Saturday, 25 February 2012

The problems in the benefits system II - a response

This week, on Facebook, a huge debate arose over some attitudes to people on benefits, the economy, and jobseekers. The second post said some things that I believe really need to be said, and it said them much better than I could.

The original post this is a response to is reproduced here. The author wishes to remain anonymous, and I believe their aim was to create discussion rather than genuinely put across their views. Any comments that may identify that author will be deleted.

A response
by Emily Cresswell

I should also say, before I say anything else, that I’m also trying to be objective and avoid confrontation, but having been in this situation very recently, I do tend to get angry about the subject. (And fuck, you’ve seen me when I’m angry, and I’m sure you’re aware of the surprising amount of self-control it takes to stop myself from, say, massacring an entire women’s choir with a shovel.)

One massive problem with the entire benefits system is the belief, which you seem to share, that everyone who has a need to claim benefits is of low intelligence or badly educated. You and everyone else need to stop thinking about benefit claimants like they’re some degenerate sub-species; I know at least one friend who once had to spend a very long time convincing the job centre that she didn’t need to go on a literacy course because she already had a degree in Literature. Now, I may not have ever managed to gain anything more advanced than the universal figure of mockery that is the BA in English, but I never expected that I’d ever get to the point where I’d been on Jobseeker’s Allowance for six months, let alone that I’d have to sign on twice. Some people aren’t unemployable for a lack of basic skills; they’re unemployable because they have theoretical knowledge but no practical experience, and at the moment even unpaid work experience is difficult to find in some fields. The schemes that help people to get that experience aren’t cheap, and that’s why they don’t exist any more; graduates can now expect to get an unpaid and completely useless position in Poundland, instead of the minimum wage part-time *actual job* in a professional field with a non-profit organisation that I was lucky enough to get before the Future Jobs Fund ran out of money. There is now nothing to help young people with professional aspirations to find the experience they need to land even an entry-level job, now that we’re living in an environment where older people who have been made redundant are trying to re-enter the career ladder on a lower rung.

I disagree with you entirely on the subject of humility; the feeling that needs to be encouraged is pride. I can only speak from the point of view of someone who’s claimed JSA, but humility isn’t something that’s lacking; it’s something that’s enforced. The only lasting thing I learned from the twenty minutes of waiting and three minutes of actual human contact that a JSA claimant under the age of 25 can expect in their fortnightly or weekly visits to the job centre was that however much effort I put into looking for work, I would still be treated like shit. The stigma and blame culture surrounding benefit claim is so extreme that I genuinely felt like a benefit cheat, and almost that I deserved the treatment I was getting, despite the fact that even my advisor at the time (one of a grand total of three people I met over the combined eight months who didn’t talk to me like a mentally-challenged infant) said that I was entitled to considerably more money than I was getting. The reason that I refused to apply for more benefits was pure pride – I may have been falling back on a very generous overdraft, but I knew that I was better than applying for money that I could live without. Further, I think that expecting money from one’s neighbours rather than the government is nothing short of rude. Assuming I couldn’t get access to benefits eighteen months ago, who should I have turned to first? The man downstairs whose only source of income is his pension? The couple on the top floor who are preparing to move to Canada? The woman in the flat below me who has two small children? If that’s humility, then with all due respect sir, you can shove it up your arse, because I’ve got too much pride to take advantage of people who probably need the money more than I do, rather than take it from a limited fund set up specifically for people in the situation that I was living in at the time.

And for the record, life on a low a salary is much better than life on benefits. Even when I switched from an almost full single-person JSA claim to a minimum wage twenty-five hour a week job, the difference was immense. If I spent carefully, my income came to more than my outgoings, and I hadn’t experienced that since I lived with my parents. Money is nice (even considering that I’m still not earning all that much of it), but the reason I work is because it feels damn good. It’s my pride that makes me work hard, it’s my pride that lets me enjoy the money I earn, and it’s my pride that even occasionally lets me justify buying something that isn’t second-hand. In three month’s time, my pride should be seeing me through to a pay rise that will get me started on paying off that godforsaken loan. I have genuinely never been happier, especially compared to the depressive pit I found myself in thirteen months ago, when humility gave way to inferiority. Humility is only a good thing when it has strength behind it, and the JSA claiming process saps away so much strength that humility wears down to a feeling of utter worthlessness. That kind of mindset will only ever leave people trying to live on less and less money, convinced that they don’t deserve any better, while pride will give them the confidence to work their way out. If benefits have to be cut to make the contrast more stark, then it’s going to call for some very careful research to make sure that no one is harmed, because you, like most people who haven’t claimed benefits in the past couple of years, seem to think that JSA claimants actually get enough to live comfortably on.

Again, I’m trying not to let myself get confrontational, and spending all evening coming up with a response has helped me to calm down a lot, but it’s a touchy subject that a lot of people with a lot of influence are incredibly out of touch with. Also, I apologise for writing you an essay, but as I say, it’s helped me calm down.

1 comment:

  1. To give them credit, I would like to mention that I really appreciate Author of the Original taking the time to address all of their responses, genuinely being open to other people's opinions and encouraging exchange of ideas. I really do appreciate debate on volatile subjects that doesn't degenerate into a flame war, and I don't think I told them that.
    - Emily