“Yes, I’d seen that one,” I said, as the harassed looking Job Centre clerk handed me a vacancy printout. “I’m actually looking for something permanent, so I haven’t been bothering with temporary positions.”
She looked askance at me for a millisecond, before declaring, in a schoolmarm-who-will-take-no-objections sort of voice, “You will if you want to claim benefits.”
And there was me thinking the Department of Work and Pensions might want me off its ever growing list of the unemployed for good. Apparently they’re so desperate for the appearance of one less NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) on their figures, even a job for a few months must be chased – regardless of the fact that it was fixed term contract work that got me into this position in the first place.
Welcome to the wonderful world of unemployment. With the Coalition government’s proposed welfare reforms all over the papers right now, it’s a topical place to be. But contrary to the overwhelming media narrative, not a nice one.
The ‘reform’ of the Welfare State is yet another in a long line of Tory ideological dreams that somehow conveniently fit the purpose of bringing down the deficit – or to use Tory Central Office language, “sorting out the mess left by the last government”. To this end, a media narrative has been carefully framed, helped by the sympathetic right-leaning press. The DWP and other august government bodies have been calculatedly releasing a series of sensationalistic sets of statistics that have shifted public opinion of the jobless to seeing us as bloated, obese couch potatoes, shovelling down crisps while watching Jeremy Kyle all day in our palatial mansions – all at the hardworking taxpayers’ expense. When we’re not on those all expenses paid holidays, of course.
Think it’s an exaggeration? Just try looking at a few newspaper websites. Inevitably, the Daily Mail leads the pack; searching their website with the keyword ‘benefit’ calls forth a massive list of articles about fraudsters and scroungers. Ooh, a naughty man pretended to be disabled, but he can do gardening! Judge’s fury at alcoholic on disability! 76% of those who say they’re sick could actually work!
A similar search on the Daily Express website brings similar results – albeit slightly more tempered by the fact that the word ‘benefit’ doesn’t always apply to state welfare. Those ‘sick note scroungers’ are here too, though oddly this time only 57% of them are lying. Playing to the Express’ usual concerns, they note how immigrants are falsely claiming benefit. And then there’s the usual ‘scandal’ of people deliberately having huge families just to claim enough benefit not to have to get a job. Even if you believe that one, it’s hard to imagine that the “190 families” cited in the article are enough to break the state welfare budget.
The Sun, meanwhile, focuses more on the sensationalistic individual “what a bloody nerve” stories. What about the disability claimant who was caught skydiving, eh? Ooh, a friend of 12-years-dead TV host Paula Yates has made a fraudulent claim! And those sicknote scroungers are here as well – this time it’s a massive 80% of them who could go to work! And what about the fact that “one in three” benefit recipients is a criminal,eh? Bloody scrounging scum!
Well, we’re all familiar with the thorough research and impartial reporting brought to us by the British tabloids, so this should surprise no-one. But it’s the government’s steady stream of press releases, reports and statistics that feed the beast. Those last two stories in the Sun were brought to you courtesy of the Department of Work and Pensions and the charming Employment Minister Chris Grayling – a man who almost scuppered his chance of a ministerial post because he stated that Christians had the right to exclude gays from their businesses on religious grounds. What a nice feller. Isn’t the country lucky to have him extolling such Christian values as compassion and giving to the needy? Oh wait…
Trumping Grayling is the architect of the Coalition’s grand welfare reform scheme, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Another committed Christian, Smith was formerly an ineffectual caretaker leader of the Tories in opposition, and gained the less than thrilling nickname of ‘the quiet man’. Apparently he took this to heart, and seems to have become some kind of jobless-persecuting Torquemada in his quest to bring down the insane levels of benefit fraud that are so crippling the Treasury – estimated to be a staggering less than 1% of the benefit budget. But just in case tackling this massive army of scroungers doesn’t do the job, he seems intent on prying benefits back even from those who currently need and are entitled to them – like the disabled, those with large families, and those living in expensive-rent areas like, say, the entire South East of England.
But surely the welfare system needs reform, doesn’t it? Well yes, to be fair, it does. It’s massively overcomplicated for a start. You claim your Jobseekers’ Allowance (a princely £67.50 a week) from the DWP, your Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit from your local authority, the many and varied disability benefits from the DWP again, Child Benefit from the DWP, emergency crisis loans from the DWP – for now. Soon those too will be handed over to cash-strapped local authorities with no obligation to dispense them when they might need the cash to replace non-existent buses.
So right now, there’s a baffling array of benefits potentially available, all of which need to be applied for by in separate ordeal-by-complex-form, dealt with and paid by different departments. Under the circumstances, Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of a ‘Universal Credit’, which takes into account all your entitlements to form one conglomerated payment, seems like rather a good idea.
What doesn’t seem such a good idea is using this reform – and the sacred cow of deficit reduction – to massively slash existing payments to those who really need them. Especially in a climate where public sector job losses and increasing business closures due to unnecessary austerity are causing a massive rise in the numbers of jobless. With fewer and fewer jobs around, the long term unemployed will not be ‘scrounging’ off benefits to fund a lavish lifestyle. They’ll be trying their best to make the already meagre payments available last long enough to pay the rent, buy the shopping and, potentially, move to an area which might have more available jobs. Like, say, the South East of England. Where they won’t be able to afford to live, even if they scrape a low-level job at Tesco, since the paltry minimum wage has to be topped up by tax credits to provide a normal living. And the state won’t be funding those if Mr Smith has his way.
