Jemima @ Sometimes, It’s Just A Cigar writes today on the war against welfare and why, if Labour won’t take a stand for welfare, it’s not worth her being a member. I don’t really have anything different to say about it (I retweeted it with the comment, “Yes, yes, yes. All of this” – that’s all there is to say) but I do have some points to add.
The proposal to cut JSA for 18 to 21 year olds and replace it with a means tested benefit linked to training is apparently linked to an opinion poll that says 78% of people think the welfare system is unfair, allowing people to live lives of unimagined luxury with their flat screen TVs and iphones on £57 pounds a week.
Just as the conversation about immigration never included those of us who do call bigots, bigots, so the conversation on welfare is dominated by those who have never had to choose between heat and light, who have never had to sit in the dark because nappies are so expensive. Nor does it include those who have never experienced this, but have empathy for those worse off than them.
I’m on JSA, and frustrated that I’ve been more on it than off it (not for want of trying, but employers keep choosing someone else). Again, as Jemima says, “There are only so many times you can tweak a CV or do an online job search before it becomes apparent the only job creation going on is for the person supposedly leading the training.”
But today, let me tell you about that flatscreen TV that I actually have. And all the other nice things that people like me aren’t supposed to be allowed.
I have (as mentioned) a flatscreen TV. I bought it for £30 at the British Heart Foundation store, it has a tiny screen, and it’s easier to watch stuff on my computer. I actually have three computers (shock horror): the first is a hand-me-down Mac Mini from my father, who has a good pension and can afford to replace his gadgets on a regular basis; the second is an ancient PC I bought for £50 from the second-hand classified ads when my previous hand-me-down computer broke down nearly ten years ago (so, I get a second-hand computer every decade, just about). The third is a netbook that I bought with a small inheritance (small as in a few hundred quid), the rest of which went towards clearing credit card debt incurred through trying to live on JSA. Just to establish something here: the way the rules are set up, daily access to a computer is pretty much essential for jobsearch these days.
My phone is not an iphone. It isn’t “smart”, it’s a hand-me-down mobile from my younger sister who upgraded to a better model and, knowing I was in difficulty and didn’t have a mobile of my own, donated her old handset and bought me a PAYG SIM card. I try to keep a minimum of £5 credit on there in case of emergencies, but I can’t really afford to use it very often.
I have an old PS2 that my best friend handed to me when he upgraded to the latest model of gaming console, which he hardly ever uses whereas he knows I like video games and I hadn’t had a new console since I bought the original Playstation when it came out while I was at uni; I got a second-hand Wii for £50 during one of the brief stints when I had a proper job.
Two themes crop up here: “hand-me-down” and “second-hand”. If I have nice things, it is because I know nice people who want to see me happy and who view giving me their no-longer-needed gadgetry as one way to facilitate that, at no extra cost to themselves. Or because people I don’t know are happy to sell at a very cheap rate because frankly, the stuff is so old it’s not worth that much any more.
And in between times, the reality is the same: like I said, I can’t actually afford to use my phone very often. At the same time as having these hand-me-down gadgets and nice things, I was also struggling with the budget decisions that Jemima describes. When £8 a day includes electricity, water, phone line rental, TV licence (they won’t believe you don’t have one, so hassle), making sure you have enough to replace the worn-out clothes, the basics of hygiene (you know: soap, toothpaste, shampoo, etc), plus the costs of jobsearching (travel, buying local and national papers, an internet connection, etc) – it turns out not to be that much. You become thankful that there are “Value” 10p noodle meals available (or food banks, these days), and you become familiar with the concept of your diet being determined by what’s on the “Reduced for Quick Sale” shelves at the supermarkets (you also become familiar with roughly when they do their stock-check and therefore when those shelves are at their fullest, and with which things will last how long after their “use by” date so you don’t waste anything).
My parents have often commented that every benefits cut that affects me, tends not so much to affect me as to place the burden onto their budget, or the budgets of those around me who care about me. I’m lucky to have people who care, and who believe I am worth something, and will eventually get back on my feet. The Labour Party proposal is to cut JSA for 18-21 year olds, and link a replacement to training and parental income. Explicitly, therefore, to shift the burden from the State to the people who care about the claimant. Except, as Jemima eloquently explains, they don’t always care.
The creation of the Welfare State was a revolution in healthcare and social wellbeing. Ken Loach’s film “The Spirit of 1945” explains just how much of modern life depends on the changes it brought about, and just how bad things were before. It is utterly shameful that the party that created it should now so heartlessly turn its back on the principle of basic human dignity being something worth upholding, independent of family or other ties.