Famous, Rich and Hungry shows that poverty exists
Last week I appeared as an on-screen expert in the BBC series Famous, Rich and Hungry, for Sport Relief. The two-part TV series featured eight families struggling to make ends meet. They hosted four privileged celebrities who find out what life's really like on the breadline in Britain.
I was invited to take part because I campaign to stamp out child poverty here at The Children's Society. But perhaps also because I speak openly about my own background. I grew up in a very low-income home and was later an impoverished student single mum, before finding a way out (with many helping hands) a few years ago.
'Expert' or not, I'm not shocked by UK poverty.
Shocking denial of poverty
What does shock me is the widespread denial that UK poverty exists. My mind boggles every time someone questions whether people really are going without in this country. I'm constantly searching for ways to expose the quiet violence that poverty does to their lives. That's why I said yes to the TV company.
Even before the first day of filming, the series was dubbed by the media as 'Celebrity Benefits Street'. I anticipated critical comparisons with the controversial show, which was accused of being voyeuristic, objectifying and degrading.
But such comparisons miss the point. In Famous, Rich and Hungry, eight families bravely offered to share their homes and daily lives with a famous stranger, a nosey camera crew, and millions of viewers. They wanted to speak and be heard. And to their credit, four privileged celebrities were ready to admit that they just might have something to learn.
What the celebrities saw
Cheryl Fergison from EastEnders couldn't contain her tears of rage when she realised her host Paul, who lost his job following a collapsed lung, was spending up to 90% of his meagre income heating just one room through winter.
Writer Rachel Johnson couldn't understand how people in the UK could be struggling to eat properly, but after resorting to begging for 9p on a Deptford street, she changed her mind.
Dragons' Den stalwart Theo Paphitis was outraged when he saw how his hardworking hosts were caught in a vicious debt trap.
Made in Chelsea star Jamie Laing found life with loving single parents who spent most days worrying about how to feed their kids both exhausting and humbling.
Four in 10 don't believe that poverty exists
But educating just four celebrities wasn't really the point either. Millions of us struggle to believe UK poverty is real. The facts are that at least 500,000 turned to food banks last year. Meanwhile more than 3 million families had to choose between heating and eating. Each month, 400,000 people are forced to take high cost payday loans to pay for basics.
Yet four in 10 members of the British public think there's very little poverty in the UK. And even those of us who don't deny it, still sometimes blame individuals, assuming they must be lazy, or guilty of some moral failure.
That's why campaigners like me spend a lot of time in news studios giving the facts and proposing solutions to politicians.
...But it is very real
Behind closed doors in homes up and down the country many people experience life as a daily struggle, because they work for poverty-level wages, have their earnings swallowed by debt, are sick, or devote their lives to caring for small children or sick relatives. Meanwhile millions of us raise an eyebrow and wonder what to believe. Can a TV series like this have all the solutions?
No, of course not. But I’m proud of what Famous, Rich and Hungry has done.
Some people might not like the format of the show, they might not like celebrities or reality TV full stop. But this is the kind of series that reaches millions of us by cutting through so much cynical chatter with the hard truth and real voices. It’s not entertainment. It’s real life.