I was a benefits scrounger and I’m proud of it!
The world’s economy is in crisis because of the profligate and reckless behaviour of the financial sector. Does this mean that the tabloid press have the world’s extraordinarily wealthy bankers caught in its cross-hairs? Does it fuck! Instead the press has declared it ‘shooting season’ upon people claiming state benefits, the overwhelming majority of which, contrary to what you might have read in The Sun or Daily ‘hate’ Mail, are not living it up in 5 bedroom houses in Knightsbridge or Kensington.
However, it seems that if unemployment is going to rise dramatically (and massaging the figures by parking young people in universities isn’t an option this time around) then making it nigh impossible to claim benefits might be the preferred solution of the present government. Time then to set lose the tabloid attack dogs, barking and yapping about benefit cheats, spongers and the undeserving poor.
This is what I like to call the ‘Witchfinder syndrome’, after Mathew Hopkins who was appointed the Witchfinder General in 17th century England. It was Hopkins’ job to visit towns and villages beset by famine and pestilence, and destroy those evil doers under whose spell the locale had fallen. Hopkins’ victims were almost invariably strangers, beggars or unmarried women. Well, let’s be frank, its easier to blame people of lowly status for a catastrophe than to stride up to the castle of Lord Muck and lay the blame at his door. At best, he’d probably set the hounds on you; at worst, you’d hang for your insolence.
Hopkins set a precedent that others have followed. Indeed, you might recall that when times got hard under the last Tory administration, it was patiently explained to us by an number cabinet members that immigrants, ‘squeegee-merchants’ and single mothers were undermining the fabric of British society.
Let’s be serious. There are many things that might bring the UK to its knees, but people cleaning your windscreen are not among them. In fact, it is more likely that dismantling the benefits system will do more damage to the national cause than all the immigrants, beggars and single mothers put together.
That’s why I say lets have more benefits and make them easier to claim. In fact, I have a proposal for a new benefit to join the ranks of job seekers, incapacity, child and what-have-you allowances. It’s called the Benefit of the Doubt.
The new Benefit of the Doubt is were we don’t assume that everybody claiming dole is a feckless waster. Instead, we work upon assumption that the overwhelming majority of people want something more in their life than an addiction to day-time TV and the listlessness and ennui that comes with long term unemployment. This is predicated upon the notion that if people are supported and encouraged, rather than patronised and bullied, then most, sooner or later, will make something of themselves no matter how unpromising they appear to start with. As an example, I humbly offer my own story.
I was a benefits scrounger, a dole cheat! After leaving school, with precious few qualifications, I drifted in and out of low paid employment, labouring under the delusion that rock ‘n’ roll stardom was just a power chord away. Employment, when I had it, served no other purpose than paying for guitar strings, but eventually I ended up in job that barely covered even that meagre expense. In fact I was earning so little money that my employer wasn’t even obliged to put me ‘through the books’. In the end, by mutual consent, my employer and I part ways. I didn’t want to work for him and by a happy coincidence (not the last in this story) he didn’t want to employ me. So I left, signed-on and enrolled at the local further education college. And for the next two years I claimed the dole under the pretense that I was seeking employment, when all the time I was singularly pursuing two A Levels and a City and Guilds.
When at last the snoopers caught up with me and I was hauled in for an interview at the local social security office, it was only another happy coincidence that spared me from being forced into a job collecting shopping trolleys in a supermarket car park. The administrative officer, whose responsibility it was to conduct my interrogation, took one look at me and asked: ‘Weren’t you the Best Man at my sister’s wedding?’ I had indeed been his brother-in-law’s Best Man and for this sole reason he let me go.
‘I see that you’re about to sit your A Levels in a few weeks’, he said. ‘I suppose you’d rather be revising at the moment than working as a trolley boy? Look, I’ll push your file to the back of the cabinet. That’ll buy you a two or three weeks grace.’
I sat my A Levels a few weeks later, passed them and got a place in university, which is quite a turn around for a guy, who two years previously, had been sliding disgracefully into personal dissolution and social oblivion.
The lesson for me is simple. Give people money. Spread the love around.
What we have at the moment is a system designed to stigmatise people because it typically associates benefits and allowances with being ‘down and out’, dependent and/or lazy.
In fact, welfare is potentially transformative, providing people with the time and means to turn their lives around. If we could see welfare in these terms, we might stop behaving like 16th century witch-finders.