‘What’s it like, being raised on benefits? Well, mainly, you’re scared’

30 January 2012

Ben writes ….

Last October Caitlin Moran wrote a superb article reflecting on the experience of living in poverty. We blogged her article as we thought it reflected the experience of so many people we know here in Islington. Caitlin wrote another experiential reflection published in the Sunday Times yesterday, which I hope, will help people to engage with some of the issues faced by those who depend of state benefits.

Cutting to the heart of the welfare state

‘What’s it like, being raised on benefits? Well, mainly, you’re scared’

Unlike most of the people voting on the proposed £18 billion cuts to the benefits budget – as it shuttles between the Commons and the Lords – I was raised on benefits. Disability benefits, collected every Tuesday from the post office, in a shuffling queue of limpers, coughers and people with their coat hoods pulled right up.

Perhaps if you drove past the queue, you would presume the ones hiding their faces were doing it because they were on the fiddle – “playing the books”. In reality, they were the scared kids with mental problems on Incapacity Benefit,whom you’d see trying three times, and ultimately failing, to get on a bus.Good luck with getting them on a Restart scheme, you would think. Good luck with trying to funnel that terror into a cardboard hat in McDonald’s.

A council estate on benefits isn’t what you think – if you must imagine it,rather than remember, or just look out of the window. Popular imagination has it that it’s full of obese, tracksuit-wearing peasants smoking Rothmans on the front doorstep, rehearsing for their spot on Jeremy Kyle while spending their fraudulent benefits on a plasma TV.

Benefits spent on plasma TVs is the totemic fury-provoker of the professionally angry social commentator – “They’re spending YOUR taxes on AFORTY-TWO INCH SONY!!! You couldn’t MAKE IT UP!” – ignoring the fact that ifyou live somewhere with broken-glass parks and looming teen-clusters on each street corner, and gave up on the idea of having a car or a holiday long, long ago,then staying at home, safe, together as a family, and watching 15 hours of TV a day is a peerlessly cost-effective, gentle and harmless way of trying to buy happiness.

Besides, they almost certainly won’t have spent “your” taxes on it. They’ll have got a massive overdraft, like everyone else in the Western world. They’ll have got your telly the way you got your telly. People on benefits are just people – on benefits. Some of them are dodgy, most of them are doing their best, and a few need more help than we could ever imagine. The mix is about the same as on your street. If you are having to imagine it – rather than remember it, or look out of the window.

What’s it like, being on benefits? Being on disability benefits – “I’ve hada hard day’s limping, to put that tea on the table!” my dad would say, as we sat down to eat something based around a lot of potatoes and ketchup. Well,mainly, you’re scared. You’re scared that the benefits will be frozen, or cut,or done away with completely. I don’t remember an age where I wasn’t scared our benefits would be taken away. It was an anxiety that felt like a physical presence in my chest – a small, black, eyeless insect that hung off my ribs.Every Tory budget that announced a freezing of benefits – new means-testing,new grading – made the insect drill its face into the bone. They froze benefits for four years in a row, as I recall: “freezing” being the news’s way of telling you that you – already poor – will be at the checkout, apologising as you take jam and squash out of your bag, put them back on the shelves and ask them to add it up again. Every week you fear that this is the week the pennies won’t stretch any further and something will disappear: gas, food. Your home.

Eventually – and presumably to the endless gratification of Richard Littlejohn – they did take the telly away, halfway through Twin Peaks.All the kids cried and cried and cried. There wasn’t really anything left to do. I invented a game where you lay on the bed staring at the telegraph lines outside the house for so long, without blinking, that you would start crying.The house was very cold. Dad spent whole days in bed – huge white plastic jar of painkillers on the floor beside him, looking like the New Shmoo.

All through history, those who can’t earn money have had to rely on mercy:fearful, changeable mercy, that can dissolve overnight if circumstances change,or opinions alter. Parish handouts, workhouses, almshouses – ad hoc, makeshift solutions that make the helpless constantly re-audition in front of their benefactors, exhaustingly trying to re-invoke pity for a lifetime of bread and cheese.

That’s why the invention of the welfare state is one of the most glorious events in history: the moral equivalent of the Moon landings. Something not changeable, like mercy, but constant – a right. Correct and efficient:disability benefit fraud is just 0.5 per cent. A system that allows dignity and certainty to lives otherwise chaotic with poverty and illness.

Certainty, that is, until you cut the budget so savagely that some benefits disappear altogether. Then, you bring back all the fear of the almshouse and the parish dole. Then, you cut this country back to Victorian times.

I remember it, from my childhood. I can feel the dreary terror from here.

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