Justin Thacker

Benefits Street?


Imagine you are a single parent with young children living on benefits. You come to the end of a tenancy agreement and ask the Council to rehouse you. They say they cannot find anywhere and so you are moved from a fully furnished house to a 2 room B&B. This is what happened to someone I know. Apparently, her young baby had to stay elsewhere because the rooms didn’t have any kitchen facilities.

To my shame, and out of ignorance, I used to think the problem of welfare dependency was due to laziness. I have come to realise that the way we treat many of those on benefits is nothing short of brutalising. It is not just the level of benefits that is wrong; it is the systematic process of dehumanisation that the State imposes on some of the most vulnerable in society that is morally repugnant.

Prospect MagazineThis week, Prospect Magazine published results of a survey which showed the continued false beliefs of many of the public regarding benefit claimants. While the general public thought that 34% of welfare spending was devoted to unemployment benefit, the reality was just 2%. The largest slice of welfare payments are for pensions, well over 40%. Again, the public estimated that £40bn went missing in welfare fraud when the actual figure is around £1.2bn. Finally, while the public think that 38% of new unemployment claimants go on to be long-term unemployed (>1 year), the reality is just 10%.

This last figure is to me the most astonishing for the truth is that I’m amazed that 90% of those claiming unemployment benefit have the emotional and mental strength to get a new job. The reason I say this is because I’ve been there, and signing on is just one of the ways in which our State dehumanises. As anyone who has lost a job will know, however well qualified you are and whatever the circumstances in which you’ve lost your job, being unemployed – particularly in a context where you have dependants – is an extremely stressful life event. You feel demoralised, deflated and worthless. You question your own abilities and whether there is any point in even trying. After all, someone has decided that you’re not worthy of employment.

Given this context, we might expect job centres to be temples of positivity. They would recognise that what the unemployed require is morale boosting encouragement that yes, they can do it. They can get back on the career ladder and once again earn a living wage. That is certainly what the vast majority of unemployed would want. But instead what you get is a bureaucratic ego-sapping process that feels like it’s designed to remind you how crap you are. The centres are often dirty and dingy. There are no positive images or words around the place. You wait in queues of dejected people. You are treated with suspicion and perhaps worst of all you are communicated with in a linguistic form that I challenge the best cryptographers in the world to decipher. The following is an exact quote from a letter I received: “Thankyou for your claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance. As you have chosen to claim contribution-based JSA only, eligibility to this and other benefits has not been considered…If you are claiming JSA, please bring your P45.”

I wanted to scream at the letter – “You’ve just said I’m claiming JSA so why on earth in the next sentence do you say ‘If’, and what does ‘not been considered’ mean’? Does that mean I won’t get it?” I am a fairly intelligent, fairly educated guy but it was beyond me to understand the syntax of jobcentreplus – and if I couldn’t understand it, then how must the majority of claimants feel. The difference is that they may think they’re being stupid when the reality is that it’s the State’s language that is impenetrable.

Which brings me back to the tenant I mentioned at the start. She had tried to do the right thing and act responsibly in respect of her tenancy agreement. Like any citizen, her intention had been to honour a written agreement she had with the landlord. But she was informed by the Council that if she stuck to the terms of her tenancy agreement and moved out at the end of that agreement then she would be classed by the Council as having made herself homeless. And that meant, they would have no responsibility to house her. Instead, she had to ignore the written tenancy agreement and wait for the Landlord to evict her. Only then would she be classed as involuntary homeless and therefore housed.

I have heard that this is normal practice for many UK Councils. So what we have here is a situation of State induced fecklessness. It is not the single mum on benefits who is being irresponsible; it is the Council who are telling her she must behave irresponsibly or she won’t be housed. This is immoral, it is dehumanising and it is a wonder that those on benefits are not any more irresponsible than they actually are. If we want to blame anyone for the state of our welfare system, I suggest we look long and hard at the State. It is them, rather than the claimants, that are truly defrauding our society.


10/04/2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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