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Posts Tagged ‘benefits’

Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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Poverty

Here’s Alex Andreou writing about living in poverty and being homeless.

Here are 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.

Here is someone else explaining Why I Make Terrible Decisions.

Just thinking about the kind of actual poverty that exists and that we let people fall into makes my stomach cramp with anxiety.

And hey, here’s a pretty fucking important question about, say, Alex’s case. At what point would he have been motivated out of his situation by harsher benefits cuts, or unpaid work experience, or being forced out of his house and made to find somewhere smaller in a different area because of the bedroom tax?

By what process could providing him with less support have motivated him to work harder and magically produce more for himself?

What, in short, the fuck, to be blunt, do you expect some people to do?

(There probably isn’t nothing which Alex could have done to avoid getting into such dire straits. With 20-20 hindsight, it may be possible to see different actions which might have helped him avoid his fate. Kinda like how women wouldn’t get raped so much if they stayed sober and dressed demurely at all times.)

This is reason #681947 why I’m in favour of a generous welfare state (insofar as there’s going to be a state at all). Because this is the reality for many people, and the way to improve things for everyone involves helping them.

Which isn’t an idea that seems to get a lot of play in the public conversation – in part, I suspect, because it’s just not a reality whose grisly details you get to see that often. Channel 5 haven’t commissioned a series called “Homeless and Ashamed“, to my knowledge. That wouldn’t tap into the right insecurities and prejudices and create a ratings-winning Twitterstorm of hate and division.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Where should the balance lie between helping people support themselves, and not supporting them so much that they become complacent and lazy?

2. Are you impressed I didn’t explicitly shoehorn in another chance to bang on about how much easier a universal basic income would make all of this?

3. Why haven’t those infographics I keep seeing on Twitter completely solved the problem of the general public’s flawed perception of benefit claimants?

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I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.

There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.

1. Born this way

Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.

But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.

It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.

Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?

If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.

There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”

2. Big is beautiful

You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.

There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.

It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.

Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?

Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.

And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.

3. “Hardworking people

There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.

For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.

But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.

I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.

Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.

Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?

2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?

3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?

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take time this winter to check that elderly friends or neighbours are ok – sign up to be a winter friend

So the Secretary of State for Health tweeted earlier today, adding a link to an NHS page about how awful winter is for many elderly folks and how we can all help it suck a little less.

This seemed largely in keeping with Tory policy in general, which I rather unfairly characterised thusly at the time:

Come on, poors, huddle together for warmth. What’s that? Help with your heating or food bills from the millionaires in charge? Piss off.

There’s an interesting thing, though, about the government’s regular advice on charity, and how we can all help each other out when times are tough, and other such flimsy shreds of Big Society remnants – in particular, in how much it differs from their own policies on matters of poverty and welfare.

When it comes to charity, and the idea of individuals selflessly helping others, the coalition say many of the right things. Giving some of your time to check in on your more frail neighbours, donating to food banks, volunteering with children – the kind of stuff it’s basically impossible to get wrong, so long as you have the barest understanding of how platitudes work. The emphasis is all on generosity and kindness and compassion, which are wonderful things even when right-wing politicians are giving them lip service. And the image they paint of a community looking after each other and socialising warmly is a charming one.

Pop round to visit old Mrs Beadle at number 36 and see if she’s got enough blankets, or needs some help working the thermostat, or might just appreciate some company for an hour or two now her son’s moved away for his job and can’t visit so often. Knock on the door of that grumpy chap with one leg whose name you’ve never got to know, and see if there’s anything neighbourly you can do even though he always seems to be glowering and he’s not that easy to be around. Ask if there’s anything that harried single mum would love the time for this Christmas, which an offer of an evening’s childcare might make possible. There are lots of really nice ways to make the world better and kinder, which are entirely in line with the government’s own advice.

