The Demonisation of the Poor

NOTE:  I’ve streamlined the section on welfare budget, it was overly longwinded and detracted from the main point that is only 3% of the welfare budget went to out of work but looking Job Seekers.  I have also done some additional editing to allow the piece to read better.

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It seems today that there are certain types of people that it is not only okay to demonise but also use as a source of our entertainment. The Channel Four programme Benefits Street has been criticised, with the “stars” complaining of unfair editing, misleading details ahead of time and ignoring those on the street who do work in order to create a false reality. The producers have defended the show for highlighting poverty, but it comes across more as a novelty and adds to the stigma that many on benefits feel.

It is a common cry that those on benefits are lazy, scroungers, and layabouts who are gaming the system and living off of others hard earned money. I have seen otherwise socially liberal friends post and share completely misleading and stigmatising nonsense such as one story from an anonymous North Sea Oil worker who thinks because he has to have urine tests then so should those on benefits. For a start, his job (if this man even exists) is one that definitely requires the avoidance of any type of narcotic or alcohol, and is not comparable to people on benefits. It is a false comparison. But it also ignores the fact that when such measures have been introduced and trialled they have overwhelmingly a) cost more to implement than they would save and b) shown that actually, the number of people on such substances is so low that in one case it was just one positive result in over 800 tests. Other investigations have shown the number of those testing positive to be no more than 1-2%. This is a number so low as to not even seem worthwhile going to the effort of. It seems that the desire of governments to show the public that they are tough on scroungers, shirkers and druggies is the important factor. Its appearing to be tough on those taking advantage that is the goal, even if in reality those figures are insignificantly small.

-What is spent on Welfare?

 In a recent survey the British public believed that just over 1 in 4 benefit claimants at 27% where scamming the system. The real figure is closer to 1 in 150 at 0.7%or 70p per £100. We also need to realise exactly what the welfare budget is. It may be hard for some to believe, but Job Seekers Allowance, the main benefit for those out of, but looking for, work is only 3% of the overall Welfare Budget, and the welfare budget itself accounts for a third of the entire budget- but bear in mind exactly what is included in the Welfare Budget.

Pensions account for over 40%, with the next largest spend being on housing benefits at around 11% – 14% (depending on the source for our stats), a benefit that many of claimants for are actually in work. After pensions and Housing Benefit mostly for the employed, we have the disabled who receive just 8% of the benefit spend.  At 4% is Working Tax Credit- that’s benefits for people working full time, or at least 30 hours a week, yet still not making a living wage. Think about that for a moment- how can someone in 21st century Britain be working full time and yet still have to claim benefits to live? And the argument that people should just get a better job is nonsensical as jobs are not that easy to come by in the main- even the better parts of the country for work only have 1 job available for every five unemployed meaning full employment is an impossibility.

As to the amount of benefits not being claimed that people are entitled to? Around £12 billion a year goes unclaimed, equal to about 6% of the welfare budget. Even if we round up those claiming fraudulently to a solid 1%, it still means that the government is up by 5%.

The actual amount going to the unemployed on JSA is only 3% of the welfare budget, which itself is 36% of the overall budget meaning in reality JSA accounts for only about 0.4% of the entire budget.

– How much are you entitled to?

We’ll look at a single person here and bear in mind that if two people claim as a couple they do not get double. We’ll use the fictitious example of “Jack” who lives in East Lothian.

What can Jack get if he is claiming unemployment benefits? I have used the Benefits Calculator to get an idea.

Jack is claiming as an individual, with no dependents and is out of work, but looking and able. He lives alone and his rent is £500 a month. He is liable for all bills and food in the property as well as council tax of £993 (he gets a single persons discount to start with). He rents from a private landlord and is not sick or disabled. He is 30 years old and as of the time of his application is not claiming any benefits, having just lost his job and he has savings of less than £6,000 – the point at which it can affect benefits. His council tax is band C and he has no debts.

He is entitled to the following per year:

JSA: £3822.09

Council Tax Benefit: £993

Housing Benefit: £3569.55

TOTAL: £8384.64

Or £698.72 per month

Now this might sound like a lot, but lets look at the outgoings he has. The council tax benefit in this instance is the same as the council tax owed, but it is important to realise this is not always the case and some people do receive less than half, even on benefits, and expected to cover as much as £65 a month. As the C-Tax is included as a benefit, we’ll include it even if it does cancel itself out as the C-Tax goes to the council direct and is never seen by the claimant – some of these are conservative, such as food.

