Who should be more ashamed that Peter Lumb (left) has been summonsed because he is unemployed and does not have the cash to pay his council tax bill? Mr Lumb himself? Or George Osborne (right) for creating a system in which people like Mr Lumb are thrown away by indifferent employers?
“Why are you ashamed of being on benefits?”
One of our commenters asked this of another after they admitted that being on benefits made them feel ashamed. It took me completely by surprise as at first I thought it was aimed at me. Then it occurred that it might have been a general question aimed at anybody on benefits. Only then did I see that it was a response to someone else who had said as much.
In the period between reading the comment and realising what it was about, my mind went through several different thought processes which, in the spirit of Douglas Adams, we may call the Why, How and Who phases. The first could be characterised by the question, ‘Why should I feel ashamed?’; the second by the question, ‘How could shame be an appropriate response?’; and the third by the question, ‘Who should feel ashamed?’
Let’s look at the first. I’m on a benefit; I receive Carers’ Allowance. I feel no shame whatsoever for being in receipt of it. Here’s why:
I quit my last (full-time) news reporting job in mid-2007 to become a full-time carer for Mrs Mike. As everyone reading this probably knows by now, Mrs M has been in a great deal of pain for a great deal of time, and her condition has been worsening. In 2007 the government of the day acknowledged this by putting her on Disability Living Allowance (she was already on Incapacity Benefit), and this meant that I could get the allowance if I was looking after her for more than 35 hours a week. I jumped at the opportunity.
Yes – it was an opportunity. You see, conditions at work had been worsening of late. For the hours I was being asked to work, my pay packet had been decreasing, in real terms, year-on-year. Recently the company had decided to move the office where I worked to the far edge of the patch I covered, forcing me to drive 82 miles there and back, every day. I was tired, I felt misused, and I was starting to go into debt. Swap this for benefits? For me, it wasn’t a decision at all.
Note carefully: My decision to go on benefits made me better-off (I’m not in debt any more) – not because benefits habitually pay more than wages, but because my (former) bosses had been pushing my wages down, in real terms, beyond the point at which I could make ends meet. It was their decision to do so that meant I could not balance my books; it was their decision to move the office that meant I was spending hours every day in transit when I could have been doing something else; it was the same decision that meant I knew I would not be able to cover the patch as well as I wanted to.
I could have made a case for constructive dismissal. This seemed a much more amicable way out.
I don’t think my situation is unusual. Across the UK, millions of employees are probably in the same situation now – or one that is worse. The problem does not lie with them but with their bosses. If any of them had to give up their job for similar reasons, there would be no cause for shame (in my opinion).
The other reason I don’t feel any shame about being on benefits is that I haven’t made that the sum total of my life. I carry out my caring duties diligently – and have gone head-to-head against the Department for Work and Pensions in the course of those duties, as has been reported here many times.
But I am allowed to do other things as well, provided that my earnings do not exceed a certain amount per week. That’s why I was able to work for an internet news service earlier this year (until their funding for me ran out). That’s why I’ve published one Vox Political book already*, with two more on the way.
These are all legitimate – and in fact if the books started bringing in a larger income – enough to support us – I would be overjoyed at the chance to get off-benefit and provide Mrs M with a better quality of life.
What I’m saying is that being on benefits should not put an end to anybody’s ambitions. You might be supported by the state’s (extremely threadbare and fragile, thanks to Lord Fraud’s and Iain Duncan Smith’s interference) safety net, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep working for what you want to do.
This leads me to the answer I found for the second question, ‘How could shame be an appropriate response?’ The only reason a person on benefits should be ashamed of it is if they are not doing everything they can to get back on track – getting into the career they want and earning a living wage from it.
A wiser man once said that the way forward is dedication. If you are able-bodied and you have an ambition to be… I don’t know… a writer, it’s not going to happen straight away – so get a job frying fish down at the local chip shop if that’s what it takes to pay the bills, or go on benefits if there aren’t even menial jobs around, but make sure you spend all your spare time putting in the effort to get that first writing gig, whether it’s journalism, scripting comics, writing gags for radio or TV comedy shows, scripting full-length shows, staging plays on an amateur level with a view to progressing into professional theatre – whatever. The possibilities are endless and anyone who wants to make a living from pounding keyboards will need to try the lot.
And there’s no shame in working for employers who have different beliefs – political, moral, whatever – than yourself. If their dollar is good, then it’s all good experience and (if you are a writer) possible grist for the mill one day. That’s one reason I saw nothing badly wrong with Mehdi Hasan’s application to work for the Daily Mail.
The shame would lie in giving up; turning away from your ambitions and accepting society’s current label for a benefit claimant – being a scrounger. Being a skiver. Being a burden on society. Or never bothering to try in the first place.
So, finally, ‘Who should feel ashamed?’ Not me. Not anybody who has been dropped by their employer because of the downturn, nor anybody who has been trying hard to climb back onto the employment ladder. Especially not those who have been trying so hard, and for so long, that they have suffered mental health problems as a result.
Some people claiming benefits do have a legitimate reason to be ashamed of it. They are the people who are ‘playing’ the system; the benefit fraudsters, the ones who could do better but can’t be bothered, the ones who pretend they are ill when they aren’t.
They total seven people in every thousand benefit claimants. They are a tiny, tiny minority. But they’re not the only ones who should be ashamed.
It seems to me that a far larger portion of shame lies with employers who deliberately push workforce wages downwards, in order to improve their own salaries (and in some cases, shareholder profits – look out, Royal Mail employees). It lies with employers who treat their people as disposable commodities, rather than assets to be nurtured.
And it also lies with governments, past and present, that allowed these practices to go on – and in fact failed to legislate against them; and with politicians who have worked for the advantage of Big Money, rather than that of the Little People who create it.
That’s where the real shame lies.
Not with folk like you and me who’ve got patches on every pair of trousers they own.
But with the people in the expensive suits.
* Vox Political: Strong Words and Hard Times may be bought here, here, here, here and here, costing £9.99 or £4 – depending on the format in which you wish to receive it.