On a rainy Friday in a tiny caff on an industrial estate in Walsall, Sabrina greets me from behind the counter with typical Black Country warmth: she’s quick to laugh, quick to call you “bab”, quick to help you. A short distance from my hometown, in the post-industrial area west of Birmingham, she sells me the best sausage sandwich of my life.
There is nothing in Sabrina’s cheerful manner to suggest that she is at breaking point. A 46-year-old former schoolteacher and single mother of two, she enjoys cooking and loves her customers. And they love her. The café, Sabrina’s Kitchen, has a rating of 4.9 on Google and a host of positive reviews: “Best café I’ve been to in ages”, “Only a few places I’d return to and this is up there with ’em”, “the owner was funny as hell.” One person echoes my sentiment: “Best sausage, egg and mushroom sandwich I’ve had.”
But Sabrina has been struggling to maintain her upbeat persona. Rocketing food and energy prices have meant that she barely earns enough to cover her rent and the expenses of having two children. Privately, she’s been dealing with panic attacks, headaches and a loss of appetite, and the cracks are beginning to show. “I’ve had customers walk into my caff and I’ve been crying… Obviously, I’m not gonna tell them why, but they know there’s something wrong.”
Sabrina’s not the only one struggling. She tells me about a man who lives in a van and frequents her caff for a cup of tea whom she assisted with a housing application, and the elderly people who come by because its warm: “I’ll do them a cup of tea and I won’t charge them,” she tells me, “I’ll sit and talk to them.” But with costs continuing to hurt, she’s not sure how much longer her door will be open.
The Conservative government won the 2019 election on the promise that it would “level up” towns like Walsall: places that, when they are covered in the national press at all, are often described as “left behind”, a term that people here deeply resent. “We want a government as focused on Wolverhampton as it is on Westminster,” Michael Gove said on GB News in February 2022 ahead of the publication of his Levelling Up white paper. More than 20 months on, people in the Black Country feel they have been left to battle with the worst drop in living standards on record, alone.
According to the thinktank the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton were three of the five boroughs that were the most vulnerable to the cost-of-living crisis in the country. Escalating energy costs earlier this year put pressure on the energy-intensive industry still left here, and existing deprivation has been exacerbated by inflation. Increasing numbers of those who are out of work are being thrust into poverty, while people in low-wage work are facing a Groundhog Day grind to keep themselves afloat. Parents watch the horizons of their children shrink.
What does that do to a community? The Black Country was the powerhouse of the British economy during the industrial revolution—it is named for the coal seam that runs beneath it and the soot that its iron foundries and steelworks threw into the air. It is sometimes said that its red-hot furnaces and thick black smoke inspired Tolkien’s Mordor. My own hometown, Stourbridge, one of the most affluent in the region, was famous for glass blowing—a red glass cone still sits proudly on the high street of one area, Wordsley. The Stourbridge Lion, which was the first foreign-made steam locomotive to be used in the US, now sits in the Smithsonian Museum.
There is still a cluster of industry here—around 60,000 people are employed in manufacturing jobs, including in iron and steel processing, plus vehicle and food and beverage production, many of them in small and medium-sized businesses—but industrial transformations have created unemployment, poorly paid work opportunities and high rates of deprivation. Nearly 40 per cent of children across the Black Country live in relative poverty.
The region has also been politically volatile, and at times has been a bellwether of national dissatisfaction: people overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, for a while backed Ukip and in the 2019 election the Red Wall swing from Labour to the Tories played out here. I have wondered whether this volatility could be an expression of a simmering rage: a sense that the enormous contribution people made here to the prosperity of the nation has been forgotten, or at least, that the spoils have been hoarded elsewhere.
I’m speaking to Sabrina two months after we met at the café, this time on the phone. She is already in her pyjamas, even though it is only 4pm. She tells me that she bought the caff in 2017, and after one thriving year, “local factories started to make staff redundant and replace them with robots. I can’t feed robots. Then Brexit came along, and shortly after that we were hit with Covid, and ever since Covid the caff has just not been the same.”
Her business was then hit by the dramatic increases in food and energy prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—food inflation is running at 10.1 per cent after peaking at a 30-year high of 19.1 per cent in March—and at home, she faces higher living costs. “Rent’s gone up, gas and electricity have gone up, water has gone up, food’s gone up. For a single parent, it’s hard.”
