The Sadness When Christmas Equals Crisis

“I sought to share the brutality of poverty in a way that was not exploitative to the individuals experiencing it.”

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 02/12/2019 Available:  [Accessed: 2019, Dec 03]

On December 1 2017, I decided to start tweeting anonymised encounters I had with people experiencing poverty and charting the difficulties for families living on limited incomes in December under the hashtag #WhenChristmasEqualsCrisis. At the time, I was leading a charity working in 28 out of 32 local authorities across Scotland and working closely with the media. Any time our organisation put out new figures, we would be asked for “case studies” to put a face on the issues we were talking about.

I personally struggled with the ethics of the case study because, in effect, I would sometimes be asking a vulnerable individual or family to bear their soul to a stranger who would then take a picture and publicise the hardship they were facing. In this scenario, the net benefit is felt entirely by the charity and the media. The charity publicises the issue they are tackling and the media increases the attractiveness of the story and sales. All the risk rests on the shoulders of those sharing their story.

The power imbalance of being a financially sustained person asking a financially under-sustained person to participate left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fully aware of the inequity at play here, I would only offer access having laid out the risks, received consent and requested financial remuneration from the media for the time given by participants, although they would not be aware of this ahead of time. That, from my vantage point, would have only increased the exploitative nature of the situation.

In 2017, I started to think about ways to shape public opinion and share the brutality of poverty in a way that was not exploitative for the individual(s) experiencing it. Sadly, Christmas can be a bitter time for those on a low income, not because money is spent on presents. To the contrary, it is because it is cold and dark and greater time is spent indoors so the electricity that heats and lights your home is on much longer. And that is without touching on the isolation felt by those who are on their own.

Working at the coalface exposes you to the faces behind the figures, the names behind the numbers and the stories behind the statistics. For all of the 25 days of December to Christmas, I shared an anonymised encounter with people I met at the foodbank, the school gate… anywhere. On day one, I tweeted: “When a young mum plans to prostitute herself for her children’s Christmas presents until the foodbanks steps in.”

In December 2018, I shared several other stories and yesterday I started again to remind myself, and others, of the sorrow many experience when Christmas equals crisis that we might do our best to make the season of goodwill a time of celebration rather than commiseration not just for ourselves but also others.