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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poverty is always relative
The author was asked to live in poverty for the period of Lent. I agree the situation was artificial and in some ways she probably made it harder for herself by starting off the experiment with less than the majority of people would start off with. She of course could not claim Job Seekers' Allowance because she was not unemployed but she did make an effort to find out...
Published on 13 April 2010 by Damaskcat

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99 of 116 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Patronising
As someone who has spent a long time living in a family dependant on benefits, and having to suffer the social stigma of poverty and it's undignified nature, Polly Toynbee has written this book in order to inform others of the harshness of life at the bottom of the economic ladder, and I have a problem with it.
I work a low paid job at a supermarket, and my...
Published on 15 April 2005 by babochka01


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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poverty is always relative, 13 April 2010
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Damaskcat (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
The author was asked to live in poverty for the period of Lent. I agree the situation was artificial and in some ways she probably made it harder for herself by starting off the experiment with less than the majority of people would start off with. She of course could not claim Job Seekers' Allowance because she was not unemployed but she did make an effort to find out what she would have been entitled to if she really had nowhere to live and no furniture. She established what she would have to do to get a loan from the Social Fund in an interesting interview with a member of staff from the Department for Work and Pensions which showed how you really have to know the rules in order to get what you're entitled to.

She then approached a charity which provided furniture at rock bottom prices. I thought her visit to the charity was interesting as it showed the difference between what she considered essential and the items which are actually essential. I patted myself on the back that I would have had more money left over from the loan she had theoretically received. The author having furnished her flat then had to find herself a job as soon as possible knowing she had little money in reserve and would have to give up receiving benefit long before she was paid for her first week's work. This to me highlighted a major problem with the low paid - that gap between stopping benefit and being paid for your work. People doing the jobs at the bottom of the scale will usually not have savings to tide them over such a gap and bills have to be paid.

I felt her comments about spending more than she would earn for a week at the hairdressers or on a meal out served to point up the difference between the middle class and the poor rather than being patronising. The rest of the book contains descriptions of her various low paid jobs - packing cakes, working in a school kitchen, working as a hospital porter, cleaning, care assistant, nursery worker and cold calling by phone. She doesn't grumble about the jobs just points out how physically hard many of them are. She highlights many issues which seriously need addressing. Things like having to go and collect application forms rather than receiving them through the post, not being able to take contracts - or even copies of contracts - away with her, having to be at a job 15 minutes before the official start, having to go and sit and wait to see if there are any vacancies. Many of the jobs were through an agency which means an employee's rights are few and their job security non-existent.

The people she met were interesting and she really got over to me the commitment people showed to these low paid jobs. Many took a pride in their work and went the extra mile - often unpaid - to do the best they could. Many were working below their capabilities because it was nearly impossible for them to take the time out to search for another job. The majority of the people she met were women working for low wages - often below the then minimum wage - because the job fitted in with the care of their children and they didn't dare complain about pay and conditions. Employers consistently undervalue these people and do not reward them as they deserve to be rewarded.

The author highlights the stupidity of contracting out public services because you end up with workers doing the same job working side by side for different money and for different employers with different job descriptions so it is almost impossible for them to co-operate to get the job done in the best possible way. I thought the chapter about working in a care home was the most emotional and the author showed how people try and do the best for the inmates even though there are nowhere enough staff to do the job how it should be done. Was it really a good idea to hand this work over to the private sector where the main motive for the business is profit rather than service? Her interview with `Mr Jones' highlights the major problems. Profits are being made on the backs of low paid overworked staff.

Low paid jobs - in spite of the Minimum Wage - are even lower paid than they were in the 1970s relatively speaking. The Tax Credits system, while it may have boosted the income of some families - though not single people - has merely made it possible for employers to get away with paying lower wages knowing the taxpayer will make up the difference. Can this be right? Do we need to tackle this problem of low pay for essential work? Everyone would notice if all the care workers, laundry staff, cleaners, school dinner ladies went on strike but they are not unionised so this is unlikely. Employers regard staff as expendable and turnover is high. Yet if they paid more and took the time to train staff they might actually get a better job done at lower cost.

I thought this book was a real eye opener and it showed that these low paid essential jobs need to be looked at differently and the wages need to be increased even if it does mean higher prices for the rest of us. It's really a choice between higher taxes to boost the income of the lower paid or higher prices because the people doing these essential jobs are paid a proper rate for the job. Which do we want?
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside Britain, 6 Sep 2009
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Lincs Reader (Lincolnshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
In 'Hard Work', Polly Toynbee a middle-class Guardian journalist takes up the challenge thrown to her to live life as one of the many 'working poor'. She adopts the lifestyle of an ordinary, middle-aged woman from a run-down council estate in East London.