The immediate impact of this has been a contraction of Sabrina’s world, both for herself and her children—an experience that people in low-wage work across the Black Country described to me. “The only thing I do is go to work, home, work, home, work,” Sabrina says. “It just isn’t fair.” She feels that this has impacted her chances of finding a romantic partner. “I should be thinking: ‘Okay, I’m 46 in July, I could potentially meet someone,” she says, “but the fact is that to meet someone, you need to be going out, but to go out, you need the money… I haven’t got a pot to piss in.”
For Sabrina, the worst part is also the impact on her children: “I feel like a really crap mom,” she tells me. She says she would love to take her children for a day out to the local theme park, Drayton Manor, but she can’t afford it: “You’re looking at almost £100 for the three of us to get inside the park. And then you’ve got your food on top,” she says. “Yes, I can pack a picnic, but when your kids are seeing other people having food from the park, they don’t want to be sitting there eating sandwiches that you’ve done from home.” They want the chips or chicken nuggets or slush puppies that they see other children eating: “Where am I supposed to get the money from to do that? There are loads of us out there that are in the same situation,” she says.
Nearby, in Walsall town centre, Sadat Hussain dishes out free meals with a team of volunteers on an otherwise shuttered high street. There are knots of people across the square, some taking shelter under the metal frame of an empty market stall, others on benches. Many are eating food from Sadat’s stall. Some are drinking alcohol.
Sadat is a serious man with bright eyes, a social worker who spends his days supporting people in another borough and his evenings running Walsall BME welfare and advice service, a charity he started in 2016 to support homeless people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly those who were not engaging with mainstream services. At first, they were mostly people struggling with homelessness or addiction, but since the cost-of-living crisis began the charity has been providing hot meals for an ever-growing queue of people, many of whom hadn’t needed help before. Today, Sadat estimates that they have served around 100 meals to between 70 and 80 people, with many parents taking food home for their families.
I ask him how he copes with the rising demand, watching so many people in his community struggle. “I try to detach that because obviously we have limited ability—you can do only so much. If I engage emotionally then I won’t be able to help people,” he says.
As we talk, a boy racer thunders past us: “we don’t have enough police on the streets,” Sadat says, gesturing at the car disappearing into the distance in frustration. Walsall has a crime rate 82 per cent higher than the national average and there is a palpable sense of menace here even at 6:30pm, such that Sadat is not happy to let me wait for the bus home on my own. Instead, one of his fellow volunteers, Pal Singh, offers me a lift back in the direction of Dudley. Pal is a gentle, softly spoken man I instantly trust. He started volunteering with Sadat last year. “What a wonderful thing to do,” he says. “I’ve seen people from all walks of life. We’re not judging anybody. Everybody’s got problems at home: students, families, people on benefits. Everybody’s treated the same.”
On the other side of the Black Country, in Halesowen, care workers for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems describe a similar frustration. At a branch of the GMB union, Nathalie, Paul, Laura, Lesley, Yvonne and Zoe want to advocate on behalf of the residents they work with, but it soon becomes clear that they have their own struggles with demanding and low-wage work.
Nathalie has two children and rents her home. Before the cost-of-living crisis, she tells me, she and her husband would have “not a lot, but a decent amount” of money left over at the end of each month. “Now we have literally naff all,” she says. “I’ve got a near six-year-old whose latest fascination is he wants to go to the beach,” she says. “But where that would have been feasible a few years ago, it’s now out of the question.” Paul interjects: “Is it a lot to ask to take your family on an annual holiday when you’re working the best part of 50 hours a week?”
The cost-of-living crisis has severed the contract that said parents’ hard work would give them enough to provide for their children
Nathalie is frustrated. “Pardon my French,” she says, “but it feels like absolute shit.” She wants to be able to give her children him the things she never had as a child: “what I hate is the fact that up until the last few months, I’ve been able to do that. Now, because of how expensive things are I’m having to rein in on things. Or I’ll purposely go without things myself so that I can give him that little bit extra.”
The cost-of-living crisis has severed the contract that said their hard work would give them enough to provide for their children. If you work increasing hours and see your living standards continue to drop, how does it feel? “I think you go emotionally dead because it’s just the same stuff on a different day. And it feels like Groundhog Day,” says Nathalie. “It’s almost like a cancer,” Paul adds. “It is there, eating away at people.”
In Wolverhampton, the biggest city in the Black Country, Mani runs a charity supporting local families. “On every doorstep in Wolverhampton, there’s somebody who’s struggling inside their house and somebody homeless outside,” she says. Her charity, which is made up of volunteers who are young mums like her, used to send donations abroad to support children with special needs. But lately, she tells me as she powerwalks around the block after putting her toddlers to bed, the level of need in the UK has shifted her focus to families here. “People are now having to choose, should they feed themselves or should they feed their children?”
