Back in 1995 when I was 17 I helped out in a soup kitchen, making butties for homeless people in Manchester. It felt like a good thing to do and I guess it was. It made me aware of the complex challenges some people face when they end up on the fringes of society. It gave me a better understanding of just how trapped a person – any person – can become.
The soup kitchen met a need. It stopped people from starving. It gave people a place to go that was out of the cold and (it was Manchester) the bitter rain. It was a place where a person could get a haircut. A wash. Advice. A smile. But its existence represented failure. People were living in such poverty that they were dependent on the goodwill to stand between them and starvation.
I feel the same way about food bank. Every time I hear the words “food bank” I wince. Every time I hear about a new food bank opening, I want to cry. Every time I donate food to a food bank I’m reminded of our failure. That’s because despite the dedication of the people who run them, and the generosity of the people who support them, food banks are a stark reminder of just how far we have drifted into becoming a land of haves and have nots.
It’s not as though people who use food banks are homeless. Many aren’t even out of work, but they’re living on the brink of poverty all the same and that’s just not right.
Recently, I was out with two friends who had both voted no in the Scottish Independence Referendum. Inevitably, we talked about the result and what it meant to us:
“I just feel like it was our chance to bring about radical social change,” I muttered, gazing morosely into my glass, “to actually get some social justice.”
“If everyone who voted yes bought food for a food bank, there wouldn’t be a problem,” my friend suggested with a touch of stop-the-moral-supremacy-act irritation in her voice.
I tried not to hiss, but I’m not sure I managed it. Maybe my eyes didn’t glow red, but I can’t be sure. Between my gritted teeth I spat out: “CHARITY IS NOT SOCIAL JUSTICE.”
[At which point friend number two leapt in with a “Enough indyref! New subject?”]
Still, it’s bothered me every since. Niggled away. My point is this: social justice is about the fair distribution of wealth, opportunity and privilege. In a socially just society we are all responsible for each other and we should ensure that we all have equal chances to succeed in life.
It isn’t about creating culture of dependency, where people who live in relative poverty are dependent on the uncertain charity of the people who do not.
Some people think that social justice is increased by strengthening the welfare state. Others believe that the welfare state itself creates just the same culture of dependency. The Tory party would certainly fall into the latter camp. Their big society appears to depend on random acts of kindness to pull the most economically disadvantaged people back from the brink of hunger.
Whichever way you fall, achieving social justice is no quick fix. It needs to be tackled holistically. Families who are in financial crisis are more likely to break down. Children in families who break down are less likely to achieve educationally. Immediately, their employment options diminish.
I went to school with a girl called Lyn. Lyn was known to be pretty clever – she just didn’t go to school. She didn’t go to school because her mum was an alcoholic and her home life was chaotic. When we were fourteen there seemed pros and cons to this: Lyn could get booze really easily; great for pre-loading before a school disco. But even despite this teen-advantage we all knew her life was grim and scary. We avoided looking at it too closely. And besides, she was never there.
She didn’t finish school. I’m not sure what happened to her. For a lot of girls at my school, getting pregnant seemed to be the best option. If you got pregnant, you got a place of your own and that meant you had a route out of the environment you were living in. “I want a f*cking foetus in my f*cking womb by the time I’m seventeen,” as one girl said, because when that’s the only way to achieve a change in your situation, you take it.
I was thinking about Lyn today and comparing her life with mine. We went to the same school but I had so many more economic and social advantages than her. At 14, society had already written her off and that is neither right not fair.
How do you change things?
What if Lyn’s mum had been able to get support to sort her life out? What if she’d had treatment for addiction, counselling and support into employment? What if Lyn had had a safe place to live, where she wasn’t scared about what she’d find when she went home? What if there was extra support at school for her? What if she’d got enough qualifications to get a better paid job – enough to support herself in a shared house? What if she’d been able to go to university – without facing the prospect of debts which would seem astronomical?
That takes investment on a grand scale, investment in our educational infrastructure and health service, investment that can only be achieved through taxation and the fair sharing of the fruits of economic growth.
It’s a social injustice that so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few. Is that a fair division of labour? Is that a fair share of society’s burdens – and reward?
And the worse thing is, that yawning gap started to emerge under the Labour Government. It was exacerbated by the Conservative Party, who used the economic recession to cripple state welfare and to encourage the relentless pursuit private wealth.
We need change.
We need significant change – a rebalancing of the redistribution of wealth and fairer taxation. We need to move away from UK Plc and towards UK community. We need to put All of Us First and we need to do it now.
In Scotland, we can’t vote yes: that choice isn’t in front of us anymore.
So what can we do?
We can not accept the status quo and then…
We can campaign: We can talk to other people, lobby our MPs and help people to understand social injustice is not okay. Let’s not just donate a bag to a food bank, donate time too – a few minutes a week to pressure for change.
We can invest: for those of us who have money to invest, let’s use it wisely. Let’s put it into organisations who are trying to do things a fairer way, who pay their taxes and share their profits.
We can educate: ourselves, our kids and each other.
Things can change.
We know that because they have in the past. But we also know that it takes collective, concerted and sustained effort. And it starts right here. With us.