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.

Vilifying the ‘other’- benefits and dehumanisation…

A-Jobcentre-office-007

A few days ago I was having a conversation with some friends about my experience of claiming unemployment benefit last year. In the room where a couple of doctors, two ministers of religion and a buyer for a large company- all of us with loads of education, years of contribution to our society, each with families and houses. Most had been in receipt of benefits at some time.

I found myself doing two things, both of which now feel like some kind of betrayal.

Firstly I felt the need to justify claiming benefits- out of a sense of shame. I talked about it (unwittingly) as some kind of sociological experiment. I added in a little bombast about all the years I had paid national insurance contributions and that claiming in my time of need was an act of civil justice that I felt myself entitled to. I don’t know if I convinced my friends, but the words certainly felt hollow in my ears.

The second thing that I heard myself doing was to describe my relationship with the staff at the job centre- how many of them knew me as a social work manager, and responded differently too me- in a confused way perhaps- unable to look me in the eye. I also told the story of how I saw a claimant ( a man I knew from my previous work) treated really badly.

What I was doing of course was distancing myself from the role of ‘claimant’. I was casting myself as an agent of class consciousness, humbling myself like Jesus, but really being ‘different’.

I listened to the stories of the other people in the room as they described their time claiming unemployment benefit- after redundancy for example – and it occurred to me that I was not alone in my ability to find ways of seeing myself as different- not like the others.

In my case this goes deep. I grew up as the child of a single mother, entirely reliant on benefits. We had clothing grants, free school meals, even vitamin enriched orange juice to try to ensure health. As I grew older, I enjoyed a free education, right up to degree level. I am a child of the Welfare State. In some senses I have spent my whole career trying to pay it all back- believing that the only job worth doing was one in service of the poor, the weak the broken. But when I look back at my childhood, the primary emotion I remember was shame, embarrassment, the feeling of being less-than, outside-of. Factually I know that these feelings are not fully rational- how could I help the position I was born into? However, they remain strong even now, and I did not realise how much until recently.

These emotions are pervasive and damaging to those of us who spend any time on benefits. It is hard not to lose our selves, hard to keep rising and creating new things, new ideas, new projections of ourselves. Friends of mine who are on disability benefits are both reminders of this (because I know how hard it is for them) but also transcend this daily. They are able to live fully and deeply in ways that I still find hard. I celebrate them as heroes.

But currently things are being made much harder for people who are on benefits. This from here;

Decades of findings in sociology and psychology tell us that as soon as a group can be defined as separate, as an “outgroup”, people will start to view them differently. We’re all familiar with the negative characteristics people seem to identify with benefit claimants. They’re lazy, dishonest, stupid, “scroungers”, and so on. But there are also deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that likely have even more profound and insidious effects. These have to do with whether benefit claimants are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.

This idea comes from a relatively new body of work in psychology on something called “infrahumanisation“. The infra just stands for “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this milder form of everyday dehumanisation from more extreme kind associated with genocide.

This is a fascinating (and quite scary) process whereby certain groups are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as everybody else. Specifically, while people are fine imagining them feeling basic emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness, they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness or admiration. The subtle sentiments that make us uniquely human.

Not all low status groups are in this invidious position. Some – for example disabled people and the elderly – tend to be disrespected, but are also felt to be warm and unthreatening. There are only a few groups that have the dubious honour of being considered to be both threatening and incompetent. These include poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and (you’ve guessed it) welfare claimants. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us.

You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical “chav” you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.

The reason this is scary is that it takes the “infrahumanised” group out of the warm circle of our moral community. If we don’t think of them as experiencing the same rich inner life that we do; don’t imagine them feeling things in the same way that we do, then we lose some measure of our empathy for them, and consequently our sense of ethical obligation. This would explain why people are so tolerant of the cuts – on an unconscious level, the people being hurt aren’t real, full people. If this is true then fighting the cuts is going to be much, much harder than just fighting myths and misapprehensions.

The most shocking thing about this kind of dehumanisation is that it is found most present where the respectable folk gather- in our churches, in out prosperous neighbourhoods, around the coffee machines in posh coffee bars. It is how good people justify privilege and inequality- be that material/financial or the blessing of emotional/psychological resources that allow us to gain a position of security that others fail to reach.

But let us remember that shit happens. Each one of us is only an unpredictable event away from needing to claim benefits. If this happens, we will start out with a conviction that we are different, but perhaps we are not.

There are many reasons for followers of Jesus to stand against prejudice and dehumanisation. The hope of a better society, the call to include the outsiders, the call to bring justice to the oppressed. Perhaps too we can just remember that if we allow the current nasty victimisation heard in the press and the politicians mouths to go unchallenged, we all lose.

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…