Tom Clark, the acclaimed social and economic commentator, fellow of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and contributing editor to Prospect magazine, has drawn together an urgent collection of essays by today’s masters of social reportage on the catastrophe that is Britain’s poverty crisis.
Here, Tom introduces this important book, Broke: Fixing Britain’s poverty crisis.
You may, or more likely may not, have noticed the story late last month about the official count of rough sleepers rising by more than a quarter in a single year. It is, after all, just one more of those kinds of figures that we’ve grown wearily accustomed to hearing.
Other statistical warning lights that are flashing, a dozen years into austerity, include a doubling of recorded malnutrition in hospital patients and an explosion in food bank use, which has doubled over the past few years and shot up by an order of magnitude over the decade.
On a ‘painting by numbers’ picture, it looks very much like we have returned to deprivation of a type that we once imagined we had consigned to the history books.
A study in stories
And yet it has never been statistics but rather individual human stories – from the fictionalised accounts of Dickens to the faithful reporting of Orwell and Priestley – that have seared the reality of hard times into the imagination. Which is precisely the gap that Broke seeks to fill for Britain’s new ‘hungry twenties’.
With the backing of Joseph Rowntree Foundation resources, I have been able to summon today’s masters of social reportage to go deep into the communities so often ignored by politicians and distil the testimony of those individuals and families at the hardest end of an unfolding poverty crisis.
Who are the contributors?
The writing team – Jem Bartholomew, Cal Flyn, Dani Garavelli, Frances Ryan, Samira Shackle, Daniel Trilling and Jennifer Williams – were each tasked with majoring on a particular aspect of Britain’s poverty crisis, covering cold, hunger, homelessness and so on. Kerry Hudson, the award-winning author of Lowborn, provides a very personal foreword, while the bespoke photography of Joel Goodman brings the characters interviewed to life.
Between them, the writers have all the journalistic prizes and literary commendations you could hope for, but just as important is that several also have first-hand experience of the issues raised, from the benefits office to the housing list. Because if there is one thing that has been missing from the discourse that led Britain to this pass, it is empathy, and a big part of Broke’s task is to inject some of that back into the discussion.
Hope for a better tomorrow
By lending an ear and an open mind to those at the sharp end, we don’t learn only of incredible hardships but also of concrete ideas regarding the specific reforms that could make a real difference. And indeed, we learn too about the extraordinary strength of solidarity: about gig worker Ian and his union colleagues, and the burgeoning will to resist of exploited tenant Lizzie and her housemates. In such ways, Broke moves beyond simply a volume of reportage on the grave woes of today and becomes a book brimming with hope for a better tomorrow.
Broke: Fixing Britain’s poverty crisis is out 30 March.
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