Two weeks ago I listened to Jack Monroe reel off a list of price increases on basic food items such as pasta, rice and beans on live radio and I struggled not to cry.
These are the things that make you feel unsettled.
The cheapest pasta in a leading supermarket was 29p in 2021 and is 70p today. Rice has gone from 45p for a kilogram bag to more than double the price at £1 for…wait for it…half the amount! It’s worth checking out Jack’s whole list here.
Household staples like bread, baked beans, apples, mushrooms, peanut butter have all gone up by a shockingly high amount. Certainly far more than wages have increased by in the past year.
These are the things that make you feel hopeless.
Food Poverty Campaigner and Budget Recipe Creator, Jack Monroe, found herself caught up in a media storm after her Twitter thread on where inflation is most being felt, went viral. Backed up by her records of food prices, at both the lower and higher ends of the market, going back as far as 10 years, Monroe highlighted how the whole ‘we’re all in it together’ argument, that has dragged the public along through the last decade of austerity, looks somewhat different under the microscope. As she points out, an upmarket ready meal range that was £7.50 ten years ago is the same price today. A high-end store’s ‘Dine In For £10’ offer has remained unchanged and this seems to reflect the cost increases across higher-end product ranges and food shops. Simply put, there has been little to no cost increase. Meaning, the cost of living crisis is targeting and being shouldered by those who have the least.
These are the things that make you feel enraged.
I know a little about struggling on a low income. I’ve been on universal credit (as one of the 40% of UC receivers who are in employment). I’m very practised in calculating my shop as I pick items off of the shelves and scrutinise cost whilst trying to maintain a healthy diet.
It’s not just food either. My mum scrunched up her face when I mentioned making jacket potatoes in the microwave - Surely they’re better in the oven though? She asked. Of course - I replied - but I can’t have the oven on for an hour.
We had a year of having to live within some very small means and it was tough. Now, we’re in a far better position but, of course, the cost of living crisis means we’re not going to be able to enjoy those luxuries I’d been hoping for when I was working into the early hours to improve our circumstances. Still, we can relax a little now so long as we don’t get the energy bill we’re now all dreading. The truth is though, we’re not all dreading it. For some, the energy hike might mean booking a half-board Caribbean holiday as opposed to the usual all-inclusive option. For others, the energy hike means turning the heating off and wearing coats indoors.
When I’d gotten through my first year of going freelance and had gotten back to a more reliable income my Dad asked me what I was looking forward to. I told him it was using fabric conditioner again and we laughed even though we both knew I wasn’t joking. That’s the thing - it’s not the holidays or the dinners out or the Birchbox subscriptions you miss. It’s the little things that others take for granted, like having to turn down meeting friends for coffee, walking instead of taking the bus and going without a freezer to save on electricity.
Might The Increased Cost Of Living Save The Planet?
I’m not going to pretend that having to get used to going without hasn’t made me a more eco-conscious consumer. It’s actually quite easy to resist contributing to fast fashion and avoidable waste when you’re skint. Regardless of how much I earn, I believe I’ll always use my herbal teabags twice, shop at vintage and charity shops and will walk when possible. These habits not only save us money but also reduce our carbon footprint. Being thrifty is better for a planet that cannot sustain the amount we throw away, how often we use our cars and the sheer amount we buy from a place of ‘want rather than ‘need’.
However, some eco-friendly changes are only possible to make when you’re financially comfortable. Switching to an electric car for example is not cheap and, despite government grants, insulating our homes is not an option for many. Especially renters who have no control over this and who are the ones, therefore, paying excessive heating bills. As someone who tries to use refill shops for household products, such as hair shampoo and floor cleaner, I can tell you it’s cheaper long-term than buying new bottles of the equivalent products but getting started can be pricier.
Time perhaps is the biggest barrier. How can a nurse, teacher or person perhaps juggling several minimum wage jobs, keep their heads above the water financially, adhere to the needs of their families and find the time to keep up with how to attempt to be an eco-conscious consumer? Want to buy plastic-free? Chances are that you’ll have to visit more than one store to get your weekly food shop. Whilst it may be possible to shop ethically on a lower budget, this can only be achieved by having the time available to commit to the research and literally going the extra mile.
Targeting Those Who Can Least Afford It
When money is tight it’s hard to save much on energy bills or transport or council tax. So first we go without luxuries and next comes cutting back on food. We buy budget items. Yet these items have increased by an unbelievable three hundred and forty-four per cent whilst there is barely an increase in the food shops of the wealthy. Working families will also bear the brunt of the National Insurance tax increase and lest we forget that the government took £20 per week from the pockets of those on Universal Credit. Again, 40% of whom are in employment. Some of whom are carers for family members and others are medically unable to work. They have no way of increasing their earnings yet their living costs are about to go through the roof. Nurses and teachers find themselves in the same position with stagnant wages and rising essential outgoings. And what was Johnson’s cabinet, two-thirds of whom were privately educated, doing whilst the cost of budget bread increased by 28%? They were literally eating cake, during a lockdown when it was illegal for their constituents to gather, even for a funeral.
I am jumping on Jack Monroe’s bandwagon here. She has done the work in providing these eye-watering facts and has unwrapped the truth on the way austerity is really working in the UK. Yet, it has triggered an outrage that cannot be allowed to fade.
You have to give it to certain elite well-connected members of parliament who have worked tirelessly to direct the source of this country’s issues elsewhere. In particular to refugees fleeing warzones and oppression to travel to the UK and immediately declare themselves asylum seekers. Look - they say - they’re the reason you’re struggling. Right-wing rags (sorry, newspapers) have been quick to whip up the public into a frenzy over the notion we are on the brink of being overwhelmed by illegal channel crossings. Yet, even judges in December had to warn Priti Patel against misleading the public by referring to such crossing as ‘illegal’ when it is in fact, under international law, a human right. It’s a tactic as old as time - point to somebody else, ‘other’ them, then pull the wallet from the mark's pockets as they are preoccupied with some other perceived threat. Now though, it seems as if the thread has come loose on a maliciously woven web of misconceptions and often outright lies.
It’s been with talk of shared responsibility and patriotic duty that we have accepted austerity for the good of the nation. Yet austerity is hitting the poor and burdening working families at alarmingly higher rates than the wealthy. It’s been with talk of war-time mentality and protecting one another that rightfully led us to follow lockdown guidance, whilst Downing Street broke their own rules and laughed. Whilst PPE contracts were awarded to unqualified suppliers given a VIP lane who consequently failed to deliver likely costing lives, calls from manufacturers better placed to provide life-saving equipment went answered.
Now calls have turned to pleas for the country to move on from party gate and focus on the cost of living crisis it seems they are intrinsically linked. What the government and its tired supporters misunderstand is that this is not a nation angry about cake or the cost of bread. This is a country betrayed. A country run by the right-wing elite who point always to the poor as a drain on society and then ensure that they suffer the burden of levelling up when in truth we're being led into widening the gap. We are a nation in mourning. Not only for what we’ve lost in the pandemic but what we’ve lost in democracy and decency. Betrayed by those who wrap themselves in flags and declare themselves patriots.