But wait… Are we really just meant to pop round and help, no questions asked? Just, see if there’s something good to be done, and offer to do it? Give up something of our own through simple generosity, and make the world a little brighter for others? We’re meant to do all this… without interrogating all these people in our community as to whether they deserve our help?

Maybe you’re better acquainted with your own neighbours than I am with mine, but I haven’t done nearly enough background checks into these people to be sure that I’ve rooted out all the scroungers.

Why doesn’t Mrs Beadle order some warmer clothes and blankets online, or support a local small business by hiring someone to help her out with any gadgets and whatnot around the house that she might find confusing? She could offset the expense by trying Princess Whiskerbelle on an unbranded catfood for a while – there’s such a thing as responsible budgeting, you know. It may not exactly be in the spirit of charity, but until she gets her paperwork together to prove that she really is finding it tough, how can I be sure my valuable time is being well spent when I go to sit with her?

And that guy with one leg – is he really “disabled” and in need of help? There’s plenty of things you can do which you don’t need both your legs for, but he seems to be at home most of the time, so for all I know he’s not even bothered looking for ways to support himself. If I start going round and offering to help out with things he might struggle with, for free, then I may just be reinforcing the kind of habits which aren’t good for any of us in the long-term.

Obviously this is completely the wrong attitude. But the fact that the government act like it’s obvious too is actually rather odd. They’re not encouraging us, on a personal level, to be stingy, to be pernickety bean-counters, to demand evidence making sure that the old and infirm humans to whom we’re considering giving our time (and by extension money) are sufficiently deserving. We’re told to just go out and help. Be there for people. Give them your time. Donate what you can. Support the needy and less fortunate.

Whereas when they do it, the amount they end up spending on administration costs, to make sure that nobody has a chance to mooch a single penny more than they’re “entitled” to, is so vast that they could practically solve the whole problem for no more than it’s currently costing them to maintain and exacerbate it. The DWP recently wrote off over £40,000,000 on a failed IT system. That’s just one futile project with nothing to show for it, in one department, with many more examples like it. Hundreds of millions of pounds being spent elsewhere on nothing more than counter-productive penny-pinching.

And meanwhile, every time there’s a chance to avoid paying a meagre but vital weekly allowance to someone who needs it – whether it’s by inhumane and stupid sanctions or making someone with cerebral palsy check in every few months to see if they’ve got better yet – they pounce on it. According to one whistleblower, for people working in Jobcentre offices, not finding enough excuses to stop enough people’s benefits would result in disciplinary action.

It’s quite a cosy dichotomy our ruling class have set up for themselves. While it’s just the great unwashed masses offering charity to each other, free and easy is the way to go. Give generously! Spare what you can! If someone looks like they’re in need, assume they really are, and have a heart in these difficult times. But when it comes to their own funds – which they’ve legitimately earned by calling it taxes and taking it directly from us, remember – then everyone’s a thieving scrounger until proven otherwise. And quite often even then.

Come on, poors. Huddle together for warmth. And don’t be selfish with those blankets I see a few of you wrapping around yourselves. Charity’s important this time of year.

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Society has problems that need fixing.

The people we ostensibly put in charge of fixing society’s problems have a great deal of power to enact their proposed solutions.

The perceived problems faced by society, which it’s assumed need to be addressed by those in charge, include such items as: the unjustified claiming of “free money” by those who haven’t proved themselves to deserve it; long-term unemployment; and criminal behaviour by juveniles.

Popular salves for these maladies include, respectively: imposing benefit sanctions for transparently idiotic reasons; forced placement on full-time, unpaid workfare schemes; and solitary confinement of children, a practice widely regarded as torture.

I talk semi-regularly about aspects of our society that I truly believe will be looked back on with horror, disgust, and bewilderment in a century or so, and I want to explore that in some more depth.