Polly doesnt find it difficult to get employment, but the jobs are thankless, jobs that few people will lower themselves to do and the wages are so low that she is in debt from day one. Even getting to interviews, getting to work, supplying herself with a decent pair of work shoes puts into debt. Many jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and of course the banks wont touch her - but the many loan sharks operating on the estate are glad to loan her money - at hugely inflated interest rates. All of the jobs, without fail are hard work, dirty, boring and often dangerous. Polly is offered no training, no benefits, no job security.

This book highlights many many problems with today's society - although written in 2002, I am sure that most of these problems still exist - if not more. Our Government seem obsessed with getting people into work and training, yet the Government has contracted out most of it's public services, for example, hospital portering, public sector cleaners and care givers. By outsourcing this work they have given over this very important work to mainly uncaring employers who are only interested in making as much money as possible and not interested in the people that carry out the work for them - these workers that are being exploited day after day are mainly women, and mainly mothers.

Politicians have no idea of what is happening in low-paid Britain - this book highlights the disgusting state of the 'working poor' - people who work far and above the recommended working hours every week for so little pay and in terrible conditions. These are not people who are living off the state or scroungers - these are people who want to work and who want to provide for their families.

On the cover of this book, Will Hutton writes: 'Every member of the Cabinet should be required to read it, apologise and then act.' How I'd like to imagine that this has or will happen - sadly I doubt it, and this country will continue to exploit it's people - whilst speaking out about other country's human-rights issues.

This is a hard-hitting book that makes the reader realise that oh so many things are hidden from view - it's time that those in power took stock of the state of their own country before spending millions on invading other nations.
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61 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling well written account of Life in Low Pay Britain, 6 April 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
I've never been so moved to write a review before. The contents and sentiment of this book will stay with me for long after I've put it down. Toynbee is a middle-class journalist, living a comfortable life in a fashionable part of Clapham, not having to worry about how much her weekly shop at Sainsburys comes to. As Orwell before her, she trades this in temporarily, to experience life on the minimum wage - to see how the ignored one third of the UK live. It's a chilling tale - although Toynbee never resorts to shock tactics - her story is about the millions of respectable, working people who will never escape the trap of poverty - not the minority underclass who the media always target because they make for a more dramatic story - the drug addicts, neighbours from hell and teenage criminals.
This is remarkable honest, raw writing - Toynbee reveals a great deal about herself in this book - and this adds to its power. She is not a left-wing apologist - she confesses that she likes some aspects of globalisation - at least big businesses have minimum standards to adhere to, unlike small ones. She likes shopping for pleasure, and sees nothing wrong with consumerism (environmental damage aside). The main thrust of the book - that the minimum wage must be raised is argued rationally and sensibly throughout. She also points out that inequality is related to gender, class and race - it's the "women's" jobs that tend to be the lowest paid.
In addition - this is beautifully and thoughtfully written - some of Toynbee's phrases gave me goosebumps. As a working-class boy who worked in nursing homes to supplement his university grant - a lot of what she said resonated personally with me. Good on ya Polly!
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99 of 116 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Patronising, 15 April 2005
This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
As someone who has spent a long time living in a family dependant on benefits, and having to suffer the social stigma of poverty and it's undignified nature, Polly Toynbee has written this book in order to inform others of the harshness of life at the bottom of the economic ladder, and I have a problem with it.
I work a low paid job at a supermarket, and my educational opportunities are limited and would like my voice to be heard, not a middle class person taking it upon themselves to speak for me. Yes, I do not doubt her sympathy, but that is not what many poor want; it is instead the chance to express their opnions and further their lives in a less oppressive way. Part of the problem is middle class dominance of politics, and it's reporting of it in a social context. Whatever happened to communication? Let the poor have the opportunity to speak for themselves, I am sure they would have alot to say, and it would be from a genuine perspective. Toynbee can immerse herself in it (poverty) but she is not of it.
Another thing is the negative life she imposes upon working class experience, rather than also focusing on the economic realities. I have many happy times being working class, times where myself and others have found ways to cope with our siuations in a positive way. It is not just grim estates and horrible landlords, and soul destroying work. Tell us something we don't know already. Of course she was going to find it tough, she comes from a more comfortable world, and her senses and feelings being in alien situations are going to be picking up experiences and their consequences in a more intense way. But to put it another way- yes it is good journalism, but from an unskilled, manual worker doing low paid work, and having experienced some of the things she describes in her book, it seems a bit ridiculous when someone plays at poverty for a bit in order to tell other people what it is like to live in poverty. Ask the poor themselves! We aren't stupid you know!
She goes on about the voicless and invisible. Well, she is contributing to that condition of being powerless and impotent politically.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading - but she ruined it by cheating!, 17 Jan 2009
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
A passionately expressed and extensively researched study by journalist Polly Toynbee, into the lives of the poor end of society that everyone else, on the whole, would rather not have to think about.

