Tightropes, safety nets and benefits

Cassetteboy’s “Cameron’s Conference Rap” video has been doing the rounds on social media, and even made it onto mainstream media: Have I Got News For You played a snippet, and referenced the BBC’s interview with its creator.

Here it is (it does have some swearing):

The thing is, I am living the consequences of these policies right now. It turns out that, while the British economy is supposedly the fastest-growing in the West at the moment, the experiences of the people at the sharp end are that it’s getting worse. One might be tempted to suggest that there is no point in a growing economy if it doesn’t make us better off.

I was recently put on Mandatory Work Activity. You know, “You will be working for your benefits, forever.” This proved to be an extremely stressful experience, such that eventually I failed: despite doing my best to be cooperative, it turns out that through being willing to do more I ended up in a situation where my good intentions led to my being dismissed from the placement. This despite being given a glowing appraisal by the person I worked directly under. (It may also have been to do with my insisting on being treated as a person, with dignity and rights, rather than a chattel to be traded from store to store.)

And I reflected that the purpose these days of the agencies, particularly the Jobcentre, is not to help people get into work. It is to get people off benefits. The easiest way to do that is to trip them up and sanction them.

You know that phrase, “Working for your benefits”? What I heard was whenever I explained that my palcement was not like work because I get paid for work, I would be told “You are getting paid, it’s your benefits.” This is false. If it’s paid work, I should be being paid £6.50 an hour (after the recent rise in the minimum wage). Alternatively, I’m being paid at a pro rata rate of around £45k p.a. so I should be given duties commensurate with that rate! (This is calculated by taking the amount of JSA I would receive in 12 months, and then saying that’s the amount I’m paid to work a 4 week Mandatory Work Activity placement; which means if I worked the same job at the same rate for a whole year I should get…)

It’s also false because I have paid income tax, I’ve paid National Insurance contributions, I pay VAT every time I go to the shop… you get the idea? JSA is taxable income (I discover this from my annual tax code statement from Inland Revenue) so if I get a paid job halfway through the year, I have to take that into account when working out how much tax I will be paying (or, more likely, my employer has to – unless I go self-employed).

We pay taxes in order that, when we are no longer able, we should find ourselves with a minimum standard of living. That was the gift of the Attlee government. The modern Welfare State was created in the aftermath of World War 2. Churchill may or may not have been the leader we needed to win the war, but in order to win the peace – to make it a peace for all those who fought and all those who worked on the home front and all those yet to come – we needed a different kind of government, a different kind of thinking. That’s what the Welfare State was: it was winning the peace. It was a safety net, security for all. Social security.

And this is the mental image I had when I realised that I had finally failed at the demands of the Jobcentre and the MWA. It felt like I had finally slipped, and stepped off a tightrope.

It used to be a safety net, but the benefits system is now a tightrope walk. And there is no safety net because so much has been cut away by successive governments since the IMF’s imposed policies on the Callaghan government. For me, the big step happened while I was still at secondary school: John Major abolished Unemployment Benefit and replaced it with Jobseeker’s Allowance: changing a safety net into a task that can be failed or succeeded at. Successive governments added more and more requirements to be met, cutting away more and more of the “security” part. Turning the safety net into a tightrope.

When I hear the Tories talk as they actually did in their conference, I realise there is now someone at the end of the tightrope sawing through it. That’s the awful, appalling truth that Cassetteboy’s satire illuminates and that people much worse off than me will have to deal with, and I find it hard enough.

It used to be understood that we might all fall upon hard times and need something to tide us over until we get back on our feet. The idea that we all support those who are down because one day it might be our turn was commonplace. So we created a safety net. Now, somehow, despite greater job insecurity it is as though the assumption is that there is a distinct boundary between “jobless” and “working”, between “deserving” and “undeserving”. Nobody “deserves” anything in life, and even those who work for a living depend on others to be able to do so. while there are undoubtedly people who are comfortable to take what they can, the myth of the “benefits scrounger” is largely just that: a myth. Most people find worth – and, yes, a self-respect, in being able to work and do something that’s valued. Even routine, repetitive, unskilled labour is proof that we exist and have an effect on something in this world.

It used to be that we had a safety net, a foundation to help us climb back up. Now we have a tightrope and the fear of what happens if we can’t cross it and find a vertical rope to climb.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Economics, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tightropes, safety nets and benefits

  1. Pingback: Hats, opera, and congruence | Valery North - Writer

  2. Pingback: Disappointments and ageing and sextoys | Valery North - Writer

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