Even people who haven’t experienced it directly will be familiar with the racist grandparents trope. People who grew up in a different era often don’t have the same sensibilities to certain issues that we do today, and maybe they can’t be expected to. It doesn’t make them bad people, but they were raised with a certain set of attitudes being strongly normalised, and it’s not always easy to see, decades later, why the way you’ve always acted is suddenly so offensive to people, or so drastically needs altering.

It can be hard to articulate to someone behind the curve just why it’s important to adapt like this. “Just don’t be racist” doesn’t seem like it should need spelling out; and yet if something was “just the way things were” seventy years ago, it may not be obvious that the world has changed for the better.

I’d be amazed if there weren’t things that my generation’s grandkids end up being impatient for me and my peers to adapt to, but which we struggle embarrassingly with. The thing I particularly imagine them wondering about us is:

Was that really the best you could do?

Seriously?

All that technology and productivity and abundance and capacity to do amazing things together, and you couldn’t find any better way to induce better behaviour in kids, or deal with supposed “freeloading”, without shitting all over thousands of other people who were just trying to get by?

You really didn’t have any better ideas for how to help lift up the lowest among you, and give everyone a chance to thrive?

There was really no interest in picking a military strategy that didn’t involve the useless mass murder of random foreign civilians?

Were you guys actually, really, honestly trying as hard as you can to not totally fuck everything?

Really, though?

When they get around to asking us that, I’m not sure what our answer is going to be.

But maybe I’m just projecting, because I’ve already been asking it for so long myself.

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I lack the time, energy, will, calm, poise, rationality, and overall mental composure to talk much about the condition of the welfare state in this country and the Conservatives’ attitudes toward those who benefit from it (or seek to benefit from it, or are systematically exploited by it).

However, apropos of something that came up on one of several blogs that regularly make me angry and sad about this subject, I’d like to post a brief reminder.

Whatever the heck conservative think-tank Policy Exchange are doing appears confused and misguided, at least from this reporting. But one representative phrase leapt out at me, a statement they apparently believe is supported by a majority of the public according to a recent poll:

Everyone should be made to work for their benefits except mothers with young children.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thinking, its deliberate exacerbation by many current politicians, and the extent to which the despicable repackaging of slavery for the 21st century known as workfare is still being falsely heralded as a boon for the underclasses, something apparently needs to be strongly reiterated.

If you’re doing work, you should get paid for it. If other people value the output of your labour, they should remunerate you directly for that.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what people get which doesn’t directly correspond to their own ability to pay, either in toil or coin. If you’re not working, or you’re trying to find work, or you’re ill or disabled, or if you just don’t fancy any of the shitty jobs going (yep, fuck it, basic income for everyone), then you get benefits. They’re things you just get, because we’re a social species and we give a fuck about each other. We understand that none of us can look after ourselves in total isolation, that sometimes some folk need some help, and that the rest of us have the capacity to provide that help.

What follows from these ideas, then, is that you don’t make people work for their fucking benefits.

Benefits are what people get without having to prove themselves to you.

And you especially don’t make people work for their benefits by forcing them into a full-time job, and then not actually paying them a salary, but making their benefits the only thing conditional on their labour, thus making them massively worse off than if you’d kept your grubby, sanction-hungry fingers out of the whole deal.

Seriously.

With all the effort some people put in to making sure none of these feckless scroungers gets a goddamn penny more than you’ve decided they’re entitled to, we could feed the fucking planet.

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Here are two facts about Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Irritable Duncan Syndrome Iain Duncan Smith.

1. He recently claimed that he’d be capable of living on £53 a week, as some benefits claimants do.

2. He currently earns over forty times that amount, but when he recently spent £39 on breakfast he charged it to the taxpayer.

Taken completely in isolation, these two facts should tell you quite a bit about Iain Duncan Smith. In the most kind and charitable interpretation you could settle on, he’s somewhat out of touch with how other people live, and hasn’t as nuanced and detailed an understanding as he seems to think he does, when it comes to the way many people think about money.

