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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

We need to talk about the reality of life on the UK welfare system

'That constant humiliation to survive. If you're not angry, what kind of person are you?' – Ken Loach, director 

I've tried not to dwell on my time on the welfare system, which remains one of the darkest points in my life. However, even though I've now been in full-time employment as a copyeditor for around two and a half years, the spectre of unemployment hangs over me. Working at a small but busy company that has previously let go of a coworker due to financial strain and knowing talented, hardworking individuals who have met the same fate, the prospect of being made redundant is never far from my mind. As my time after graduation has shown me, sometimes one's best efforts don't count for much.

Post-graduation, I spent the next few years on and off the dole, with occasional short-term contracts, freelance work and unprosperous, low-paid stints writing for what could be generously described as unscrupulous companies that didn't amount to anything solid. While I also completed an intensive postgraduate NCTJ diploma in multimedia journalism during this time, this was more out of a determination to attach myself to something definite, and I decided against pursuing a career as a reporter after realising it wasn't an ideal fit. The experience made me cynical, and I despaired of ever finding steady work.

During my time as a jobseeker, I crafted numerous tailored CVs and cover letters emphasising specific qualities and experience. I must have applied to literally hundreds of jobs. I attended dozens of interviews, sometimes passing multiple tests and stages. They mostly ended the same way: either a resounding rejection or, perhaps worse, radio silence.

What made this especially difficult was the Jobcentre's insistence that all of this was based on some failing of mine. 'You're not applying to enough jobs'; 'You're applying to the wrong jobs'; 'You're not saying the right things in interviews.' Few things ring more hollow than an individual sheltered behind an expansive desk in a nice suit telling you that you just need to Try Harder. Sympathy was in short supply, and context was an alien concept. Never mind that I had graduated during the deepest depression the UK had seen since the end of World War I or that the North East, where I'm based, stubbornly continues to be the worst in the country for unemployment and a relative wasteland for arts opportunities. However, the Jobcentre appears to be based on an ethos that the individual is fully responsible for their situation. This has a dual purpose. It enables them to sanction those who fall short. And it enables the government, to whom they answer, to deny that there's a problem.

The sanctioning system is savage. It's long been rumoured that staff have sanctioning targets to stop people's jobseeker's allowance (JSA), which would have the handy upshot of making the government's employment figures look better. This has been supported by former Jobcentre workers and emails from Jobcentre managers showing that staff who fail to penalise enough jobseekers face performance reviews and miss out on pay rises (and Easter eggs). Researchers have even linked the practice to 'food poverty, child poverty, homelessness and worsening mental health issues' as well as the targeting of vulnerable individuals (e.g. those who have trouble reading and writing) as easy sanctioning targets. And, while I've read that the government announced it would be reforming this system, I can't attest to how well they've followed through on this as, unfortunately, no such change was implemented when I (and countless others) could've actually used it.

On one occasion, I was threatened with a sanction for not turning up to an appointment that the Jobcentre neglected to even tell me about. In another Kafkaesque twist, my partner was sanctioned outright after his bus was late, making him three minutes late for an appointment (despite previously being made to wait 45 minutes for his adviser to make an appearance). A sanction lasts for a minimum of four weeks (equivalent to around £300), during which claimants simply become somebody else's problem. While he eventually successfully appealed the decision, he was only able to defend himself after the penalty had been imposed. Moreover, the sudden turnaround was suspicious  almost as if the end game had been the sanction itself rather than an interest in upholding justice. Funny, that.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that jobseekers are set up to fail. Ken Loach describes the system as 'a Catch 22 situation designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary.' For example, jobseekers are expected to accept work within 90 minutes of travel or lose their JSA. This applies even if the job is only part-time and the ever-reliable British public transport system is their only means of getting about. For perspective, a return bus journey from my hometown to the nearest large town (around 30 mins away  one-third of the maximum jobseeker travel time) costs over £10 (requiring return tickets from two different bus services). Putting aside the sheer impracticality of getting to and from work, this system could easily mean working at a loss, given the potentially astronomical cost of bus/train fare and the fact that a minimum wage job is barely enough to cover the essentials when it's within walking distance. At best, these rules can only have been engineered by someone with an impressive lack of awareness of the financial reality for ordinary people (someone with, say, an MP's salary).

