Everything Is Not OK: Part 5
I am writing to you today from up a creek. Our flat is currently so damp that we barely even go in the bedroom, much less sleep there. This is making my wife ill, as some of you may know. It is also costing us a lot in electricity to get temporarily warm and dry, especially tough since I recently lost my job.
So today I want to talk about benefit scroungers. I myself have been one for years. Even when I have been working I have never earned so much that I wasn't being propped up by working tax credits, housing benefit and help with health costs to make ends meet. Working full time, often for more than the minimum the law requires, I am not making enough that the Government, not in recent years famed for its generosity, is obliged to make up the shortfall. And right now I am making nothing at all.
Tomorrow I am off to a food bank. I haven't told anyone yet. Even by the time this goes live, it may still be me telling people. I created merry hell for my wife at Christmas because I insisted on giving presents to people, even when they had told me not to. I couldn't face the sense of failure.
This is the first thing you need to bear in mind when you read, talk and think about benefit scroungers. We exist in a culture that shames poverty. The financial crisis we are still in the shadow of emerged from a culture that rewarded pursuit of money simply for the sake of money. We are surrounded by footballers and actors and even lottery winners with far more money than anybody could reasonably need. Money is the measure of success, and success is rewarded with more money. You only have to look at the press to see claiming benefits being treated with infinitely more contempt than demanding a wage of £200,000 a week.
I have tried and tried to think of similar examples of how wealth is celebrated and poverty derided. It turns out to be really hard, because for some reason a couple trying to survive on £1,000 a month doesn't get the same press as a footballer negotiating to earn a minimum of 200 times more every week. So there are no big stories about impoverished people making headlines. Oh, unless you count the mother-of-eight who earns £40,000 in benefits and wants a bigger house. Or the drug-dealing dad claiming £1.2m a year. Or the smoking, benefit-claiming black-belt in karate woman. That's the company I keep.
So this, if you'll indulge me, this my story of being a benefit scrounger. First of all, and despite what you may think, it isn't a lot of money. It just about stretches, as long as nothing pushes your finances. As it is we have had to rely on our overdraft, handouts from family, and charity to get by. I feel very much that this is my failure. I am supposed to be able to provide for my family, and I can't. Norman Tebbit's misquoted maxim about getting on your bike and looking for work continues nearly 40 years later to link unemployment with laziness and failure. I can assure you that being out of work isn't the merry honeypot the right-wing press imagine. And the idea that we punish failure with impoverishment is not applied consistently. Our esteemed Prime Minister tried to shore up her power base with an election that cost her majority. The last guy lost a referendum that split the country and cost him his job. Neither are currently counting out their remaining small change to see if they can afford a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. I have, and I refuse to accept the blame for Boris Johnson.
So this is the second thing you need to bear in mind about being a benefit scrounger. It's no fun at all. I am stressed to the end of my tether. I am anxious and sometimes scared. I am uncertain about how long this will last and whether I am capable of finding another job. We eat what we can afford and live in one room because heating the bedroom is too expensive. We are both on edge and snappy with each other. We are struggling to keep our heads above water. So, I imagine are many people in our shoes. Remember that when you read the papers.
Nobody is going to put these stories on the front page. We need to share them. We need to share them with others to paint a different picture. We need to share them amongst ourselves because if you have a boat and I have a paddle, maybe we can start to move out of this creek.