There are less kind and less charitable interpretations as well, of course – and strong arguments that these are the ones he more greatly deserves. But just how much of a vicious bastard Iain Duncan Smith is isn’t directly relevant to how much he’s missing the point.

I don’t doubt that he could sit and work out a scenario whereby he forewent a few luxuries for a while, bought some generic non-brand foodstuffs, and provided himself with a sufficient supply of life’s staples that he didn’t literally die, while on a standard Jobseeker’s Allowance budget. He could probably make that work for a week – if, as he says, he had to – and he seems to see himself as the sort of person with the kind of moral fortitude required to just knuckle down and grit your teeth through such an ordeal, to see it through till the end.

But of course, in his case that end would be a week away. For most people, it’s nowhere in sight.

He only has to think in terms of spending thriftily and shopping smartly for a few days in order to make a point (and is sitting comfortably in his £2million mansion which hasn’t cost him a penny all the while). But frighteningly many thousands of people (whom his own Workfare schemes are doing not a damn thing to help, incidentally) are having to go through life like this.

They don’t get to just budget a simple week free of extravagances to show the world what they can do. They have to keep it up, every week, and deal with every unexpected expense which comes their way too.

Need to take a bus journey somewhere? Have to travel back to the Jobcentre at short notice because they cocked something up and you’re in danger of getting sanctioned? Need a haircut ahead of a job interview? Emergency dental work? Christmas presents? When each of these comes up, you’ve no idea if you can afford them. If several arise too close together, there goes your heating bill for next month. Hope you own plenty of blankets.

If Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could maintain anything remotely comparable to his current lifestyle – if he thinks he could cope with that constant uncertainty and insecurity always knotting his stomach, the regular demands for unplanned expenses any one of which might be enough to tip him over the edge and into unrecoverable debt or simply be impossible for him to pay – if he thinks he could live anything he’d recognise as a life, and not need more than £53 a week…

…then charitable interpretations be damned; the guy’s a fucking idiot.

Speaking of which, here’s something else he said which it’s hard to find a charitable interpretation for:

…the amount of money that taxpayers pay sees some value at the end of it in terms of people being supported.

It’s all about the poors making themselves useful, you see. Never mind caring for others in society for its own sake; raising the standard of living for the less fortunate; providing some dignity and security; helping lift the constant fog of judgment that sits over anyone not able to find a job or prevented from “giving back” as much as the rest of us deem they should because of physical or mental health issues. To hell with all that lefty bollocks. If we’re going to give you dozens of pounds every single week so that you can just scrape by in a dismally meagre existence devoid of luxuries, we’d damn well better get something out of it ourselves.

Of course, the taxpayer also pays Iain Duncan Smith £134,565 a year, or over £2,500 gross every week. The precise “value” we’ve seen as a result of supporting him in this way is left as an exercise to the reader.

A petition has sprung up, and become massively popular at great speed, demanding that IDS prove himself by doing exactly what he’s claimed he could do, for a whole year. This might be a useful exercise in highlighting the issue of poverty and his inability to appreciate it, and I hope it generates some press – but it’s worth remembering that we don’t really want him to have to live on £53 a week, because we don’t want anyone to live like that. As 21st century citizens of the developed world in the internet age, when we’re more than capable of amply looking after everyone’s needs if we got ourselves better organised, we all deserve better. Even Iain Duncan Smith.

Of more direct value is the petition against the War on Welfare. Whatever you think of the capacity for these online petitions to do any good, adding support and another voice to this side of the conversation should be a no-brainer, especially when the opposition seems to consist of all the people in charge. Some of the stories coming out of that campaign, about how the disabled and least able to defend themselves are treated, should make you feel sick and angry.

And while we’re at it, Universal Basic Income, bitches. I’m still not intellectually convinced it’s as likely a solution as I powerfully hope it could be, but the more such ideas are discussed and such attitudes are fomented, the better.

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