Unemployed people with live-in partners who are in work are expected to be supported by them  even if they're only earning the bare minimum to support themselves. Jobseeker applicants with working housemates, therefore, are subjected to probing interviews about the nature of their relationships. Rules like these have pushed people to cover up romantic partnerships because in the Jobcentre universe, being economical with the truth can be the difference between making your rent that month and being evicted.

'They say hunger is the best spice.'

Unfortunately, the kind of blame and judgement I encountered at the Jobcentre (one staff member opened a meeting with 'So. Why haven't you found a job yet? ...Well, we all manage to get on with it. Why can't you?') doesn't end when you leave the building. From the plethora of recent one-sided TV shows presenting benefits claimants as unmotivated and reprehensible ('Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole', 'On Benefits', 'Benefits Street') to well-meaning comments from acquaintances that I wasn't 'like the rest of them', the stigma was far-reaching. And, despite the fact that it was the last place I wanted to be on a Monday morning, I internalised some of that ill feeling. Every time I entered the Jobcentre, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong  that I was failing in some way.

Towards the end of my toxic on-again/off-again relationship with the Jobcentre, I was teetering perilously close to being made to work for up to 30 hours a week for free (they preferred to term this 'unwaged') as part of a 'mandatory work activity' (MWA) scheme to retain my JSA. This targeted 'long-term' jobseekers of three or more months and involved month-long placements at charities or public-sector organisations. If personal career development was the aim, I would've expected to have some say in what I'd be doing and for who. However, placements could be completely unrelated to the skillset/moral stance of the jobseeker. Instead, this programme felt more punitive in nature. Taking my weekly jobseeker payment as a wage, this would be equivalent to £1.91 an hour. Failure to comply could result in a 6-month sanction.

While the scheme has since been scrapped due to resounding ineffectiveness*, at the time this was a very real and frightening prospect for me that had me deliriously considering escaping to South-East Asia, where I have family, to ride out the storm. The trade-off between the questionable reliability of clean running water and indentured servitude to a corporate chain seemed worth considering in the moment.

By the time I had been offered my current job, I was scheduled for an interview with a partner company of the Jobcentre who would 'support' me in the MWA. Nonsensically, I was still obligated to attend the interview to ensure receipt of the remainder of my JSA. While I informed my adviser of my impending job, he encouraged me to register with them anyway so that I could receive £25 worth of vouchers that could be used for new work clothes etc. and he could write a report of how they'd helped me get back into work.

'But you didn't help me get back into work,' I said, taken aback. 'I'm really not comfortable with that, regardless of the vouchers.'

My adviser disappeared into another room and reappeared a few minutes later. 'Sorry, did I say £25? I've just checked and it's actually £50.'

I walked. A fittingly farcical end to an oftentimes maddening and emotionally exhausting chapter in my life. The decision had been  would always have been  easy. Over the course of my time as a jobseeker, I was made to take basic math and English tests and 'career development' classes on how to use a mouse and send emails despite being a millennial with a university degree; underwent a full-time week-long work trial after a successful interview with a company that nobody told me was 'unwaged'; and was told that I could solve all my jobseeking woes by 'just getting on with it'.

I recognise that I'm relatively lucky; I never had to provide for a family or battle serious health issues and be deemed 'fit for work', like the characters in Ken Loach's bleak new film I, Daniel Blake. Most importantly, I found a way out  for now. But, as stressful as my job can be, I've never missed life on the dole. Because, contrary to popular opinion (including that of too many jobseeker mentors), most of us don't choose to be second-class citizens.


*Something I was both gratified and frustrated to learn. Of course it was ineffective. But why did no one take our word for it? The Work Programme, a welfare-to-work scheme, remains in place, however (during which I was pushed to apply for a zero-hour contract with a telemarketing company with a notoriously high turnover rate).

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