I speak to Julie* too, a 60-year-old retired schoolteacher and volunteer who begins to cry during our conversation as she lists off the problems faced by the people she supports and encounters in everyday life. A woman she volunteers with at a charity shop asked for her help after her landlord put the rent up. “I get this all the time,” she tells me. “People say, ‘I hate asking for help, Julie, but is there anywhere you can get me a food parcel from?’ People are ashamed to ask.”
She’s been supporting one young woman who has been struggling with her nan’s funeral costs, who told Julie that she gets £108 per week in benefits to live on, but £52 is taken out automatically to repay the loan she received from the DWP for the funeral costs. “How is she supposed to live on that?” Julie asks. Another young mum needed money to help her turn on the heating for a visit by social workers to discuss her child coming out of temporary foster care.
Julie provides support by using social media to source donations from the local community for items needed by a list of clients, who are referred to her by charities, shelters and prisons. Many of the families referred to her have more than five children, which makes them particularly vulnerable to what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes as “deep poverty”—having an income of less than 40 per cent of the median. Larger families are particularly vulnerable, partly due to the two-child limit on welfare benefits that was introduced in 2017. Universal Credit sanctions can cause mayhem, with the delays leaving many of Julie’s contacts without income for weeks. Energy prepayment meters also lead to staggering bills. Single mothers are relying on child maintenance from fathers who often have new families that they are trying to keep afloat.
“I wish I was a secret millionaire. The deprivation I see, it’s unbelievable,” Julie tells me. “I feel like giving it up because I think I’m helping them but I’m only, like, scratching the surface.” But she doesn’t give it up, largely because of the spirit of generosity that she finds around her. “What I’ve found, Sarah, is that people with the littlest give the most. They help each other. And in our city…they’re amazing.” Julie uses Facebook callouts to source donations for people in need: “If I put a call out for, like, a fridge freezer now, I’ll probably get offered 10. Honestly, people are so generous.”
Informal safety nets have sprung up across the region, from the Black Country foodbanks—of which there are 25 across the region—to groups like Sadat’s that are organised almost entirely over social media. The day before I meet with Sadat, I speak to Matt, who has moved to Sandwell from London to work as comms manager at the council. He says that when he arrived from London, he realised that “There are already more connected communities here than… in other parts of the country.” People “are helping each other out.” The cost-of-living crisis may be “hitting places like Sandwell hardest, but people were already looking out for each other.” But with rising demand, safety nets in even this mutually supportive part of the world are beginning to fray.
What I’ve found is that people with the littlest give the most
The central argument in Orwell Prize-winning author Darren McGarvey’s latest book, The Social Distance Between Us, is that the core of Britain’s growing inequality problem is the vast distance, “whether geographical, economic, or cultural, between those who make decisions and the people on the receiving end of them.”
At times, the sentences that tumble out of Sabrina’s mouth feel like they had been designed to back up McGarvey’s argument. Her frustration about the gulf between her life and the lives of decision-makers is palpable. “It’s okay for Rishi Sunak, and his wife and the other MPs. They’ve got 20 houses: they’re making their money. They’ve even got second jobs,” Sabrina tells me. She emphasises how fortunate most of the political class have been to receive a stellar education at private or grammar schools. “But we’re not all like that,” she says, “we don’t come from families like that. We come from simple families that have struggled themselves.”
What effect does this gulf have? In the Black Country, anger and frustration have, at times, bred support for the most dangerous kind of politics. The far right has long had a foothold here: Enoch Powell was MP for Wolverhampton when he gave his Rivers of Blood speech to Conservatives in the West Midlands; the National Front had significant popular support in the 1970s; the British National Party and English Defence League had a significant presence in the region as recently as the mid-2010s.
Over time, tensions have reduced—though as recently as last year teachers were warned about the risk of students being incited to violence in far-right Instagram groups. But as the economy flounders and the characters that defined the reactionary politics of the last decade—Johnson, Farage—fade out of view, what’s left behind is a diffuse anger and a sense of deep frustration.
Journalists like me have a part to play in this—almost everyone I spoke to who was battling the worst effects of the cost-of-living crisis expressed how patronising, enraging and unhelpful media coverage has been. As Laura, one of the care workers, says of national journalists: “I just think maybe they need to just come and do low income—just for one month.” They should “live the life they’ve got on what we’ve got—then maybe they’ll realise what it’s really like.”
For some, this frustration will be expressed at the ballot box. There are early signs to indicate that Labour might make headway in the region: in formerly safe Conservative seat Tamworth, around 15 miles to the east of Walsall, Labour claimed a historic victory in the October byelection triggered by the resignation of its MP Christopher Pincher after a sexual misconduct scandal.
