One thing you’ll notice if you watch Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals is that they actually take more than 30 minutes from scratch to being ‘plated up’. Before the clock starts, packages have been opened, portions have been measured out and ingredients have been chopped. He kicks off his ’30 Minute Meal’ already some of the way there. This shows that preparation is important in cooking. Fine. All well and good. But what that also shows is that you can’t judge a situation from just one glance – and we all need to remember that when we’re trying to
understand poverty in a rich country like the UK.

This week Jamie Oliver made assertions to the effect that poverty could be ended if families didn’t buy large TVs and simply learned to budget better.

I can’t tell you how much I wish this were true.

If ending poverty was that easy, we would have solved it a long time ago. It could have been done with a few cooking courses, some smoking cessation classes and a ban on buying a TV without first proving you can afford it.

But there is no silver bullet with which to end poverty – no matter how much Jamie and I might wish there was. Poverty in a rich country is about more than appearances. It’s much more complex than can be understood by a quick glance into someone’s home and a superficial judgement made of their spending decisions.

Poverty in the UK is the result of a complex web of political decisions. Decisions which set benefit levels and availability. Decisions which set minimum wage levels. And decisions on the economy such as the number of hours people are invited in to work and the prospect of decent work with a Living Wage. These are things that we policy nerds refer to as ‘structural causes’.

Of course, individual people are not passive robots with no free will. They have choice and sometimes they make less than brilliant choices. We all do. But those choices are massively constrained by the system in which they live. And sometimes those choices might be the path of least resistance in an exhausting, grinding life that wears people down and drains them of hope and power.

The reality is that there are dwindling sources of support from the state when people fall on hard times. Hard times caused by lack of decent work, caring responsibilities, expensive childcare, insufficient transport that allow people to the jobs that are available, the need to work three jobs just to keep your family above the breadline, the predatory pay-day loan sharks,  the rising prices for essential goods and services, and the pressure from employers to accept lower wages in the knowledge that the labour market is a ‘buyers market’.

And there is the impact that constant stress has on mental and physical health, constantly anxious that your children are being bullied for not having the right clothes or that you cannot afford for them to go on the school excursion.

There is the stress of not being there for your children when they come home from school because you’ve had to take a job with hours that do not fit around your caring responsibilities.

And the stress of seeing your parents dig into their savings and eat away at their pension in order to give you some money to be able to buy fruit and vegetables for their  grandchildren – if they can afford to help you, that is.

The stress of knowing that if just one thing goes wrong – if you lose your job or the electricity bill comes in higher than expected or you get burgled or the oven breaks down – then your carefully balanced budget collapses and you will find yourself joining those queuing at food banks.

So Jamie, before you judge what it is like for those whose circumstances you don’t know and don’t understand, maybe turn your turkey twizzler onto the way our broken economy is sucking money up for those who already have more than enough. This is leaving the rest of us, but particularly the poorest, with little hope beyond a TV bought a year ago when they had a job, or been given as a present from someone caring enough to know that TV is
maybe the cheapest entertainment a struggling family in the UK today is likely to enjoy.

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