The Powerful Stories Behind the Statistics

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Left: Suzanne Harkins / Upper Right: Milly Graham / Lower Right: Peter Garrow

“With every passing week, month and year, I was encountering men, women and children experiencing poverty who shared their stories.”

All of us appreciate a story. They often act as a universal language which have the potential to both anchor us within the world and, on occasion, transport us to another place. The bestselling American author, Dean Koontz, once said: “As a lonely kid growing up in poverty and in the shadow of a violent alcoholic father, I found peace in books.” He adds: “Storytellers became my heroes because they provided escape, their characters made me feel less isolated [and] more connected to the human experience.”

In 2017, I realised with every passing week, month and year, I was encountering men, women and children experiencing poverty who felt able to share their painful stories with me. It was not only via my line of work but through encounters at the school gate, in coffee shops, at the supermarket or in my working-class community of Stobswell. These stories were not the kind you would necessarily feel comfortable sharing alongside your name and face in a newspaper, on television or on the radio.

However, these stories do, as Koontz observes, offer a window into a very specific realm of the human experience which it was important for the public to engage with. The challenge was to find a way to convey these experiences without exposing the individuals and so, in December 2017, I started sharing them in an anonymised format and thereafter on a weekly basis. In less than three days, the stories were shared over 3,200 times and reached over 350,000 people.

These stories can also be dangerous. For example, less than a month ago, the Director General of Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Neil Couling, was rattled by the story of a sanctioned bricklayer and responded to me saying: “You make these up right? Not real cases?” Mr Couling did not know he had met some of the people whose stories I shared like Milly Graham – a domestic violence-surviving single mum whose DWP experience was devastating.

And just over a week ago, I received a private message from the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, in response to a story about a family who told me they would be left without food over the festive period if they adhered to guidance stating they should not travel to and stay with the mother’s parents beyond Christmas Day. I responded informing Ms Sturgeon that, having sought my advice, I advised the couple to override restrictions and sent money via PayPal to cover any travel fine.

But there are many more stories like Suzanne, a middle-class mum who, along with her husband, lost her job and had to give up breastfeeding her six week old due to a lack of calories and inability to produce milk. There was Peter who turned down a job with Amazon because he did not want to work on a zero hours contract and was sanctioned for refusing viable employment and ended up securing work at Brewdog. These are the stories behind the statistics, names behind the numbers and faces behind the figures.

After a year like 2020, I am sad to say I will not be short of new material in 2021.

Today, I begin again…