‘What’s that, duck? Free? What’s your name? Terry. No? Oh, with an i? Terri what? White. OK. Edna! EDNA! It’s Terri with an i. White. Free school meals. Free!’
It was the ritual of mortification that marked every weekday, as my name was scrubbed off the list it needed to be on. I was a ‘free school meals kid’ or, as some of my schoolmates less charmingly called it, a ‘scrubber’. I knew what they saw, what I was: a poor kid from a council estate with a young single mum and an absent dad. They thought I was nothing. Every lunchtime, I felt like nothing. But even as my cheeks sizzled and stung, I knew I needed this. I needed help. My family needed help and had done for as long as I could remember.
It’s been 22 years since the ritual ended and 17 since I’ve had, or needed, any financial or social assistance from the state. A personal improvement in luck and circumstance (as it’s always a combination of the two) has coincided with the opposite in British society, with poverty now on the increase. Over the past four years, 400,000 more children have been plunged into poverty, according to a new report. And over the next five years, it’s estimated that the number living in poverty will soar to 5.2 million, due to Government welfare cuts.
Let’s be clear what we mean when we speak of ‘poverty’ – children not having enough food on their tongues, or heat warming their rooms or electricity lighting the stairs. Growing up, we had both a coal outhouse and a pantry that weren’t always full. A meter for the electricity. A coin operated telly, powered by 50p pieces. Our family claimed – at varying times – child benefit, income support, housing benefit, unemployment benefit, free school meals and free school uniform. We lived in a women’s refuge for six weeks after fleeing a violent man and, seven years later, emergency council accommodation when another refused to leave our home. I was doing my mock A levels when we were put up on a notorious estate with electricity but no heating, our mattresses on the floor.
And this is the reality, not the fiction of ‘feckless layabouts’ with flashy flat screens. It’s about keeping your head above water and swallowing as little as possible when the waves come. It’s about suppressing feelings of pride, of humiliation, to ask for a little help; hopefully for just a little while. Some of it is so you can survive every day and some of it is so you can survive one day.
Every benefit my family claimed, in addition to the student grant that allowed me to be the first to go to university (along with loans and part-time jobs), cleared a bit more grass on the path that I’ve walked since. I could always see the outline of another life. The shape that told me I could have ambition, hope. After university, I took an admin job on a magazine and, since then, have worked on newspapers, magazines and websites in both London and New York. I’m now editor-in-chief of the world’s biggest film magazine, Empire.
I feel grateful and heart-stoppingly lucky almost every day. I was able to take the support offered by the welfare system and not just survive but build a new world for myself; one in which I am independent, self-sufficient and able to go back to help others who are there among the weeds. Because while survival is paramount – and I have survived because of this help – it’s not enough. We all deserve the chance to not just have a life, but a better life, one we want to live. To know that we are, always have been, something, even when we felt like nothing.
Help a child this Christmas
British charity Cash for Kids can’t change the poverty statistics but, with their Mission Christmas campaign, they can make a difference to a child in poverty on Christmas Day. You can help by texting GRAZIA to 70808 to donate £5 or you can buy one extra gift and drop it off at your nearest Wickes store by Sunday 17 December and Cash for Kids will ensure it makes its way to a disadvantaged child this Christmas. In 2016, Cash for Kids’ Mission Christmas helped over 360,000 children across the UK, distributing more than £15 million of gifts. Help us reach even more children this year.