Big Issue founder John Bird says his harsh early life taught him that many things done for the needy just keep people poor
The first Christmas I spent in a Catholic convent I longed for the slums of my birth. The nuns who got us up in the morning, got us washed, fed and then to church, were a poor replacement for the mother, father and brothers I was no longer with.
I was distraught, aged seven, the product of a broken London Irish family. Where were the people I loved?
The nuns could never fill the gap left by my broken home, with its mice, rats, earwigs and damp walls. The pristinely clean convent, the clean beds and the clean clothes could not make up for the “hominess” of our hovel.
And the generous portions of food: St Vincent’s Convent, run by the Sisters of Charity, was a 10 star hotel compared to slummy Notting Hill. And yet there was not a moment when I did not want to escape it and go back to the shivering under-fed coldness of poverty.
Since those days when poverty was big in my life I have been asking many questions. Why? Why poverty? Why bring children into the world that you cannot afford to keep? What is the answer to being poor, and how can you reduce it, or eradicate it, in the world?
After three years of St Vincent’s Convent for orphans and broken families, I was returned to a family home. And the trouble began. I started stealing, starting fires, truanting from school. Not only was I poor, but I added to the problems of my life by breaking the law. For quite a few years I was one of those troubled people who come and go in the prison system.
But all the while I was asking the big question: would I have been a different person if poverty had not been the condition into which I was born? Could I have made a go of it, even though I was poor?
Eventually I got out of poverty by work and raising a family. And then 21 years ago I started The Big Issue. Ever since, I’ve tried to get more and more people out of crime and wrongdoing through work and education.
But the big question still rings in my head: what can we do about poverty? How can we drive it from the face of the earth?
My new book, The Necessity of Poverty, has grown out of my life’s work. It is a small book, a kind of manifesto. It looks at poverty not from above, like an observer, but from having been a part of it. It does not come to poverty as someone who decided to dedicate his life to people less fortunate than themselves. Rather, having lived through poverty and seen how many things are done for the poor that in fact keep people poor, it is time to speak out, to try to help the poor get out of poverty, rather than leaving them there, stewing in need and desperation.
My book is a tough call for people to re-think many things. For instance, when you give money to the poor, are you actually helping them? Are you helping them move out of poverty? Or are you maintaining them in slightly better conditions than if you gave them nothing?
Is your giving in order to make yourself feel better, rather than changing the circumstances of the receiver? For we all know that a good Catholic is expected to think of those without. And, in fact. the Christmas message is always about remembering the poor at times of our joy and celebration.
My book is tough because it asks tough questions about the process of giving, arguing that giving changes little in the lives of the poor. Using the words of The Big Issue: is it a “hand up, or a hand out”?
If you consider the way that state benefit is used you will see what I mean. Benefit is for “getting by”. It is never for bringing a change in your life, so that you can acquire skills, or get to college, or start your own business. In fact, it is little more than money to warehouse you.
Because so many generations of governments have given up on people in need, social security has virtually turned into a kiss of death to your ambition and your exit out of poverty.
Governments have created a new class of people who are outside of society: workless, broken. and lost to ambition and social improvement.
Hovering around them are countless “supposed” defenders of the poor, who see nothing wrong in warehousing people in ghettos of inactivity.
Having lived through poverty, and exited it through my faith and some education while in the prison system, I know that there are thousands of people who could have done the same. But they got caught on social security. And there they languish, even members of my own family.
The days of an open-handed state will soon be a thing of the past. Governments and their agencies will increasingly push and bully people off benefits and into work – often poorly paid work, often work that will limit even further the opportunity of social improvement. What was once a sympathy for the poor has led the poor into the trap of dependency and as state cash runs dry the poor are truly on their own.
My book suggests that we use the little money left more wisely, and ask this simple question: if we give to those in need, will it help to get them out of need? Or will it simply warehouse them in poverty?
Churches, political parties and the general public have to stop giving to tie the poor up, and start giving to allow the poor a chance to fly.
This is difficult to contemplate as money becomes in short supply. But still we must ask the big question: are we here to end poverty or keep the poor dependent?
I personally believe we need to focus on “hand-ups”, not “handouts”. We have to tailor our giving to transform lives, and that has been the biggest lesson of my long struggle in and around the poor.
I hope you get to read my simple, tough little book. It took a lifetime to write, but takes a morning to read. Let us truly wish the best possible future to the poor – and that is to get out of it.
The Necessity of Poverty by John Bird is published by Charles Glass Books, a new imprint of Quartet Books (Charlesglass.net, 020 7304 4100) priced £8