Undercover Poverty

Illustration: "Brass in Pocket"

“A man ought to have some coins to jingle in his pocket, even if it’s only coppers.”

My Mum used to say that when I was a boy as she sent me or Dad out of the door with 12p in small change scraped together from saucers and purse-corners, to make sure nobody would realise we were poor.

Poor. There’s a word.

A few years ago, having come through university trained to more-or-less pass in middle class environments, I ended up in a meeting at work where various well meaning people were trying to find a way to avoid describing children as poor. “You see, Ray, it’s stigmatising.” What they came up with as an alternative was ‘experiencing disadvantage’. I kept my mouth shut at the time but something about it made me angry. Perhaps it felt like a euphemism designed more for the comfort of the observer than out of concern for the Experiencers of Disadvantage, or maybe I didn’t like the suggestion that being poor, or being called poor, was anything to feel bad about. Being poor only feels shameful because nobody wants to admit to it.

Whatever the reason it made me want to stand up and shout I WAS POOR! Or maybe even I AM POOR! I’m not sure it’s a state you pass out of; it’s like a birthmark, or a lost limb.

The coins in the pocket are one face-saving fib among many. When you’re poor, you’re often far too busy to attend birthday parties and school trips, even though, of course, you’re not busy at all. You tell people you don’t like eating out, that you don’t like the cinema, or that you’re not interested in activities and clubs, even though you yearn for all those things. Or, rather, you would yearn if you hadn’t smothered the yearning before it had chance to cry out, convincing yourself that it’s true. “The cheaper version is every bit as good,” you say, daring anyone to doubt it, making it true through sheer force of desire.

You jingle, you swagger and bluff, and hope nobody calls you on it — “Shall we do rounds?”

Of course that doesn’t happen, as long as you know your place, where everybody has the same handful of nothing.

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