Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Non-fiction
Fattigfällan (The Poverty Trap) is a social case history retold with passionate subjectivity. The structural elements of the case are familiar enough: a self- employed person’s protracted illness triggers a grimly predictable sequence of loss of income,indebtedness,poor credit scores, get-by loans at punitive rates, inadequate social support and finally, a looming disaster of homelessness and failing mental as well as physical health. This particular story comes alive mainly because the ‘I’ who tells it, a woman called Beata, describes her descent into poverty with undisguised emotion and naked intimacy. Even better, Beata is also intelligent and well-educated enough to provide an incisive running commentary on how badly many people and social institutions respond to her problems.
Beata, divorced and with four children who are all independent grown-ups,used to run a successful one-woman company to market a creative skill of hers; she rented a nice flat in central Stockholm and led a rather glamorous social life. When an unspecified illness landed her in hospital for several months, work piled up, and now that she is back home as an out-patient, her prospects have become dark indeed. She tries to work to keep up with essential bills, but the stress does not help and she falls ill again. Poverty and the shame of being poor increasingly isolate her and begin to affect her general health, what with her terrible diet (boxes of old cakes sold off for next to nothing) and her rotting teeth (no money for toothpaste,let alone dental treatment). Surely her situation qualifies her for income support until she is back on her feet again?
The short answer is ‘no’. Her belief that ‘the social’ is going to step in is dashed, repeatedly, over the years: she gets neither empathy nor practical advice nor reasonable economic support. Instead, any kind of work is out of the question and the pressure is on to get her out of her flat; only abject poverty qualifies clients for benefit payments.The turgid, arbitrary bureaucracy feeds on documentation (‘this form is invalid, you have put lines through the boxes instead of zeros’) and petty surveillance of every aspect of her life (‘this month’s receipts include a payment for a sandwich at a café; the cost will be subtracted from your benefit’). The spying undermines clients’ sense of selfhood and Beata, who sometimes dares to make official complaints, wonders at the unfairness of the procedure (‘How do the less well-educated manage, or the utterly friendless?’) Her story ends on a downbeat but slightly hopeful note: a few supportive friends have stood by her,‘the system’ has shown some compassion and she has qualified for a disability pension.
Read as a literary text, Fattigfällan is marred by its buttonholing repetitiveness and static ‘plotline’. More disturbingly, the social critique partly misses its mark because so many details are left vague or ignored altogether. Von Zweigbergk is a journalist rather than an expert on the Swedish welfare system; her previous ten books (novels, children’s stories and non-fiction on subjects such as addiction to cigarettes and rheumatism in women) suggest that her interest in poverty is relatively new. But Fattigfällan is nonetheless a persuasive plea for change; it ends with a two-page list of recommendations for ‘politicians and providers of income support’ – the recommendations include a citizen’s wage – and one page of dos and don’ts ‘if your friend has become poor’. The suggestions make good sense, and, if implemented, would improve social care systems in countries that aspire to treat people well when they need help.