that is a complete protein and it lasts me weeks. I can cook up some lentils: I try not to shop at supermarkets too often because local veg shops are cheaper as is a food cash 'n' carry. And you don't buy extras.
  • You do pilates - not any more I don't! But yes I have a back injury, two bulging discs at the bottom of my spine following a road accident, instead of taking medication, or using the NHS, I use exercise to help me. Because of this, I am able to work. There had been times when my mother had to pull me off my bed, but I'm OK now, thanks.
  • I bet you you get housing benefit? You are assuming because I am a single mother, I'm on housing benefit. I think I've claimed housing benefit once in my life, for about 6 months, when my son was a baby. I can't be sure of that, it may be a little longer or shorter, I've always worked. I FULLY UNDERSTAND people go through periods of their life through disadvantage, sickness, bereavement that prevent them from being able to work.
  • University - when I first went to university tuition fees were free; I paid for my MA. I'm paying for my MSc. I began to pay off all my university loan immediately, even when it pushed me to the edge of my finances, I don't have university debt.
  •  You son can go to university and get into debt - any family should think long and hard before encouraging their children to get into £35,000+ of debt, 18 may not be the right age for him to go to university. It's up to him.
  • My son has a strong work ethic and will be a tax payer - Over our lifetime we may end up paying more tax than support we received.
  • * As a woman I pay tax on my periods - men don't pay tax on shaving products but I have paid 17.5% tax on tampons, now 5%. See this Guardian article here.
  • Ha, we can't abuse her on twitter - I don't have to stay on twitter. I have my actual job to do and don't want to get ping-ping-pinged every 3 minutes.

Anything else?
Why am I even doing this?

Friday, 23 October 2015

If you are coming here from the Telegraph; what it is important to point out is that I am talking historically about what happened during the recession – and my empathy for those whose working situation changed and who have, or still do, find themselves in difficult financial situation.

It can happen to anyone. It could happen to you.

As I make clear, my employment situation, thankfully has changed again and I am now happily in full-time employment. So, I, as an individual, would not be eligible to claim WFTC.

However, there are those who do need to claim.

Poor me? Poor Osborne

All this talk about saving money is embarrassing. Maria Roberts on making work pay. 

This article appears as an edited version on The Telegraph here.

When I listened to the news last night reporting on George Osborne's plans to take £1,300 a year, £108.33 a month – that's £25 a week – away from low-paid families, I cried. I imagine £25 a week is what Osborne might spend on a bottle of wine; or as he'd have us believe it's equivalent to five bottles of wine at £5 per bottle from Aldi for those lazy low-income families on their zero-hour contracts. Let them eat lobster from Lidl and make risotto! But when you are strapped for cash, like I am, £25 is equivalent to week's worth of vegetables, milk and eggs – not a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.

Cuts don't just affect the working classes. This is a text I received yesterday from my friend, a geneticist from Cambridge: "Can't believe I'm 50, with a PhD and experience and on the poverty line". She's a single mum with two kids; her husband of twenty years relocated the family (for which she gave up her well-paid research position), had an affair with a woman half his age and left her high and dry. My friend's career and earning potential was irreparably damaged. She went from a household income of in excess of £100K per year to income support, followed by a lower-paid position. It isn't that easy to find a well-paid skilled job – for professionals or anyone else.

Women are taxed for having periods and then we are penalised for being parents.

Let me be frank. Pretty soon, because my son is 17, I may no longer be eligible to claim tax credits. Likewise my employment situation has changed, so I won't need to. And as we're all too embarrassed to talk about money, I'll put my own purse on the line: in the 2014-15 tax year I took home £1,316.93pcm after tax (£60.78 a day) and around £53 per week in tax credits. I must have applied for a hundred jobs, then eventually opted to retrain. I didn't want to be on a low-income. We just happened to be in a recession.

My son and I are almost certain that he may not go to university (despite his scholarship to a top independent school and raft of As and A*s at GCSE), because it is beyond our means. University is a luxury we cannot afford and, like a 1960s matriarch, I really need him to start contributing to the household bills. Social mobility is getting so out of reach in our small family that we may as well just stay here on the council estate and eat Jaffa Cakes. Forever.

It's possible that by 2016-17 I won't be taking anything at all from HMRC, just putting it back in. Let me also be clear that when I no longer need tax credits (which will be for the next 28 years of my working life), I am more than happy to know that my taxes will contribute to supporting low-income families and individuals (let's not forget the childless that struggle, they are just as important).

Yes, I want to pay my taxes to help others because I myself was helped; what's so wrong with that? Thank goodness for the British welfare system. When it works.

I cried at the news because I know first-hand what reliance upon a measly £25 per week feels like: to begin to make more savings to my sawdust life, I would need to give up tea, coffee, fruit juices, cordial, sugar, bread, butter, milk and a bottle of cheap plonk each week. We'd have to drink tap water. Constantly.

Whilst my financial situation at home is best described as tight, I had assumed I was doing okay. I was wrong. I have been poor for a decade.

I'd always thought my household income was 'around average' but according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report A minimum income standard for the UK in 2015 by Donald Hirsch, published July 2015), I had been living well below the poverty line for some time – I just hadn't realised it because I hadn't bothered to study the cost of living.  

