The realities of a life on benefits
As part of a research project exploring the lived experiences of welfare reform, I have been speaking to individuals directly affected by the government’s measures. They include people with serious mental health issues waiting to hear if they will “pass” the much-maligned new work capability assessment, young jobseekers facing up to life under a stricter sanctions regime, and lone parents anticipating big changes next year as they are moved off income support and on to jobseeker’s allowance when their youngest child turns five.
My research will track these people over the next 18 months, listening to their experiences and attitudes and exploring how the government’s policies are affecting them. What is already notable from just one round of interviews, is how out of step the government’s rhetoric on welfare dependency as a “lifestyle choice” is with the reality.
Take James, who says life on benefits is: “Not living, you’re existing. That’s how it feels.” People explained the mechanics of surviving far below the poverty line as stealing cheese from Asda when the money runs out, toasting stale bread until the giro arrives, and relying on food parcels from churches and local charities.
Worryingly, many people have internalised the media and government’s stigmatisation of benefit claimants as scroungers and fraudsters. Individuals described feelings of worthlessness and plummeting self-esteem. James, who had only been on jobseeker’s allowance for six months, explained: “I feel like a bum. I feel useless … Some people are looking at you as if to say: ‘He’s taking the piss, he’s another one that just sits about and does nowt.'”
In contrast to David Cameron’s assertion that whole families are happier “sitting on their sofas waiting for the benefit cheques to arrive”, rather than earning an honest wage, almost everyone interviewed spoke of their desire to work, and many had previously had jobs.
Those actively seeking work face complex barriers. Josh, a young jobseeker, described his frustration with attending a compulsory back-to-work course where participants were left in a classroom for eight hours each day, with occassional computer access, and given two-week-old newspapers in order to apply for jobs.
Cath, a disabled woman in her late 50s, is angry at politicians’ readiness to reform welfare without seeming to have any real comprehension of a life on benefits: “I’d like to say to each and every one of them: ‘Walk a year in my shoes.'”
As the welfare reform bill, with its tough new measures to cajole and compel welfare claimants off benefits, is debated in the House of Lords, it is timely to remind politicians that by listening to the individuals directly affected, they would find that their policy prescriptions are based on unsustainable stereotypes and flawed assumptions – and as such are unlikely to succeed.
• Ruth Patrick is a postgraduate researcher in the school of sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds
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