Growing up as a scrounger; confessions of a child of the welfare state…

school-photo

Here I am, aged about 8 or 9, on the back row of my class picture from Croft Primary school. Someone posted this picture on Facebook and it all came flooding back. I am the one in the strange yellow t-shirt and the odd pudding bowl haircut.

My sister and I were part of a one parent family, existing entirely on welfare benefits. We lived in a reasonably comfortable house- a suburban semi detached that my mother had bought before she married my father. It was a difficult short marriage and she was left holding the babies, bitter and isolated.

Growing up a child of the welfare state in the 1970’s was possibly the best time to do so. Family credit, child benefit, free school meals, clothing vouchers, even help to pay for some school trips that otherwise we could never have been part of. Don’t get me wrong- we had very little, but my mother was very good at scraping together every last penny. But the chronic shortage of money dominated every waking hour- leaving lights on or wasting food was a sin punishable by violence. I lost a coat once and did not dare go home- hiding in the fields for hours.

There was food in the house- in the early days my mother fed the babies rather than herself, but as time went on, she began to stockpile dented tins and dried lentils. She is in her 70s now and still does- her kitchen cupboards are full of foodstuffs well past their sell by date but she can not begin to throw out. When you have been hungry and have had nothing, the fear of this returning cuts deep.

I mention all this because when I was a child, benefits were worth considerably more in real terms than they are now, even before the axe that our current government has taken to the welfare benefits system.

If I had been born 35 years later, it seems almost certain that I would have been one of the 500,000 people that would have needed to visit a food bank in order to eat.

Today the Christian charity who run many food banks spoke out in condemnation of the Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. They have been trying to meet with him to discuss how they might work together to help families better. IDS refused. In fact, he did not even stay till the end of a commons debate on the issue this week.

The government agenda is clear. The problem is not poverty, as anyone who is poor should either get themselves a job or manage the benefits they get better. Neither is the problem benefits cuts- these are proportionate with the need manage national debt, and everyone has to do their part. IDS suggested that charities like the Trussell Trust are just scaremongering, following a lefty political agenda. The problem is that some people are scroungers, wasters, layabouts- addicted to hand-outs from the state. Wanting to sponge off the taxes of hard working people.

This agenda has been so well peddled by the government and the right wing media that even people on benefits (perhaps particularly them) come to believe it of themselves. Escaping from this kind of sense of failure is incredibly difficult. It also plugs into a certain kind of base me-first middle class mentality. Do you remember the study that I quoted here?

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

Any discussion about welfare is always ideologically loaded. The facts, such as they are, tell a rather different, more complex story. Check out this article that seeks to tackle some of the myths.

When confronted by an ideology/political view/power statement that scapegoats marginalised and dis-empowered people it is time to sit up and take note. It is time to ask searching questions of those in power. Above all it is time to listen to the voices of those who are being scapegoated. Everything within me says that this is what followers of Jesus should be doing right now- listening, challenging, engaging.

foodbank

Anyone who has ever spent time with people whom life has broken and pushed to the ragged edge will know that survival is the goal- forget recovery, forget healthy environments for children to thrive within. The margins, slim though they were, that I grew up within are now simply gone. 

A radio interview with some people visiting a food bank today heard how people were not able to take food that needed to be cooked, as they simply could not afford the energy to cook with.

Most of us instinctively think of people who use food banks as ‘other’; ‘not one of us’. Despite my rather different circumstances in 2013 from 1973, I can not say that. The people at the food banks- they are just like me.

Politics does not matter- or does it?

Michaela and I were sitting looking miserably into our tea cups today and talking about the vote in parliament to cut welfare payments.

All this depressing divisive and stigmatizing talk of ‘strivers and skyvers’. Tax cuts to the rich to encourage them all to generate ‘growth’ in the economy (best measured it seems by how much the rich get even richer.) As if the poor are somehow culpable- a useless drain on society that we are better without. As if they were the cause of all this economic turmoil rather than its primary victims.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty pronounced this vote as the final nail in the coffin of the welfare state. Some may regard this as overdue- as we lurch to the right, and find our political language dominated by America. But we are not America. We have our own proud history- not the Kings-and-Queens stuff, but the history of the rise of a kind of shared decency that characterises these islands. The history of the small people in fields and factories. Here is Chakrobortty;

 the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.

“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”

Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.

Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.

But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.

This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.

“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”

Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.

Is this what we come to- this great nation of ours? Mean and whinging and judgmental?  Are we not better than this? Which brings me back to politics. Michaela remembered reading something recently about one of the finest politic speeches of the last 50 years in the UK- Neil Kinnock, speaking in 1985, at a time when we were young and fired up by ideas and hope that things could be better;

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock

For the record, Thatcher won the election and we live in her rain shadow still. Cameron and his whipping boy Clegg have now gone further than even Thatcher would ever have dared go however.

Politics matters. We need some more Kinnocks- for all their faults…