It turns out some of my friends – journalists, authors, artists – are living in poverty too.

JRF's ongoing research measures poverty as relative to the society in which you live: you need a minimum income (MIS) to participate in that particular society, if not basic needs fail to be met. Poverty is seen in context to what is happening in the UK, not for example compared to a family in India.

In my case, as a single parent with one child, that income is £26,725. I had been living more than 25 per cent below that threshold for the past two years (with a household income of approximately £20,000 including tax credits and child benefit, for two people). This is because my full-time contract was reduced to 0.8 pro rata and for four years I didn't receive a pay rise. It was only in September this year that my hours finally increased to full-time, taking me into a slightly safer financial zone.

I generally describe myself as being 'strapped for cash', 'a bit broke right now', or 'skint'. But that doesn't do my situation justice. The correct description for me would have been 'poor' or that very modern term 'working poor'.

From 2011-2015 I earned less per annum than in 2008-2011 – yet my required MIS in 2015 is 123.89% higher than that in 2008. Instead of accruing wealth since my early twenties, I've accrued debt. I'm poorer in real terms than I was aged 23.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundations' observations are true. I don't participate in society like others might. My personal austerity measures may look like lifestyle choices, but they are essential to meet my living costs:

I haven't owned a television for six months because it broke and I can't afford to buy a new one. When I tell people I don't own a TV, they think I'm making an intellectual statement. I'm not. I need to save £145.50 a year on my TV licence.
We stopped eating meat a year ago because meat is unaffordable. For example, a free-range chicken costs £7 – for that I can make three vegetarian meals.
I only ever buy my clothes from charity shops. This makes me look ethical and alternative but I'd prefer to shop new sometimes.
I can't afford both public transport for my son to go to school (£65pcm) and for me to get to work (£120pcm) and so I cycle 36km a day whilst he has a bus ticket.
I cook my meals for the week all at once (it takes around seven hours), this reduces waste and means two onions, spinach, lentils, a sweet potato, a carrot, two courgettes, a single aubergine, coconut milk and two tins of tomatoes can be used to make soup, lasagna, curry and a chilli.
My 17 year-old son has worked since he was 14 because I cut his pocket money. He even worked through his GCSEs and he's been buying his own clothes and shoes for years.
I dilute bottles of semi-skimmed milk with water to make it last longer. (My friends hate this.)
We haven't had a family holiday for two years.

I could go on.

I used to be pedestrian poor, but now I'm the aspirational poor. As a 37 year old woman, I have a degree and an MA, I'm an author, and I'm studying for an M.Sc. in Media Management so that I can increase my earning potential (it's a heavily discounted online course, naturally, but I feel it's essential to keep my skills relevant). I've given guest lectures at universities and I've appeared on radio and TV. For four years I've worked as the editor of an international business magazine for the arts, for which I've travelled to San Francisco, Taipei, Singapore, New York, Madrid, Budapest and Hong Kong to name a few. That's employment for you.

Culturally, I'm rich. As an arts journalist, my personal playground is full of classical music, theatre, literature and opera launches.

A friend of mine says I have a way of finding glamour in poverty. I hate this idea: there's nothing glamorous about poverty. As a woman, I would have been at least £25,000+ a year better off getting married, not getting educated.

In the 15 years since I graduated from university, I haven't improved my standard of living at all.

I'm simply better at being poor.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

Introducing the next two Next Big Thing authors who have answered questions on their latest books. 

Annie Kirby, author and writing tutor
Annie and I had stories published in the Bracket anthology and have both written for Comma Press. She has written short stories, essays and articles and is currently working on a novel she first thought up in a Creative Writing class fifteen years ago. You can find her blog here.

Russell Smith, author The Grenshall Manor Chronicles
I met Russ whilst studying for the MA Creative Writing. He's a good personal friend and saved the day one Christmas by putting together a Lego racing track for my son Jack that I'd bought but couldn't figure out. Russ' latest story is released next month as part of a collection of short stories called Crime Net. You can find his blog here.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Single Mother on the Verge
Available as an iBook, on Kindle
on Kobo and as a Penguin Paperback, 

Roll up! Roll Up!
The Next, NEXT BIG THING thing writers being are getting ready to post: last week I was tagged by Michele Gorman.  I'm  introducing this week's writers in relentlessly slow style, like a reality TV show results night.

So far we've had Michelle Green

You can read her inspiring post here.

Coming up a brilliant mix.

Alice Kuipers, award-winning young adult and children's author living in Canada

Alice and I both studied on the MA Creative Writing at MMU, back in 200? ... well back a few years! She has published some cracking novels. She's incredibly prolific (cue writer envy).  We also worked briefly together on Manchester's City Life magazine in the good days, nice little lunches, followed by coffees in London.  You can find her blog here.

My PhotoZoe Lambert, author of The War Tour,  shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize

Zoe and I met in our early twenties just after she had graduated from the MA Creative Writing at UEA, where she had studied under some of those BIG NAME creative writing tutors that steal supplement headlines. We met through some mutual friends that were studying here in the UK from San Francisco. My friend on the MA course dated a professional dominatrix that studied with Zoe on her course. A decade of wine-soaked nights later, we are still firm buddies. You can find her blog here.

Two more to be added later....