For the sake of social experiment, Toynbee moves into one of the poorest and most destitute council estates in London and sets about attempting to live on the minimum wage, scraping by just like her neighbours and colleagues. From furnishing her flat at minimum cost from a local charity project, to surviving on less than ten pounds' worth of food for a fortnight, she aims to live authentically, taking on a variety of low-paid manual jobs, including a care home assistant, hospital porter, school cook and nursery nurse, to pay her way.

Despite her admirable goal (and a fairly admirable achievement), Toynbee never really makes her study as authentic as the blurb suggests. She doesn't actually utilise benefits services, instead paying large donations for their cooperation. She still flits back to her 'old life' as a journalist from time to time, to her nice house, when things get a bit dire. Some of the most profound moments actually stem from this, showing the difference in her two sets of wages, and the reactions of the benefit agencies to her hypothetical concerns.

This is definitely a worthwhile read, but sadly lacks grit and tails off to a disappointingly political and long-winded conclusion. Could have been done better.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars True to life account, 2 Oct 2003
By 
LFF12 (Dublin, Ireland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
As somebody who unexpectedly found myself down and out in London from late 2001 to early 2002, I found this book complelling and true to life on the work element of the low waged poverty problem. The only caveat I have with the account is that many people rightly spot the work/welfare related causes but do not recognise that domestic causes are just as oppressive and difficult to overcome.
I was shocked to discover in London that not only is it difficult to come by even modestly paid work, the road to success is fraught with exploitative agencies, rouge employers, but also greedy private landlords and predatory moneylenders. While the book missed out on the harsh deal dealt out to those in private rented accomodation and under the scourge of door-to-door lenders (though the book does note one south London based hire purchase shop that mercilessly exploits vulnerable people on low incomes) the account of the employment based exploitation was hard hitting and accurate.
I liked the way the book talked to people face to face - for example the manager of the Care home, and the man from the DWP social fund. In fairness, the description of the Social Fund was much rosier than my experience of it.
Above all, the book points out the chilling fact that the situation is worsening. The lowest paid workers find it virtually impossible to obtain proper pay rises or greater rights, while the better off workers get huge pay hikes. Its a book that anybody involved in policy making or sociology should be forced to read.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poverty can't be simulated, 12 Jun 2009
By 
Peter Durward Harris "Pete the music fan" (Leicester England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
Being unemployed, I read this book hoping that Polly focused primarily on her observations without too much analysis of causes and solutions. Sadly, politics dominate the book, but that's not the only problem.

In order to simulate a life of poverty, Polly created a completely artificial scenario that made things far worse than they would be for most people. She found accommodation (in a run-down tower block) that desperately needed furnishing, but without a starting allowance. While some people may find themselves in such a situation, I suspect that it's only a small minority. For example, when I was made redundant in 2002, I still had my rented accommodation, my possessions and some money. I still have the first two although I have much less money these days. Polly decided that she was going to get a job come what may and created a bogus CV, necessary for her purpose but not an option for me. Polly was able to use her real name as it's not her professional name. Polly also regarded a lot of things as necessities that aren't. By contrast, I adjusted gradually to a lower standard of living as I suspect most people do.

Since coming out of bankruptcy (something caused by taking out a huge loan six months before my redundancy), I simply remember when the big bills are due (every three months for the telephone, every six months for the water) and plan accordingly. I don't have a TV because the annual licence fee is a pernicious tax, but I can visit a betting office to see the big races (the aspect of TV that I most miss) although I rarely bet these days. Radio serves me well for news and sport. I do without home heating and when it gets really cold , I either hide under the duvet, go downtown or have a hot bath, all cheaper than heating a room for several hours. These and other sacrifices allow me a limited budget for books and music, but even then I am price-conscious. Life on benefits isn't great for me, but it's worse for some people, especially those with small families.

