I went to Sherborne yesterday on a steam train.
I decided to spend the long journey home reading the People of the Abyss by Jack London – an account of London’s time with “vagrants” in London at the turn of the 20th Century. It is harrowing and desperate stuff, few of the people he lived with were likely to live long and London is constantly referring to his capacity to go back to “white clean sheets” – while vagrants had no hope of immediate or future comfort.
We still have people in the abyss of despair, living day to day to avoid death. I walk past them on the streets of the City, they bed down on my doorstep, I watch the callous behaviour we meet out to them on my TV. The problem is not abstract – it’s a real crisis every Christmas.
A couple of years back I spent a few days with today’s vagrants – who suffer a little less for Crisis at Christmas’ work. Many of the people I saw were so outside the mainstream that they were not drawing the benefits they were entitled to. These included the state pension. The abyss is deep and for some it is hard for people to find the help to get what they are entitled to.
120 years ago , policemen used to roam London at night moving vagrants on so they could not sleep. They had to sleep during the day because they did not sleep at night. So the vagrants could not work and were excluded from hope.
We all have a responsibility for stopping people falling into the abyss. The abyss will not go away, it is the hopelessness that we call despair. Many of the people I see are in that abyss and we can only make their lives a little better by being kind to them.
But we can and must stop people giving up hope and dignity and entering into that state of hopelessness from which it is so hard to get out.
A beautiful and contemplative day
For me yesterday was beautiful, sad and tender. My mother heard that she can have a second knee operation which gives her the hope of rambling the Dorset hills again.
I sat on the other side of the aisle from a young man who was taking someone I assumed to be his grandfather out for a day on the train. It turned out the old man was just someone the young man was doing a favour to. What a fantastic act of kindness.
Reading Jack London’s “the People of the Abyss”, thinking of how my 86 year old mother will not give up hope and watching the unlikely couple across the aisle from me made me want to do my job even more.
How this touches pensions
As some of you may have read, I’ve been writing answers to readers questions in the Times. Most of the readers don’t have rich people’s problems. The one I have this week is from a lady who has £3,000 in retirement savings and is 59. I nearly wrote “only £3,000”, but that wouldn’t be right. This lady wants to start voluntary saving now.
The £100 a month she can save can be magicked to £125 by the Government incentive even if she doesn’t pay tax. She is self-employed and poor but she can invest in the NEST default which is an investment fit for a king. She can use the money she has saved in a bank account to pay off what’s left of her mortgage and boost what she can save for the future. She will have a house and a state pension in 7 years and she’ll have made the most of the little she has.
When people turn their minds to it, they can make a little go a long way. The problem is that many people like this lady, don’t have the hope to do something about their finances and get dragged into a financial abyss.
We live at a time when we talk about financial inclusion, demand people take financial advice and exclude 94% of the population from the kind of robust support they need to plan their finances. The financial exclusion practiced today is unintentional but very real.
When I wrote my response to the Times, I felt the hand of an unseen compliance officer telling me not to provide her with a definitive course of action, but if I can’t – who can?
Jack London didn’t take no for an answer, he went to the People of the Abyss and he heard what they were saying and he wrote about it and people read what he was saying.
Jack London was one brick in a road that led to a welfare state that means that the kind of horror he wrote about is much rarer than today
But people still die on the streets and they are usually old and financially excluded from what we enjoy. That can’t be right – we have to find a way to make homelessness a thing of the past. We have to help people manage their finances to include them in the benefits us lucky ones enjoy.