Why we need to continue to smash myths about benefit claimants and the welfare receipt

I read with interest this article on Left Futures regarding Jack Monroe, and read with even more interest her response, which was one of the most powerful pieces I have read since I discovered her work – and considering I have been a fan on Jack Monroe since I read her incredible piece on her own poverty in 2012, that’s not easy.

The thing that has struck me the most is the now-contrast between Jack’s situation twelve months ago, and the life she has been able to rebuild for herself since. And that contrast has been possible because Jack has the means to broadcast her thoughts to the world via the internet, the articulation to share her experiences with many in a medium which is desirable, even if the content is not. But what of those without those means? Those who live like this day in, day out, with no voice, no ability to share their experiences, no tools to break their poverty-stricken cycle. Jack is right – poverty is poverty, whether you reach it from a great height or a not-so-great-height.

But obviously, its much easier to mock and demonise the poorest of the poor than those who find themselves in the realms of poverty from the middle class – of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to feel sympathy for those people, nobody would choose to go from having a healthy bank balance, a mortgage and a nice car to having to sell your shoes for a loaf of bread.

One of Jack Monroe’s critics – and seemingly someone who doesn’t know when to give up – said that “Jack Monroe is the perfect example of a problem that social justice has, people who only care about SJ because they’re suffering. Who know nothing of the larger struggle, who only know that they are hungry today without realising thousands have been hungry from birth.” Poverty is everybody’s problem, of course it is. I certainly find the thought of families, with children like my little brother, homeless, hungry, scared, on the streets or in their freezing cold homes, in the arms of their equally hungry, scared parents, difficult to comprehend because they are victims of circumstance. Circumstances beyond their control. But it isn’t the fault of people like Jack Monroe. It isn’t Jack Monroe’s fault that she and her son were plunged into poverty, in the same way that it wasn’t my fault that my family was forced to throw in the keys for a business and walk away with a debt amounting in the tens of thousands.

But for some reason, it becomes ok to scathingly criticise those who claim welfare and who already come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, these people are judged even if they are free of poverty. They are judged, simply, for being poor. Some even go as far as to try and control what those in receipt of welfare can and cannot spend their benefits on. Why the hell shouldn’t people who receive help be allowed to buy alcohol, or have Sky TV? Are any pleasures reserved only for those who are lucky enough to escape being poor? Are those low-paid workers who claim benefits to top up their income any less deserving of nice things than those who fund their lifestyles from jobs with a bigger pay packet? What if it was someone from the middle class, a lawyer, perhaps, who was made unemployed due to “unforeseen circumstances“? Someone who fails to keep up with their mortgage repayments and has to move? Someone who then has to ask for financial help from the government to pay his bills, to live, whilst he gets back on his feet? There is no denying this lawyer will be treated much more gently by society than someone who left school with few or no GCSEs, and has work experience in a few low-paid manual roles. Nobody will demand that the lawyers’ television, or three-piece suite, or smartphone, is returned, sold to ease the burden on the taxpayer. And yet, those who had a low income to begin with, who may have received their possessions as gifts, secondhand or simply by saving their money week to week, are made to feel guilty for daring to own things which many people don’t even consider luxuries today.

It’s not completely surprising that people think its acceptable to pick apart the lifestyles of those on benefits, when they’re able to watch programmes about benefit “scroungers” which do all the picking, all the judging, for them. Programmes which purposely portray the smallest section of benefit claimants – people who refuse to engage, and they do exist – in the entire system, and pass them off as representative. Which clearly, they are not. Sometimes a simple injection of facts into peoples’ hatred is all that it takes. Most people don’t realise that the biggest chunk of welfare, more or less half, in fact, is spent on the elderly, not immigrants or teenage parents. Most people don’t realise that the second biggest cost on the welfare receipt is, in fact, in work benefits, where low-paid workers are able to top of their low incomes to an acceptable level. A liveable level. A lifestyle which many in this country take for granted.

It would be wrong to suggest that everybody who claims benefits has honourable intentions. But the number of these people is so minuscule – 0.7%, compared to a public perception of 27% of fraudulent claims according to HMRC in 2011/12 –  that to suggest that these people are representative of all those who need help from the government is, frankly, disgusting, and is a worrying and damaging stereotype which cannot be accepted. When people are demonising people for claiming benefits and being a “drain on society”, they seldom seem to recognise that unclaimed benefits are much higher than benefits claimed falsely – HMRC estimated in 2011/12 that tax fraud and error outweighed fraudulent welfare claims by some TWENTY BILLIONS POUNDS. Nor do they recognise that big corporations, such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, paying their taxes can wipe out the entire welfare bill on their own. But, of course, it is much easier to blame the voiceless poor than it is to blame multi-million pound corporations, isn’t it?