But many people, like Sabrina, feel they have been pushed too far to engage at all: “I’ll be honest with you,” she says, “I’m not voting. Because it doesn’t matter who you vote for—they’re all the same. They’re fraudsters, they’re liars, they’re cheats. I don’t trust any of them.” Sabrina says she knows many other people who feel the same as her and won’t be voting.
The last time Sabrina voted was in 2010. Her trust in the system began to be eroded in 2012, when she was wheelchair bound with a stroke. Having never claimed disability or unemployment benefits before, Sabrina was persuaded to apply for disability living allowance by a colleague, to cover the cost of the taxis she needed to get around. Her application for disability allowance was refused.
An official from the Department for Work and Pensions visited her house and spent three hours with her filling out an assessment: “He could see that I couldn’t talk. He could see that I couldn’t walk—I was like, dragging my feet,” Sabrina tells me. He also knew that she was having to take her six-year-old child to school on a motorised scooter, with her two-year-old in tow: “The two-year-old was sitting on my lap while I was riding on the scooter with my daughter next to me, on the A5 in Brownhills,” she says, “but I was rejected.” In the last decade, successful appeals to the tribunal for decisions made by the DWP refusing disability living allowance, now known as personal independence payments, have increased by 100 per cent. “The system is only there to help the people that are fraudsters.” Sabrina tells me “It’s not there for genuine cases.”
Later, she was unsuccessful in getting council housing, confining her to private renting with her three children: a constant worry and frustration. Mortgage payments are usually lower than rent payments and Sabrina would love the security of owning her own home. During the past 13-and-a-half years of the Conservative government, she has lost faith that any government will ever support her. Two of the constituencies with the lowest voter turnout in the country in 2019 were in the Black Country, West Bromwich West and Wolverhampton Southeast.
As Labour storms ahead in the polls—at the time of writing, it is 20 points ahead of the Conservatives—we can begin to wonder what the current government’s legacy will be. While many will point to Brexit, to Partygate, to the collapse of the NHS, perhaps the most damning indictment of its tenure is how disillusioned many low-income people have become with politics itself.
I did most of the reporting for this piece in the early months of 2023, when the Ukraine war was the immediate precipitator of an unprecedented drop in living standards. But now, as a new winter stretches ahead, data from the Trussell Trust and YouGov suggests that the situation is just as bleak this year for the people at the bottom. The Trussell Trust forecasts that this winter will be the worst yet, predicting that 600,000 people will need its support in the three-month period from December 2023–February 2024. The government’s approach last winter relied on one-off payments to the most vulnerable households, but, according to data from the Trussell Trust, the limitations of this approach are now clear—it saw a temporary dip in the need for foodbanks in the weeks after each cost-of-living payment was made, but demand quickly returned. For 2023–2024, the government will make three cost-of-living payments to households on benefits of £300 each, but charities warn that this support will not be enough to protect people from poverty over the winter, with Sabine Goodwin, co-ordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, describing it as a “drop in the ocean.”
For Sabrina’s café, the cost-of-living crisis has proved fatal. She just can’t afford to keep running it. She put it up for sale earlier in the year, before having to take it off the market because the offers she got were so low they were silly. “I can’t keep doing this just because of my love for my customers and for the fact that I love cooking,” she says. “Because if I keep doing that, I’m going to keep getting in debt. And the more debt I’m gonna get into, the more I’m gonna struggle to live.” She plans to put the café back on the market in the new year.
I ask her what she will do next—maybe she’ll become a teaching assistant or, she says, “I honestly do not mind working in a supermarket. I am not that proud. I’ve got to provide for my kids. I don’t want to stop in a rented property. I do want my own house.” Sabrina hopes that with a more stable income, life will get easier.
But the sale of the café isn’t just a disappointment to those looking for an excellent sausage sandwich. It is also another incision into the social fabric of a country that has, over the last 13-and-a-half years, been weakened by a thousand cuts that came before. The spider web bonds of community, years in the spinning, are being quietly ripped apart.
There are cafés like Sabrina’s kitchen closing their doors across the country; there are volunteers like Julie and Sadat and Mani desperately trying to hold their communities together while the most vulnerable slide into deep poverty. For the next year leading up to the general election, the machinations of Westminster will dominate our screens and headlines again. But this is what happened in the Black Country. And it is on stories like Sabrina’s that this dying government should be judged. And it is for the next one to work out how it can possibly win the Black Country back.