On the main shopping street in Barking, on the outskirts of east London, are the people the election forgot — the hidden poor who are working, but don’t have enough to get by and are forced into borrowing from week to week.
Poverty means a poor credit rating, ruling out the banks or mainstream lenders. Barking has three shops offering pawnbroking, cheque cashing and loans advanced against wages.
Mark Lucas works at a local bed factory and is paid monthly. He often uses the services of one Barking pawnshop.
“I need it because I haven’t got much money. It tides me over,” he explains. “The bank charges too much interest and here you get six months to pay the money back. I don’t use it every day — just every now and again.”
The basic problem is low pay. “The money’s not enough, no matter where you work,” Mark says.
Darren, a teenager, took his bracelet to the pawnbroker. “I just used it because I needed some money to start work,” he says.
“I’ve started a new job — floor laying. I’ve just got my first week’s money, so I got it out,” he says. He now has his bracelet back. “It was just for two weeks,” he says. “If my parents knew they’d kill me.”
Darren doesn’t think the government has any idea what it’s like for people like him trying to start work with no money. He needs to travel to get to his job — an expensive matter in London.
“I went to the Job Centre and said I’m starting a new job — I was out of work for three weeks, that’s all — and they wouldn’t give me nothing. They obviously don’t want people to get work.”
With a nod at the pawnshop, Sarah Lewis jokes, “I live in there.” She adds, “Sometimes when the bills come, you pawn it for six months — a bracelet or a necklace.”
Sarah is struck by the absurdity of having to pawn jewellery to get by despite having a job. “I work, believe it or not. It’s a factory job round the corner from here. It’s mad isn’t it?
“They really need to look into wages and what you’ve got to pay out. You get the minimum wage and there’s the council tax, the rent, this and that. I think it’s just unfair.
“The thing I have most problems with is the council tax. I’ve been in court three times, I’ve had the bailiffs — and they put another £120 on the bill.”
Sarah lives in the neighbouring borough of Newham, where council tax is £823.70 a year in band B.
That alone takes up more than an entire month’s pay on the minimum wage of £4.85 an hour.
“None of the politicians has got a clue. No matter who we’re under, there’s no change. It’s all promises,” she says.
“I think we should go on a riot. If everyone was to get together and say we’re not paying it, what would they do?”
Gary uses the pawnbrokers frequently to get cash against his gold rings. “The reason I buy gold is because I haven’t got a lot of money. When I’m skint I go back in there.”
He points to one of his rings, explaining, “I’ve always got £25 on me.” Borrowing money any other way is a non-starter, he adds. “If you live on the Gascoigne estate it’s hard to get credit.”
Allison fell into debt as a university student. “I got into a bad situation and ended up pawning — for £60 here, £20 there.”
She took time out of university and ended up on the dole. “I’d got myself into debt. I lived on £50 a week or whatever and couldn’t handle it.
“I could have gone another way, done a lot of things, phone line sex, that kind of thing. It crossed my mind. But I’ve got strong morals. So I ended up pawning everything.
“I was so desperate I was down to pawning my grandmother’s ring. I didn’t like doing it, just so I could get some food. And things like the phone — they say it’s a luxury, but I don’t think it is.”
Allison is now working as a sales adviser while continuing her university studies.
But although she is now earning, getting her things back is a struggle. She can’t afford to pay off the money all at once and must leave her things in pawn.
“I have to pay for the item plus £3.60 a month. I got £50 on it originally but to take it out it’s £90 odd,” she says.
Over a year, Allison’s loan would be paid back at 184 percent. “They’ve made a lot of money from me. That’s how people get stuck in it.”