Notes from the Trenches–Journal of a Dole Scrounger

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“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.

What the people who read the papers say

I’m a big fan of overhyped, ill-informed media circuses – they can be so entertaining. And it was with a rosy glow of nostalgia that I followed the recent shrieking newspaper hysteria over ‘legal high’ mephedrone. Nostalgia because it almost looks like they just dug up some old articles on Ecstasy from the early 90s and changed some of the words.

Like Ecstasy, mephedrone has apparently become a staple of the club scene, and, like Ecstasy, it appears to have caused some high-profile casualties that the ravening press have seized on as mascots in their latest cause celebre. It’s hard to forget the tabloid hysteria surrounding the Ecstasy related death of Leah Betts in 1995; perhaps easier for many people to forget that she didn’t die as a result of taking the drug, but by drinking so much water that her brain swelled up inside her skull. Never ones to learn a lesson about responsible journalism, the press have leaped on, particularly, the recent deaths of two young men in Scunthorpe to bolster a crusade against mephedrone.

Without wanting to cheapen or denigrate the grief of these men’s families, it should be pointed out that every article on this story (including the usually responsible BBC) has ignored the fact that the men in question had also consumed large quantities of alcohol and methadone. The problem was compounded by the fact that ‘methadone’ sounds so similar to ‘mephedrone’ that a number of readers who did notice this seemed unaware of the difference.

I’ve taken to reading online forums of various papers when I’ve a quiet moment at work, and what was surprising – and even encouraging – was that most people chiming in on the debate thought not only that banning mephedrone was a bad idea, but that banning any drug was a bad idea. Perhaps people genuinely are starting to think that, pragmatically, drug prohibition is an expensive, counter-productive waste of time. If that’s the case, for once the tabloids may have to change their tune. But will they? It’s a chicken and egg situation: do the papers form people’s opinions or reflect them once they’ve formed them?

Obviously, it was no surprise to find that leading the charge against what they insist on referring to as “meow meow” is that bastion of common sense, the Sun. Their insistence on calling the drug something which apparently no user ever would is in itself a clue to how ill-informed the paper seems. “Meow meow” has made many people recall Chris Morris’ classic Drugs episode of Brasseye, which now looks prophetic in its depiction of Morris asking random dealers for ‘Clarky Cat’ and ‘Yellow Bentines’. The Sun have produced such calm, clear-headed pieces as ‘Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off’ which comes as not much of a surprise, but I couldn’t help smirking at the usually earnest Times giving the world ‘Meow meow Sank its Claws Into My Mind’ . The ever reliable Charlie Brooker has pipped me to the post in a much wittier article about the hysteria in his Guardian column so I’ll content myself by stating my view on this ‘problem’.

Mephedrone almost certainly arose as an alternative to other, probably safer drugs which are criminalised. Ban it, as politicians seem intent on doing without thought, and another chemical compound will be synthesised to do the same job. I’ve done my fair share of drug experimentation, but I have no real experience of what the stuff is or what it does, so (unlike many journalists) I wouldn’t presume to speak from a position of knowledge. But as a relatively new substance, legal or not, it’s difficult to know what the risks of taking it are, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should certainly be doing a study. Unfortunately, as the sacking of its former director shows, they’re not going be too keen to produce a study which contradicts the politicians and the press’ preconceived ideas concerning this substance.

The bottom line is this: drug prohibition does not work. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, there is a demand for ‘drugs’, and has been for thousands of years. And where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Make something illegal, and the people who will provide that supply are the criminals. America’s dalliance with banning alcohol in the 20s is the textbook example, and yet people still fail to learn from it. The relatively benign cannabis is seen as a ‘gateway’ drug – this might be true, but only because you have to buy it from the same shifty dealer who also sells crack and meth. Imagine if you could buy it from your local newsagent, like that government approved narcotic, tobacco.

So again from a pragmatic viewpoint, the only way to properly control drugs is to legalise them. All of them. Educate people about them, regulate their sale, and above all, tax them. The benefits are obvious, once you get off your moral high horse. People will get the drugs whether they’re legal or not – if they’re legal, the quality is guaranteed, you save billions in ineffective anti-drug enforcement and gain billions in taxation. With the added benefit that organised crime would be crippled overnight. The anti-drugs campaigners in this country and the US love to bang on about how drug sales fund terrorism – given the amount of poppies grown in Afghanistan, they’re probably right. So, want to win your ‘War on Terror’ overnight? Take control of their funding by selling the product yourself.

There are any number of other arguments in favour of legalisation, but in the interests of even handedness, I tried to come up with some logical objections, not produced by the knee jerk moralising that you might see in the Daily Mail. There are a couple of things that count against overall legalisation. Firstly, it might give people the idea that the drugs are now, somehow, ‘safe’. This is the real problem with mephedrone – its legal status seems to convince people that a relatively untried substance won’t cause the sort of damage as the illegal ones. But this is the point where education could step in. After all, we all know how bad for us tobacco is. If you somehow missed that at school, the stark ‘Smoking Kills’ notices on the packets should clue you in. If a Health warning’s good enough for Marlboro, why not for crystal meth?

Second, it will make actually getting the drugs easier. This may sound like I’m switching position, but actually the illegality of most drugs does tend to make it difficult to get hold of them. Buying from the chemist is considerably easier than locating a dealer, gaining his trust, and running the gauntlet of potential prosecution to actually purchase something which is probably cut with baby powder anyway. Even so, by removing the rebellious glamour of a drug’s illegality, you’re probably removing a lot of its temptation in the first place. Want to stick it to ‘The Man’? If he’s the one selling the stuff, you’re not going to look like any kind of anarchist buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that excessive drug use is a good thing. But you could say the same thing about excessive alcohol abuse, and nobody’s calling for booze to be banned. It’s a sad thing that people feel the need to fill some perceived void in their lives by altering their minds with any substance, be it LSD or Guinness. But, again pragmatically, if people are going to do it anyway, let’s at least try and make it as safe as such an activity can be.

Sadly, while the people posting to the online debates understand the hypocrisy of legally selling the far more dangerous tobacco and alcohol, there’s still not enough people vocal about this to give any politician the courage to even mention it. Even if they did, it would only work if it were a worldwide policy, and the US are even more unlikely to put away their emotions and think logically about it. But one thing’s for sure – take away “meow meow” and something else will leap up to take its place. Perhaps we could call it “Shatner’s bassoon”…