21 Apr

Get Off Benefits and Get Back To Work

That title is likely to evoke strong feelings in almost anyone.  Don’t judge yet, just read!

I think I understand both sides of this based on a variety of experiences; being brought up in a regular middle class family, then meeting a new set of people for whom working was unusual, then going through a year or two of depression and finally becoming an employer.

I’m inspired to write because this morning the news is focussing on the two million incapacity benefit claimants and how the government wants to get as many of them back to work as possible.  I thought “surely there are paying jobs that anyone with a basic grasp of maths and english, a computer and an Internet connection can do?”  I’m writing this to help me explore that idea and to inspire me to come up with solutions (so really, I don’t care if nobody reads it).

So why aren’t more people working?  Here are some examples that, if you have never known any of these people, should open your eyes:

  • “Joe” lives on a council estate.  Only a few people on his street work, and most of his family are on benefits.  He used to work but gave up after straining his back, and hasn’t been back since.  He just about completed high school and is not very confident when applying for jobs, so is restricted to minimum-wage manual labour, which modern health and safety law makes impossible because of his past injury.  He would also face the “benefits hurdle” – he would have to work at least 30 hours/week simply to get as much money as his current benefits, so he has little incentive to even try.
  • “Fred” used to work.  He was brought up in care, and ended up as a retail shop manager, but then spent a few months in jail for petty crime, met a girl, settled down, married, had several kids, stopped getting on with his wife and ended up with he and his now-ex living apart with the kids being pushed between them at regular intervals, and arguments over which of them could claim the child benefit based on which kids were where.  He has severe epilepsy and doesn’t look after himself, and like “Joe”, left school with almost no qualifications.  He did do a fairly extensive course in caring for disabled people and thoroughly enjoyed it, even taking it a step further and learning it in real depth, but he couldn’t get over this “benefits hurdle” and go from “I have a skill” to “I can make a living”.
  • “Julie” worked once, many years ago.  Now she stays at home to look after her kids and her husband, who has been signed off work for disability for as long as anyone can remember.  She says she can’t go to work because she should be there for the kids while they’re growing up and her husband is too lazy to keep the house in order if she did work.  Again, there’s almost no point her working because she’d need to work over 40 hours at minimum wage to have the same income.
  • “Shannon” has never known work.  Now 16, she was brought up by “Julie” so never saw her parents going to work.  Most of her relatives live nearby and they don’t work either.  While growing up, being clever and doing well at school was laughed at or frowned upon by almost everyone she knew, but nonetheless she knows there is a better life to be had and aspires to do something about it. Unfortunately she’s about to find out that she’s pregnant to an 18 year old lad who also never knew work, and doesn’t share Shannon’s ambitions.  She’ll have to make a decision that could affect her life dramatically; if she chooses ambition, she faces losing boyfriend, baby, alienating her family and risking all that for a professional career that may never happen.  If she chooses safety, she’ll end up in exactly the same position her mother was in, but at least she won’t have to worry.

“So get rid of the welfare state!” some cry.  We’ve seen in the news recently the effects of this in America, where the well-off middle class complain bitterly about the idea of paying more tax to support the poorer parts of society, and the poor are left unable to afford medical care. Imagine living in one of the richest countries in the world and being unable to get your sick baby treated properly just because life hasn’t been kind to you. The welfare state tries to narrow the gap between rich and poor, which in turn makes the country a better place to live. Like any human built system, it has many failings, but I believe the good effects outweigh the failings, and even though I’ve never claimed a single benefit in my life, I’d like to help make the system work.

The people I’ve talked about above end up in a mental rut. I think I understand this because I spent a couple of years thoroughly depressed, and it took a huge amount of sustained will power, and a woman to whom I’m eternally grateful, to pull myself back into normal life. So imagine how mentally difficult it would be for any of the characters I described to pull themselves out of that rut and get into regular work – in many cases it’s impossible, and any attempt to do so will face set-backs and discouragement.

I know it’s possible to get people out of their rut – the people over at Recycling Lives give vulnerable people everything they need to go from being written off by society to actively contributing.  There are people all over the UK dedicated to improving their local community doing anything from rehabilitating drug addicts to providing food for vulnerable families.

At this point I’ll abruptly sign off by simply saying that I’ve been inspired to look for ways to get people working who can’t do manual labour but are capable of using Facebook. You can see this as an anti-climax, shrug your shoulders and get back to work, or spend a few minutes sending me a suggestion in the comments or by email, and then in the near future I’ll revisit this and explore some practical ideas.

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