The following was written by Sean Hodges | @Howdiddly
It’s been said that the name “benefits,” when used to refer to the British welfare system, is misleading. Actually, it’s a blatant attempt at political propaganda. Since coming to power in 2010 as part of the coalition, the Conservatives have launched an all-out attack on the social security system that they claim is costing the UK so much money. This attack is undoubtedly the cause of immense suffering amongst the poorer and more vulnerable members of the British population, and as of August of this year it has been revealed that thousands of people have died after their welfare payments were stopped. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/27/thousands-died-after-fit-for-work-assessment-dwp-figures)
Despite this, there are still a lot of people in the United Kingdom who believe all too easily the stories of “benefits scroungers,” feckless poor people who are too silly to manage their finances. Not like us, they say. Convincing people that the welfare system is worth protecting, when their prosperity and social class inure them to these hardships, is a huge political hurdle. After all, if the Daily Mail or the Telegraph tells them that the less fortunate are the cause of their own troubles, who are they to disbelieve that?
That’s why I’m writing this article. A quick confession before I continue; I’m no journalist, nor do I have any background in journalism. I don’t often write articles of any kind – as is probably clear, this is something of a first for me. What I am, however, is determined to destroy the poisonous narrative of benefit cheats and the stereotypes that come with it.
These stereotypes, I believe, are what make the myth so appealing. In recent years, it’s become extremely convenient to disparage “chavs,” the working class and recipients of social security. To people whose income places them in the middle classes, the idea of these vulnerable people being feckless with cash and thus reliant on taxpayer money fits right in with their preconceived notions. This allows them to dispense with empathy and support the ideology behind the cuts more wholeheartedly, and enables them to treat people on social security as one underserving homogenous mass.
This, I think, is why the story of my friend’s mother is so important. If ever there’s been a series of events which show just how hollow the idea of the feckless poor is, it’s hers.
Mrs. DM – we agreed that she’d be better served by anonymity – is about as comfortably middle-class as they come. She works in a London opera house backstage, enjoys Handel and Tchaikovsky when relaxing in the evenings and can even reportedly claim descent from Oliver Cromwell. That last one I’m not so sure about, mind you, but overall the point I’m making should be clear; Mrs. DM is a very typical Middle England person, with nothing that sets her apart particularly from millions of others. Unfortunately, the work she does is subject to the vagaries of the opera season. It’s pretty simple; no show, no work. Sometimes this means that she has no income for a month or more, and must scrape to get by. Even when she does get work, she often finds that London’s appallingly high rents stretch her resources to their limits, and given that her landlord inevitably raises said rents each and every year this is unlikely to change.
That’s where her experiences of the UK’s current welfare system come in. Trying to make ends meet, she applied for housing benefit. Having been accepted, things seemed like they’d be better for her – until she discovered that the Housing Benefit people had been taking lumps of cash out of her bank account with little warning. When they did see fit to notify Mrs. DM, their letters tersely explained that they’d overpaid her that month, and they felt justified therefore in taking back the money they were owed immediately. Sometimes she’d work more shows one month than she would the other. Entertainment work of this nature is highly variable, as anyone who’s ever tried to make a living in it can tell you, and that extends to the staff who do all the unseen work backstage.
Housing Benefit, however, found the idea of an irregular schedule of working hours difficult to swallow. Whenever there was a change in Mrs DM’s working schedule, they would invariably halt all payments until they were satisfied that she wasn’t defrauding them of money. Sometimes it would take weeks for them to resume. These were weeks that Mrs DM could not afford to lose money, especially with rent looming on the horizon. The last time she asked the landlord if they could come to an agreement over a later payment of rent, the response of the letting agency that mediates between them was simple; “let us know when you’re moving out, then.”
And so it continued. Change in schedule, stop in payments, anguish about how those bills were going to be handled. It seemed pretty endless, she told me. And it wasn’t just Housing Benefit that seemed out to get her, either.
Just a few weeks ago, Mrs DM got a letter from the Jobcentre. She’d used income support in 2013 and they’d decided to come knocking – in verbal form, thankfully – to collect the thousands of pounds they thought they were owed in unpaid tax from it. It was, of course, untrue; I advised her to check her bank statements, and to the surprise of no-one she didn’t owe the Income Support people a penny.
However, do you suppose they would have come to that conclusion on their own had she not fought back and shown them evidence that they were wrong? Let’s go even further with this train of thought. How many people, do you imagine, have received similar incorrect letters – and were so frightened by them that they immediately gave in and paid money that they didn’t owe? If you’re even halfway possessed of a social conscience, I reckon you probably just shuddered at the thought.
So why didn’t Mrs. DM just get another job? That’s what certain people would ask. What was keeping her there if the opera house treated her so badly? Well, I’m glad you asked. You see, the opera house used to offer her a robust permanent contract, until the Conservative government cut funding to the arts across the country. After that, her former employers decided they simply couldn’t afford to keep her under a permanent basis any more. They were, however, perfectly happy to employ her back on a zero-hours contract as one of their “casual” workers, and at sixty it would be very difficult for her to find alternate employment. The worst part of this? It could happen to anyone, as the steelworkers at Redcar could tell you.
Ultimately, the system of social security we have in this country is crumbling, and the parts of it that aren’t are transforming into a cruel regime of sneering advisors and sanction targets, a system designed to crush the people who dare to apply for its protection with shame. However, despite what the middle classes and the well-to-do might think, it affects them too. Mrs. DM is living proof of that; coming from a well-off family and having relatives who could afford to nip off to Munich every other weekend for a jaunt didn’t protect her from destitution. It didn’t shield her from the inhumane practices and negligence that now characterise the welfare services today, and it certainly didn’t encourage them to be more careful when making claims on Mrs. DM’s money – money, it would transpire, that they weren’t entitled to in the first place.
It’s this simple fact that we need to hammer home. It needs repeating again and again, until the truth of it becomes clear.
A nation with a strong welfare state is a much more prosperous and happy nation than one without
We can’t wait until the Tories destroy social security entirely for those who remain unconvinced of that to realise the truth, or more people like Mrs. DM will come to realise what they’ve lost after it’s gone.
By Sean Hodges | @Howdiddly
If you would like to write a post for PoliticalSift – Collective Voice of Society – regarding politics, economics, health or social issues, or on anything that you’d wish to share, then please go to the ‘about‘ page – click here for details.