I am incredibly relieved that I live in a country which is able to provide welfare to those who need it, to those who hit upon hard times, or those who need to top-up their income because their employer does not pay a Living Wage as Plymouth City Council does. It is comforting to know that, should I ever fall into poverty again – and I hope every day that this doesn’t happen again – then I won’t be alone, and that whilst I am lucky enough to have a decent, consistent income month to month, my taxes are helping families like mine, families like Jack Monroe and her son, to live a life that is worth living. I can think of no better use for my hard-earned money.

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2 thoughts on “Why we need to continue to smash myths about benefit claimants and the welfare receipt

  1. ‘…for some reason, it becomes ok to scathingly criticise those who claim welfare and who already come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, these people are judged even if they are free of poverty. They are judged, simply, for being poor… What if it was someone from the middle class, a lawyer, perhaps, who was made unemployed due to “unforeseen circumstances“?’ The Victorians called it a case of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. That someone should dare to decide who deserves compassion and who doesn’t deserve compassion proves that we live in a grossly unfair world. All the prejudices in the world operate on that system of who deserves compassion and who doesn’t.

    ‘…of course, it is much easier to blame the voiceless poor than it is to blame multi-million pound corporations, isn’t it?’ Yes, because these corporations give well paid jobs to MPs when they retire, so the MPs of all political hues turn a blind eye to it. How much these and many other corporations get away with is beyond counting and the real problem at the moment.

  2. I don’t agree with what you say in some of this. Of course it would be too nanny state to control what people spend their benefits on, but there are people who will claim they can’t afford to eat etc but they will spend the money on other things such as sky tv…now I’m not saying certain things are luxuries only for working people – I am saying that in some cases people will chose not to use their benefits for essentials and then claim to be hard done by. Benefits are a stop-gap until people sort themselves out with work, people may chose to spend them on luxuries but they should not be provided on the basis that the payments are enough to fund them.

    In the case of the lawyer, what if they are a single person with no children, they have a mortgage but also some savings, they go from a good wage to nothing. What support do they actually get? As far as I can see all they will get is JSA apx £70 a week for 6 months no matter how much the have paid in until they have spent most of their assets there will be no help. Even then, as a single person, if housing was eventually needed, there would be very little access to social housing and a very low allowances.

    I agree in what you say that the media often try to show us the worst cases to portray scroungers – no quote marks needed – they do exist – not in the quantity the media portray but they are out there. I think the thing that stands out from Jack’s case is that the administration of the benefits system needs to be addressed – why do claims take so long to process, why are changes made without checking the immediate impact, of course there are people who just cannot manage their money properly, but in Jacks case it looks like she was pretty switched on but she wasn’t kept informed so had difficulty keeping her bills under control. It looks like she was almost penalised for managing to find work that only lasted a short while?

    I’ve got some points on the the control over how benefits are spent. For example if we took away free school meals and added the cost to the parents benefits – how confident would we be that the child would either arrive with a decent packed lunch or money to pay for a dinner? If benefits are given for a specific purpose, they should be spent for that purpose – otherwise that is surely misuse of public money?
    If someone decides to spend their tax credit on cigarettes and starve their child, surely that is misuse and the state should be able to step in and control personal finance.
    For example, I rent out some properties and have not yet taken DSS because the people I met I saw the last place they lived in and they wrecked it. I also met a couple who were both unemployed and turned out they had to move because of their own anti social behaviour and although my rent was higher than their housing benefit were very proud to tell me that they are on so many different types of benefits that they can afford to pay extra. If I met people who would look after my properties and seemed like they would pay I’d give them a go. But – I don’t understand why the housing benefit can’t be paid direct to the landlord in all cases. It is irrrelevant this idea of giving claimants responsibility for their money. It is to pay their rent, so why not just ensure it is paid? When they chose to either purposely not pay or mismanage their money it is the landlord that suffers and this is a barrier and this is why you see so many ‘no DSS’ property adverts. And as far as I am aware there are no consequences if the hb is not passed to the landlord – dont the landlords just have to suffer a loss and the cost of eviction? While the claimant has kept the hb payment and will continue to receive it in their next property where they can repeat the same behaviour again?

