What’s The Benefit?

The government has, with all the predictability of British politics, once again declared war on benefits. It probably won’t amount to anything much as the same basic rhetoric has been spouted by every government at least once a year for at least a decade, largely involving reiterating thingas that are already policy – presumably on the basis that people are benefits are less likely to vote than the middle classes who really have no idea what the benefit system is really like and are, apparently, possessed of just the right amount of gullibility and memory loss necessary to believe the government is saying something meaningful. The problem, of course, is not just that the government might finally decide to do something to transform the benefits system into a bigger mess than it already is, but that, by pouncing on the easy politics of stereotyping and scapegoating, they make it harder for the unemployed to get back to work, but reinforcing the image of everyone on benefits as workshy, uneducated and/or criminal – those, surprisingly, not being traits held in high esteem by most employers.

I’ve had what could equally be termed the fortune or misfortune to have seen the system from both sides. I have been unemployed in the past and, at the time of writing this, am currently unemployed (in the sense of doing a job for which I am paid – my small press activities just keep me occupied). I have also worked with the unemployed (specifically those with learning difficulties and mental problems who required extra help to access training and employment). And, I can safely say that the common stereotypes are wrong. That is not to say that every benefit claimant is a saint – just as with any stereotype, there is a kernel of truth that gives it traction. There is a minority of workshy and fraudsters amongst the ranks of the unemployed and disabled, but they are balanced by the presence of many who go above and beyond what is expected of them in an attempt to find work. The vast majority are normal people who just want to get a job (or, if incapable of working, want just enough to survive) and despair as much as anyone in work about government waste and inefficiency, and loathe benefit fraudsters just as much (in fact, more as their unscrupulous activities unfairly reflect unfairly upon them).

Nobody with any sense would argue that the benefit system doesn’t need to be reformed. The system is a mess that too often penalises those most in need, whilst seemingly allowing the undeserving to milk it, and does little to actually help those who can work get back into work. The vast majority of the unemployed would gratefully welcome a system that helps them to find and keep work and which allows them to maintain their dignity and self-worth. Nobody wants to scrounge and many claim far less than they are legally entitled to claim and frequently less than they really need due to the stigma attached to taking money they haven’t earned (even though plenty of them are not lifelong unemployed, but did actually pay a plentiful amount into the system to cover just such an eventuality). The vast majority of the disabled who cannot work would rather be in a position to pay their own way than be forced to accept handouts to survive and those who can work despite their disability would be much happier with a job than with your pity and a handout. The small number of fraudsters and workshy need to be weeded out and, in the case of fraudsters, harshly punished, but it is wrong to associate their behaviour with the vast majority of benefit claimants.

The problem with reforming the benefits system (other than most pledges taking the form of rehashed or slightly expanded versions of work progammes that already exist) is that government suggestions are usually ill thought out, the result of being drawn-up by people who have absolutely no idea of what it is like to be unemployed, disabled or working and on benefits, are frequently predicated upon the assumption that everybody on benefits is exactly the same (and usually a crass stereotype) and often logically flawed.

We most often hear about how the unemployed will be made to earn their benefits – something that ignores not only the compulsory work programmes that already exist, but also the fact that a large number of the unemployed already volunteer their time in a variety of charitable roles either in the hopes of increasing their employability or as something to do other than watching mindnumbing television all day. In fact, I knew one person who was actually banned from doing voluntary work because the Job Centre decided he was doing too many hours to be compatible with his benefit, yet he was doing exactly what so many of the public and the government wanted him to do! In the same charity shop, there were others, on disability, who could work an unlimited number of hours, despite officially being unfit to work…. they were genuinely disabled, but the system took no regard as to whether or not they were capable of working. (That, of course, is another problem with the current system – it exists mostly in a binary state of can work/can’t work that has little leeway for those who are not completely incapable of work but are not entirely capable of work either and are who are left to languish on disability benefits or to struggle on unemployment benefit.)

The majority of unemployed people I have met down the years have all embraced the idea of giving something back to society and are happy with the idea of being asked to do something in return for their benefits; indeed, as mentioned, many already volunteer their services. What they do not want is for such schemes to take on the nature of a punishment for being unemployed. Ultimately, the unemployed have little influence upon their status – much is at the whim of the economy and employers, who are frequently biased against the long-term unemployed (thanks in no small part to their stereotyping by society and government). Nor do the unemployed want to feel exploited – which is why unpaid work placements in major retailers never go down well, especially when promises of training, interviews and jobs fail to materialise – the unemployed want to give back to society, not boost the profits of a corporation! Linked to that is the exploitation that occurs when long hours are demanded that create the equivalent of an hourly wage of a pound or two. The problem is that not everybody who is on benefits is on the same ones and the hours required on a work programme do not reflect what you are receiving. Ideally, the ratio of benefits to hours service should be of a level that is lower than the minimum wage (so that there remains an incentive to get work) but not so low that the benefits claimant feels as if they are slave labour.

The system needs to reformed, but it seems that the thinking of those in charge of the system need to be reformed first. And, no reforms are worth anything unless there are jobs out there for the unemployed to take….

Outlining an effective approach to reforming the benefits system would take hundreds, even thousands of posts, yet can be summed up simply :  the system must protect those in need of assistance whilst working to get all those who can work into sustainable employment. The current attitude of quick-fixes and penny-pinching will exacerbate not resolve society’s problems….

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