There are many problems relating to long-term unemployment that cannot be simulated including the re-training schemes (particularly New Deal, for which I prefer the description Raw Deal), the limited range of subsidised training courses and the even more limited capabilities of the agencies to understand individual needs (Next Step, a government agency, tried to put me on a NHS course but the NHS said I was over-qualified), the periodic jobcentre interviews, the checking-up in between, the impact of bankruptcy and so much more. The housing benefit system doesn't allow monthly payments, so as the landlord refuses to accept payments directly, I get 12/13 of my monthly rent every four weeks leaving me to pay the difference. Yes, there's a once-a-year bonus month but I'd rather have monthly payments without a bonus month.

Polly took a series of jobs in a short space of time (obviously for journalistic needs; I'll allow her that much) in order to get an idea of how hard some people have to work for pitiful wages, spread over several industries. The fascination of this book for me lies in the description of some of the condition under which people sometimes have to work, not least being the one-copy employmennt contract. If this isn't illegal, it certainly ought to be. In the days when I was able to find employment, there were always two copies, one for the employer and one for myself. I was always able to read my copy at home before signing, and keep it thereafter for reference. It seems that some agencies expect people to sign contracts that they can only study in the agency's office, but not take home. The system is clearly designed to stop people showing it to anybody who might make life awkward for the employer. I can only hope that I never end up desperate enough to sign such a contract. Polly also highlights a number of other issues that are useful to know.

I'd be interested to see how easy it would be for Polly to get a menial job using her real CV. My experiences suggest that employers seeking to fill such vacancies don't like taking on people with a history of well-paid jobs (in my case, as a computer programmer), preferring candidates accustomed to menial work. Meanwhile, the shortage of IT staff is a myth. Employers could fill such vacancies with people like me who could do the work but need re-training. Employers won't fund such training, nor will the government.

The book is good at highlighting some specific housing and employment problems but Polly's artificial scenario, only a little of which (the fake CV and rapid job turnover) was necessary for journalistic purposes, together with the large amount of unnecessary political dogma, detract substantially from what could have been a great book. If Polly had stuck to the facts as she saw them, letting readers make up their own minds about causes and solutions, I could have sympathized with her inability to adjust.

If you have an interest in the subject, this book is worth reading despite its limitations. One way or another, it will make you angry, whether you direct that anger at employers, governments, journalists or all of them.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 12 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
I borrowed this book from the library several times, bought a copy, lent it to someone, didn't get it back and just had to buy another copy. Really thought-provoking
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unputdownable, 6 April 2010
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V. Morgan - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
A great story and essential read for anyone making strategic or employment decisions in the public or private sector. Being ethical is not just about buying fairtrade chocolate...it begins at home!
A thought-provoking glimpse into the life and hard times of hospital porters, school dinner assistants, bakery workers and those who look after your children or the frail elderly... and the agencies who place them. This compelling account has enough detail of everyday life to suggest solutions, and the broader detail of social history to put it in context.
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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an eye opener, 7 Feb 2003
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Mr. M. J. Birch "Matt B" (WGC, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
Now if you were me, you might read the general synopsis of the book and decide its another middle class do-gooder attempting to empathise with the'working class' of the nation - but it does go beyond this.
Polly Toynbee fits the classic image of well spoken well intentioned leftie and I must admit I did not approach the book with much eagerness. However, she goes well beyond empathy/sympathy and excellently details the situation of a large proportion of the population without getting too patronising.
In fact the book is a real eye opener, demonstrating how difficult, even impossible, it is for those at the bottom of the ladder to better themselves. How the rich appear to be getting richer and how the poor are getting poorer. Now if you are me, then this isn't really a revelation - I suppose what I did not appreciate is how many people really do struggle to live on the bread line. It is easy for us to dismiss this and think only nations such as the USA experience this problem.
What gave me a jolt was the way Toynbee describes the hopelessness of those who cannot better themselves, yet despite this still take pride in working to the best of their ability. You will find yourself angry at the loathsome private companies that take out contracts in hospitals, school kitchens, etc, to supply workers - and basically do nothing to encourage people to work hard.
Try to work out a mock budget where you can survive on 4.10 an hour and still rent, eat, travel, etc.
The book tells of an underclass we ignore every day and one that is ignored by the media. For goodness sake, free papers in London don't make their way to bus stops because these people are not targets for advertising in the papers - those travelling on the tube are!
The book should be read certainly by those who hold the dangerous idea that the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough, and that rough estates are full of troublemakers and loud, dysfunctional families. The author strips those sterotypes away to give a powerful image of an underclass that is ignored or even taken advantage of by people that should know better.
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Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain
Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain by Polly Toynbee (Paperback - 14 Jan 2003)
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