Of course, the increasing level of unemployment, which the Coalition presumably believe to be a price worth paying to enact longstanding Conservative ideology, will inevitably mean a bigger welfare bill. So surely cutting it makes sense? Well, it’s true that, according to statistics, the welfare budget for 2009-2010 was £192 billion, massively greater than most areas of government spending. But the key to bringing this number down is not to slash that spending and send hundreds of thousands into poverty and homelessness. It’s to try and create jobs to get people off those benefits.
Because, contrary to what Smith, Grayling and their press puppets would have us believe, the vast majority of jobless people are not idle scroungers. They want to work. But the high levels of unemployment means that companies can be choosier than ever when looking for employees. Even to get a job as a labourer now requires previous experience, and sometimes a professional qualification. Retail jobs demand knowledge of the precise commodity they sell, meaning if/when HMV goes under, their thousands of redundant employees won’t be able to just haul ass to Next without clothing retail experience.
Yes, there are job opportunities out there. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are about 439,000 of them across the country. But that’s against 2.685 million unemployed people. At its most basic, that means there are six times fewer jobs than there are jobseekers. And that’s before you take into account the regional variations that push that ratio even higher in some areas of the country. The government/media narrative that the unemployed are just lazy simply doesn’t add up.
Which brings us back to me, and my experience of unemployment. Am I one of those crisp-guzzling, Jeremy Kyle-watching scroungers that the narrative wants to portray us all as being? Of course I’m not. I was made redundant nearly five months ago, from a fairly high level job in education management, so you’d think I’d have pretty good prospects. And yet after five months of looking, I’ve found a surprisingly small amount of jobs I can even apply for.
It’s the usual paradox. Even if I set my sights much lower than I had been at (and I’m looking at jobs that pay less than half my previous wage these days), I’m considered too old (I’m 42) and too overqualified to take on the kind of jobs that rapacious employers can easily underpay kids for. And as for the kinds of jobs that equate to what I’ve been doing for the last four years, they mostly have experience requirements so precise that literally only someone who’s done that exact job before stands a chance. Which means that my best bet is to try and get another job back at the place I’ve just left – since they’re the only employer who has that exact position within 70 miles or so.
In the mean time, it may sound like a life of Riley to some – having no job to go to, no set time to get up, all that free time to do what you like…Well, no. Not really. Just looking for a job can become a full time occupation in itself. I spend an inordinate amount of time searching the myriad job sites and agencies on the internet, compiling lists of jobs I could apply for, however tenuous. Each application, if done properly, can take two hours or more – there’s the time spent researching the employer, writing a good cover letter, tinkering with the CV, sometimes filling in application forms or going through online hoops to submit information. To do four job applications can easily take more than eight hours.
Not that I do that every day. Even the stern-faced Job Centre lady I mentioned at the start advised me not to spend more than a couple of hours per day looking, and she was right – it’s spirit crushing (though I do spend more time than that, whatever the advice). Because what the ‘scrounger’ narrative doesn’t mention is the sheer sense of worthlessness, purposelessness you feel. You’ve gone from being a productive member of society to a drain on it, no matter how much you try not to. It is staggeringly, mind-bogglingly depressing.
And you can’t do much with all that free time – because doing things requires money, and you’re only getting £67.50 a week. In the mean time, I do not watch Jeremy Kyle; the TV is seldom on, and when it is, it’s usually tuned to BBC News. Sometimes I watch a film – this morning it was the less than cheery Revolutionary Road, which didn’t help my mood much. Or I’ll read a book. Currently I’m halfway through Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. How’s that for your uneducated couch potato?
I’m better off than most. I’ve worked consistently for most of the last twenty years (though my contribution based allowance will be cut after six months, just like anyone else), and I’ve managed to pay off all my debts and put aside a reasonable level of savings. Of course, they were going to be put towards a deposit on a house, but right now they’re supplementing my benefit, because £67.50 isn’t a whole lot to live on in Cambridge. My partner still has a job and a reasonable income, so I don’t need to claim Housing Benefit (not that I’m entitled to it under those circumstances). Nonetheless, I’ve used my savings to pay my share of the rent for the next year. And we don’t have children to think of.
So compared to a lot of the jobless, I don’t have a whole lot to worry about – even though it’s taking me longer to find a job than it ever has before. And yet my self-esteem is lower than ever. I feel useless, rejected, worthless. Now try and imagine how that would feel if I’d worked for twenty years at a decent career, had a mortgage on a nice house and a couple of kids (with all the attendant debt), and suddenly found myself on the scrapheap. Thanks to Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed benefit cap, if I lived in London, I’d probably have to sell up and move somewhere cheaper, like the North. Where the jobs aren’t.
Think of those people, because they’re going to be getting more numerous in coming months if the government have their way. I don’t have all those problems, and even I’m getting pretty depressed – not to mention resentful at the relentless media insinuations that I’m a lazy scrounger. The unemployed are not subhuman, and the continued demonisation of them to justify a Tory ideological wet dream should be a national scandal instead of a commonly accepted Goebbels-style Big Lie.