    I agree with top-up payments for low paid workers, everyone should be on a living wage – but I also think the tax credit system is flawed. I know of someone who has purposely chosen to work part-time because of the fact that their child tax credit will top it up to a full time wage. Whereas if they work full time their income will be about the same – they do this by choice because if you a full time and have a family many employers allow you to request part-time hours even if doesn’t match up to any actual childcare needs. I don’t agree with this circumstance where people can through choice work less than a normal week yet suffer no loss in earnings at all. It is not fair to people who are willing to work to contribute to the welfare bill to have to fund people who are claiming through choice. And incidentally, this person is someone who is very quick to criticise those on benefits, but for some reason doesn’t see what they claim as a benefit! Maybe that is a class issue like you say about how people judge on other sections of society.

    To be honest overall I don’t think it is a class issue, I think most of the problems are with the way benefits are calculated and administered.

    I liked jacks story and determination and I think if she was a potential tennent I would take to her as a person, but no matter her good intentions, you can see from her post that problems due to benefits put her in arrears – as a landlord why take the risk on someone in that situation when you have other option? But then you also think this person needs a home more than most but your business head says weigh up the risk. I really do think we need to sort out affordable housing, I know a lot is in the pipeline for plymouth but a lot more is needed. My understanding is that with housing associations the hb goes direct? But there is nowhere near enough housing association properties both for those with low earnings and those who can’t work – so why not make it easier for private landlords? The current schemes in place do little to reduce risk and encourage people – you’d only sensibly chose that route if you had a difficult to let property – and these are the places people only live in with no choice and of course they won’t be proud of their home and be a good tennant in that circumstance.

    I also think that while it is good to focus on education and creating well paid jobs in high tech sectors, we need to remember that we need to cater for local people generally not just those with good qualifications. For many of our unemployed people a call centre or a factory production line is what they are suitable for. It is much better to have jobs at this level – preferably at least at living wage standard – than to have people looking at job vacancies and finding they are wasting their time because they aren’t qualified and won’t get interviewed. In the meantime they are trapped on benefits. Apprentices are great to help people improve their work options and I see that it used to be something for teenagers, but now many people in their mid and late 20s are doing this because they can’t find any standard jobs so they are looking for other ways into work. I know the company sponsors the course fee or gets funding, but still apprentices aren’t paid well, fine for a teenager who only needs to hand over a small sum to a parent for housekeeping – but for someone older it is tough to work full time on such a low wage without the gurrantee of a job at the end of it. I think anyone over 18 who is an apprentice or maybe the rule that they are not living with family (prob too hard to administer) should have a top up benefit which takes them to a proper full time wage – irrelevant of whether they have children.

    If you have read through, I’m sure you won’t agree with a lot of what I have to say, but people have different experiences and that’s where we get our views so thank you for taking time to read mine. I think you are impressive for 19 to be accepted to be the voice of the community and I can see why as you write with personality and passion for your subject. I think at a local level I think less in terms of party colour and more in terms of what the individual is willing to put into the process in terms of time and willingness to listen and take on and tackle the issues raised by locals because you only have two or three councillors per ward and it is their persistence, ability to articulate and approachability which brings about change not just their general principles which is just words on a manifesto not necessarily resulting in action. Good luck to you and I hope you stick with plymouth for your future we need a good mixture of ages and backgrounds etc representing because we still need more of a mix because then people look at the councillors and think this is a cross section of our society so they between them have varied experiences to bring to debates. We have a lot of polish people living around mutley I am aware – but I know little about them – I expect they are mostly here to work and are paying their taxes etc but maybe they are a group that if they had a polish councillor there would be better integration and understanding. I know people who complain there are so many polish taxi drivers and I think there is one firm who even advertise that they employ only English drivers! – so either they are exploited and not paid legally or maybe they use them because they have a good work ethic and if locals want those jobs maybe they need to step up and prove themselves a bit more. Either way there are things to learn by representing all the elements of our community because when you ask one of these drivers why they are here they tell you about how they are supporting a family back home and how difficult their situation is and I think their willingness to go abroad to do this deserves some respect – if you say to an unemployed local person how far with you go to find work – some will say only if the bus goes past my front door – what a difference in attitude. Also when people complain about asylum seekers – maybe they should hear what these people have escaped from and also hear what they are able to contribute given the correct support into work and education before being rude about them because I’m sure we’d all try to escape if we were unsafe.

    Trude

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