Saturday, 15 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 2

When I was in my mid-twenties, I experienced a period of uncertain employment and very low wages. It happened to coincide with interest rates rising to a staggering 15% that doubled my mortgage within months and left me struggling to pay the bills. I was fortunate to have enough emotional resilience to pull  myself through a difficult time, and a strong network of family and friends to help me out when the going got really tough. Nevertheless, I spent over a year with my outgoings exceeding my income - not because I was profligate - but because I just wasn't earning enough to cater for my basic needs. It wasn't poverty, but it was close and for a long time I teetered on the brink. It was a life of difficult choices - did I pay the electricity bill  or let it go red so I could stock up my meagre food cupboard? Did I buy a travel-card, or cycle the 18 mile round trip to work so I had enough to pay the mortgage? When I eventually landed a job that set me back on track, the debts I incurred took five years to clear, and I was on the credit blacklist for even longer.

I'm grateful for that experience, difficult as it was, for giving me a small insight into the precariousness of life at the bottom end of the salary scale. It's easy when you live comfortably, as we do now, to forget that not everyone is as well off as us. And I guess, the really wealthy - like the coalition ministers who are making decisions about welfare cuts - are so far removed from that life that it is either beyond their imagination, or they just don't care. Either way, they seem to have no understanding of the impact of their policies and the way they affect ordinary people such as Stephanie Bottrill. Stephanie lived with the condition, mysasthenia gravis, an auto-immune disease that weakened the muscles, and required constant medication. In the past, this country recognised that people like Stephanie need support to survive, but under this coalition government, disabled and sick people are bearing the brunt of austerity cuts. Stephanie was one of thousands charged with the bedroom tax, an extra financial demand she simply couldn't afford. In the last few months of her life, she couldn't afford to heat her home, and was cutting back on food so much, all she had in the cupboard was tinned custard. Her life was so desperate, she walked in front of a lorry on the M6; another unnecessary welfare death made even poignant by the news that she should have actually been exempt.

Yesterday, I embarked on my second 24 hour fast for End Hunger Fast, remembering Stephanie as I did so. I was better prepared this week and didn't start feeling hungry till lunchtime. Nevertheless by the afternoon, I was exhausted and nauseous, and a trip to the shops with the children left me feeling stressed and angry. As the evening wore on, all I could think of was food, and when I could break my fast at 10.30. The last two hours were particularly difficult, and I was literally counting down the minutes till I could eat again. Once more I was grateful that I was able to go to bed with a full stomach, conscious that many aren't. And my experience on both fasting days, has provided a little insight into the other difficulties hunger brings - mood swings, lack of tolerance, an inability to make rational choices. No wonder Stephanie Bottrill - cold, hungry and faced with indefinite poverty - was in such despair she took her on life

David Cameron recently reminded us that Britain is a wealthy country, and that money should be no object when faced with the terrible consequences of flooding. A comment that puts the lie to the rhetoric of the last four years that austerity is necessary, that cuts are necessary and that welfare reform is necessary. It is time that he and his government step out from their comfortable, food-filled homes and walked amongst people who have nothing. It is time that money should be no object in addressing the needs of the poor.  It is time for a return to the welfare safety net, work that pays and a restriction on rising food prices.

As part of End Hunger Fast, I will be fasting once a week, but Keith Hebden, Simon Cross and Scott Albrecht are fasting for the forty days of Lent. That's a pretty daunting prospect, so please do offer them your support on Twitter and Facebook. And on 4th April there will be a national day of fasting for anyone who wants to be part of this campaign.

Please join us if you can.

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