Frontlines: Consumerist pressures at Christmas

One of the things which has been illustrated clearly by the Farepak fiasco has been the degree of ignorance still of what it means  to live on a low income.

In discussions, a common refrain has been “well why don’t they just use a bank or a building society?” Leaving aside the issue of whether people have access to bank and building society accounts, we may never really understand the juggling problem unless we have personally had to go without food to pay a heating bill – or vice versa. Savings clubs, even the size of Farepak, operate essentially at a small scale, local level with agents known to “investors”. They may not be the most effective place to save money, but they are part of the glue binding a community together, and enabling people to enjoy what the rest of us take for granted.

Comments along the lines of “why do people think they have to spend so much on Christmas?” or “where’s the true spirit of Christmas gone?” also miss the point.

They are disingenuous and offensive. 

Yes, celebrations have got completely out of control when we have decorated trees in Tesco at the start of November, and Christmas catalogues coming out in August each year; but the fortunate among us are happy to buy into the idea that decorations should be a different colour this year, or that a stocking is not complete without the latest gizmos. Don’t be surprised then if families on low incomes feel pressured into emulating the rest of us. Parents want to create something special and magical at this time of year. Children are susceptible to advertising wherever or however they live. And are we not all entitled to a bit of celebration now and then?

Another lesson has been the way we are so easily persuaded of the tragedy of a situation by the combination of the key emotional ingredients of children, Christmas and “bad guys”. Yet other tragedies are unfolding daily for many people whose situation is not glamorous enough to reach the media. While the lucky ones among us are enjoying our turkey and pud this year we could do worse than ponder not just the need for better regulation of savings clubs, but also the effect of our own lifestyles in maintaining injustice and inequality.

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker

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