Poverty and its effect on identity

A personal look from WiD member, Susan Morrow, at poverty as an important dimension of diversity that is often overlooked……

I remember lying in bed, staring at the room, it was early morning and cold. I had a feeling of deep sadness that lay with me in that bed. It was the sadness of knowing that when I got out of bed and went downstairs on that Christmas morning, there would be no presents for me or my brother. Earlier that year, my mother said to me and my younger brother. “It’s either food or presents” “your choice.”. This wasn’t said maliciously, it was a practical offer from a mother who had run out of choices.


Choice and poverty

Poverty removes choices in life. This is one of its most damaging aspects of being poor. You can cope with little food or even no food for a short time; I used to cope by stealing apples from next door’s tree when there was some. Free school meals were a godsend. You can cope with no money for clothes if you can get hand-me-downs or use a charity shop or jumble sale. You can cope with having no heating by wearing your clothes to bed, so you don’t have to get up and put on freezing clothes the next morning.

It’s the removal of choice that makes poverty hard to bear and damages opportunities.


Poverty is relative but still a constraint

Of course, the poverty that I experienced, growing up and during my early adulthood in the UK, is nothing compared to the levels of poverty felt by some in other countries. But poverty is relative. When I went back to school after Christmas, the other kids would talk about their new toys. I’d be asked what I got for Christmas. I’d lie; I’d say I got a recorder, a Cindy doll, a “compendium of games.” As I said those words, I felt shame. I felt that shame until very recently. The shame that follows you in life is real and it informs behavior and constrains you.

I was taught to be embarrassed about being poor. I had to hide it in meetings, pretend I was someone else. I have been in a situation where all of the men in the room had been to ‘posh’ schools and talked about things like yachts, things I couldn’t relate to or even truly understand.

They bonded over yachts while I looked on.

By the same token, those men couldn’t possibly have understood what it feels like to go hungry, to not have a toothbrush, to have to use old rags as sanitary protection and wash them out at night, to use old newspaper as toilet roll. How could they? So, you don’t let on, but then your Geordie accent gives you away. You are pulled out as ‘northern’, Geordie Squaddie’ jokes are made in the room, you feel you have to laugh along.

Poverty is relative but absolute. It constrains your choices. There needs to be structures in place to offer choices.


Poverty, the tech industry, and safety nets

I was lucky. Those structures I mentioned earlier gave me some choices. I won a scholarship to a private school at 11, but I couldn’t go because we couldn’t afford the ‘accouterments’ of the role; hockey sticks and all that stuff. There may have been some other factors I wasn’t aware of, like travel costs as it was two bus rides away. But I was always quite good at exams. Eventually, after some stops and starts, I went to university and the government at the time gave me a grant to do so. Without that, I would not have gone. It was a hand that held mine, a structure to drag me out of the depths of poverty.

But being poor holds you back in other ways too. Experience of having nothing can be good in one way, you know you can survive. But it also means you do not have a safety net. When I went into business with my partner and brother, at 30, none of us had a safety net. No parents to go to if it all went wrong. No savings in the bank. Nothing except our naivety, drive, and an idea about encryption. When we started that business, we had to continue to work full-time whilst building up the business to a point where we could replace our salaries. My partner and I had only just moved out of a council flat into a terrace house. We both had young children to look after too. We could not afford to take too many chances.

We had no choice – we had to replace our salaries otherwise we’d lose our homes.

It took twice as long to get started, but through determination and a bit of luck, we were able to sell our encryption software to two of the world’s largest companies. If only they knew that their desktop access control and encryption package had been originally developed in the bedroom of a council flat in Newcastle. Of course, they couldn’t possibly know that, could they…

The shame of poverty can hide amazing things. Poverty can hide talent and drive and potential.


The potential that Poverty hides

The word poverty is in many ways a misnomer. I have experienced poverty of material things, including food and warmth, but I have not had a poverty of experience. I know what it is like to be homeless. I know what it is like to be on government benefits in the UK. I know what it is like to be a single parent, a company director, to be a mother, a grandmother, a human being. All of this experience, when channeled into certain areas, can add weight and depth and applicability to technology. After all, technology is about giving human beings tools to do things. By preventing people with certain experiences from being at the technology table you are adding poverty of features and functionality to your products; this is especially true in the case of the very systems that allow us to transact in the modern world – digital identity.


Risk is also relative

My ‘yacht’ encountered choppy seas, but I was able to change my life. Being good at exams which allowed me to move across cultures – from working class to educated working class, I’ll never be accepted as middle class. Being working class can be a drag because it is a complex culture. Your family desperately wants you to get out of the situation, but you are also called a snob or big headed if you do. It’s complicated. Even writing this is hard because I can feel my sister, now dead, standing behind me with her critical stare; I know she was proud of me, but I know she felt a bittersweet anger when I bought my first ‘big house’.

Being poor removes choice from the people caught in its cold embrace. But it also removes potential from the tech industry. There will be a kid lying in her bed on Christmas morning, feeling a deep sadness because she knows she will have to lie to her school friends again this year. She may hold the key to ethical technology or be able to sort out the mess we have created on this planet. Or she may simply be able to give her own kids a good life one day.

We all need to have choices. Our industry has to build structures to allow those choices to be delivered. Poverty does not just stop people from achieving their own goals, it stops society and the technology industry from reaching theirs.


What can the Identity industry do?

Our industry, especially those companies that set aside funds for community projects, can help to build bridges to remove poverty traps. Here are my recommendations:

  1. I had a saviour. My older sister gave me a roof over my head when I left home at 16. She helped me get a part time job so I could support myself while doing my A’ levels. She encouraged me to go to university. Saviours come in many guises – the identity industry, as an individual company and as a body, can become a saviour.
  2. I had a structure to support me into university. Back then, that was a government grant. Those days are gone. Probably forever. But I also remember industry grants available to children of employees in certain workplaces. The identity industry could have something similar or, better still, extend it to reach kids of non-employees.
  3. Stop using unpaid or very low-paid internships. They are divisive and elitist. No working-class young person could afford to support themselves in an internship.
  4. In your inclusivity policy and diversity training, make sure to include class. I have been discriminated against because of my class which was identified by my accent. Eradicate all prejudice, it is harmful.
  5. Create programs that can reach into schools in working class areas to give kids experience of what working in tech is like and show them achievable routes into that work.
  6. Do not discriminate based on university. Some of the brightest minds never went to university. Create your own, salaried, training.
  7. Offer awards that are certifications, courses, paid for conference attendance (including travel and subsistence) for teenagers and older people from disadvantaged backgrounds.


You may think that all of the above costs a lot of money, but it is an investment in the tech industry and your company. By doing this, you may find an amazing contributor who creates important technology.



susanSusan Morrow

Having worked in cybersecurity, identity, and data privacy for around 35 years, Susan has seen technology come and go; but one thing is constant – human behaviour. She works to bring technology and humans together. 

Find her @avocoidentity