A story of claiming benefit that Channel 4 won’t show you

I didn’t want to write this and go over chapters of life from long ago that I spend most of my time trying to forget. But I was so riled by some of the online responses to Channel 4’s Benefits Street last night that I felt the need to. My slender hope is that the more those who’ve had difficulties to overcome in life are open and articulate about it, the more likely it is that eventually people might behave less like idiots to those less fortunate than themselves. I’m a journalist by training and I know how certain sections of the media work. They aren’t interested in the bigger picture, they want to find extremes and exceptions because those are what sells. But knowing it doesn’t make me any less cross about it when it leads to misrepresentation which hurts vulnerable people. The media trend of setting up people to be hated on which started with the early docu-soaps and Big Brother has progressively worsened to a point where it has gone from annoying to genuinely upsetting. And I want to balance some of the antagonism and nastiness currently being peddled about benefit claimants…

Twelve years ago, during my A Levels, I had the beginnings of a breakdown and eventually took the difficult decision to defer going to university for a year. With none of the normal gap-year activities planned, I needed to find work. I managed to bag a couple of very short temping gigs, and even interviewed for a one-year contract for a databases job with a multinational market research firm, which would’ve funded me through my entire degree. Unfortunately, my overall emotional state at the time, my age and inexperience, undiagnosed dyspraxia and not being able to drive (I still can’t. It’s still limiting…) were all stacked against me and I didn’t get the job, or any other. About halfway through my “gap year”, with no money and worsening health I was forced to sign on – it being the lesser indignity next to getting pocket money from my parents. At the time, before social media or even widespread broadband, I was relatively unaware of the attached stigma. I vaguely knew a bit, but never saw it as something that would affect me. I’d enjoyed bits of school and had believed in the bootstraps rhetoric that working hard at your exams meant a job when you were older. Now it seemed singularly wrong. I carried on signing on until I started university, volunteering for a local charity in a desperate attempt to get out of the house. Over the months my health worsened to the point where I was suicidal and nearly didn’t make it to university at all. Once I realised that only death or university were better than being on JSA any longer, I chose university and not death. On balance, it seems to have been wise…

That was 2002-3. I’m now almost 30, with a degree from a good university and a postgraduate diploma. And pretty much everyone I know from a variety of walks of life has claimed benefits at some point for some reason, whether due to disability, job loss (been there too…) or the more conventional few weeks/months of JSA after graduation (when I graduated, before the credit crunch, taking months to find a job was a stigma. These days, months rather than years is considered an achievement…). When I see and hear people talk about benefit claimants like a sub-species living apart from everyone else I can only wonder where on earth they’ve been all their lives. And I wonder too, quite honestly, if I had seen some of the vitriol that goes around social media nowadays – the rants, the death wishes – back at my lowest point in life, would I be here to write this?

Last night I saw people responding to Benefits Street bemoaning that poor people have phones and computers and asking, why should they? Because those things are essential to finding a job and meaningfully participating in modern society, that’s bloody well why. Because they probably bought them when they were in work, or were given them as birthday or Christmas presents. Even if they didn’t, even if they put aside some of their £50 or whatever-it-is-now a week just to buy one thing that gives their existence some purpose and enjoyment then so what? To this day I’m grateful to British taxpayers of summer 2003 who funded the CDs, drinks and snacks I bought when I was well enough to listen to music or leave the house. They were lifesavers. Believing that poor people should have nothing to live for until and unless they find work is counterintuitive. I’m not upset that unemployed or poor people have smartphones; I’m upset that people who can’t engage their brains before opening their mouths have jobs. If you use this sort of argument then frankly I would rather give an iPhone to someone on JSA for a day than piss on you if you were on fire (I was going to edit that out, I generally believe honey is better than vinegar when it comes to arguments but sometimes a dash of vinegar feels necessary…) 

Before Christmas I was talking to one of my best friends whose boyfriend, a statistician, has suffered from depression throughout his life, about differences in outlook between him and the rest of his family. She told me about how his siblings are conventional achievers with conventional ambitions, while his are more down-to-earth. I instinctively understood what she meant. When you’ve been through anything like depression, especially at a young age, you measure achievement a bit differently. Success isn’t about a podcast by some chest-beating wealth guru on the secret to being brilliant; it’s about being able get out of damn bed in the morning and not want to cry or be sick. And above all, being able to earn a living. Once you’ve experienced suicidal despair and the genuine fear of not being able to work ever again, nothing is ever the same.

Given the precarious state of my health and the precarious state of my industry, having to sign on is still a fear nearly eleven years later (I’m lucky I’ve been able to use savings to get me through bad times since a sudden bereavement shortly after going freelance, otherwise I’d probably have needed to more recently…). From my relatively brief experiences to date, I can tell you claiming benefit is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, let alone a lifestyle choice. I don’t wish financial ruin or poverty on anybody...not even a contemptible fuckwit like Nick Griffin. Even allowing for the fact Benefits Street wasn’t completely a cynical stitch-up and some of the people on it were genuinely unpleasant people with a thirst for publicity, they aren’t representative. The reason why part of the media wants us to think they are is because it protects us. As long as we don’t teach critical thinking in schools; as long as we can believe in ‘them’ and ‘us’, that misfortunes are the result of bad choices and only other people make bad choices, and as long as we’re only interested in hearing about people who fit our prejudices, then we don’t have to confront the grim reality that all of us are a redundancy or an adversity away from being in the same boat. Like all bigotry, this sort is rooted in ignorance and fear. And for as long as people who have no concept of what it’s like being an unemployed 19-year-old who wants to end their life feel they have a right to prejudice, I will counter it, and keep countering it…

[I have numerous other thoughts on this subject based around my job and the people I’ve met through it – especially around welfare and disability – which are for another time…]

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One thought on “A story of claiming benefit that Channel 4 won’t show you

  1. I’m happy you chose study over death.
    “poor people having phones and computers – why should they?” The shortest answer to that is of course: “Why shouldn’t they?”…
    A former boss complained about how his church had bought a microwave for a traveller family, and that when they visited, the microwave was gone, and that that just shows how (etc)… He didn’t consider whether a microwave was what that family had most need of – they may have traded it for something more essential.
    Signing up for the dole should be something you’d do when needed, when not having an own income. It shouldn’t come with ritual, institutional humiliation as it does. Over here the benefits office looks like a prison building, designed to make anyone enter feel guilty about their spongery.
    And let’s not even start about the ATOS testing – enough (but not enough) has been written about that.

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