Rent: £500 per month

Power: £45 per month

Phone/ Internet: £20 per month

Council Tax: £99 per month

Travel: £32 per month (based on two day saver tickets a week to look for work/ visit friends/ sign on at the Job Centre etc)

Food: £100 per month shopping at LIDL

TOTAL: £796 per month

So even claiming the maximum he can, having no debts, eating simply and doing only a small amount of travel he is nearly £100 a month under what he is paying out. And this doesn’t include any emergencies or luxuries- in the modern age the internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity, especially when the job centre expects you to be searching and applying for things online, using the library simply doesn’t cut it. And having a phone is vital. We haven’t even included mobile phone costs in this, nor factored in additional travel nor the cost of buying clothes nor socialising- something which is important to a healthy human being, seeing as how we are social animals.

Why doesn’t he move somewhere cheaper you may ask? Why not share with some one? Well these things aren’t cheap either- how is he supposed to pay for a deposit, or the travel expenses required in moving? Add to this that moving is one of the most stressful things a person can go through, and in his already difficult situation he is struggling. Oh, and lets not forget that many landlords won’t accept Jacks Housing Benefit, of which he only gets a fraction of the full rent as he is under 35. And he can’t save anyway because he is incurring £100 in debts every month.

And Jack is an example of someone who doesn’t already have debts to pay, if he even has an overdraft he could be eligible for up to £30 a month in fees. Sure, some people get more in benefits and of course some people commit fraud- but only 0.7% of them. When you look at someone on benefits and see them with state of the art accessories and tablets, laptops and flat screen TVs you do not know how or even when they have got them. And if people are earning on the side, then they are committing fraud and part of that 0.7%. Maybe everyone in your area IS committing fraud, but even if they are it is no reflection on the majority of claimants and you cant hold them up as an example to justify things like urine testing or even worse food stamps/ smart cards.

  • Those on JSA should be given benefits on a pre-paid card.

I’ve seen this argument made, and on the surface it might not seem like such a bad idea. But only on the surface. What we need to remember is that those on JSA are amongst the few spending their entire income per month, putting it all back into the economy. They pay taxes like everyone else, mainly in the form of VAT – so when you complain your tax money is going to those on benefits, well the tax money of those on benefits are going to make sure you have your nice shiny state pension, so maybe those on JSA should be complaining about their tax money going to lazy pensioners? That sounds horrible doesn’t it? And that is hopefully some food for thought.

But as to the prepaid card idea- for a start it will not be available for use everywhere. This can be severely limiting. If you run out of milk, or bread or any other basics you will not likely be able to pop to the corner shop at 8pm to pick up some milk, instead having to wait until the next day to get a bus over to Tesco. It also would not be something that could be used for, say buying new clothes for an interview nor would it allow for the person to have a meeting with potential employers and network in public areas like a coffee shop. Pre-paid cards forces you to spent your income with already wealthy and nationally sized organisations, rather than supporting local small business and giving you freedom of choice. Also, some people have suggested it cannot be used on alcohol or cigarettes. Well excuse me, but if someone who is living hand to mouth decides once a month to buy some cheap cider to try and disappear for a few hours from their struggle in life I say let them do it. How benefits claimants spend their money is no more your business – nor the governments- than how you spend yours is theirs.  Not only is it unhelpful but also it screams at every cashier “This person is on benefits” and how people get an income is not the business of Carol the Tesco Checkout Girl.

-Those on benefits are scroungers

Earlier today I saw this story.  The comments below it (that appeared on Facebook) were typical of those who think benefit claimants are scrounging- accusations of fraud, telling the family they shouldn’t have so many kids, or complaining about the fact they have some nice possessions. Well first let’s address possessions- you have no idea how they got them for a start. They might have been gifts, they may have been prizes, they may have been cheap second hand or they may have bought them before sinking into poverty. I have seen homeless people with mobile phones and heard people criticise them for it- access to a phone can be a lifeline for some, lets not judge until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. You may ask why they don’t sell those possessions? For a start that’s punishing the kids, for a second places like Cash Converters aren’t going to be giving you enough to secure regular rent payments- if selling your goods only keeps you paying rent for one month and then you’re screwed anyway, I imagine many people would see little point in selling something that gives comfort and allows the kids to feel a little more normal and will not make any real difference to whether you can keep your house then let the kids keep the iPads- at least in the homeless hostel they’ll have something to distract themselves with. As to complaining about having too many kids- remember the father was gainfully employed until he lost his job, what are we supposed to do in that situation? They can’t unmake the kids- that would be murder.

  • people on benefits get more than hard working people.

Well already we’ve discussed that “hard working people” claim housing benefit and working tax credit so is that hardworking people scrounging from themselves? But looking back at Jack earlier we see that his income from benefits is just under £700 a month – claiming everything he legally can. The income for someone on minimum wage is £260 a week at 40 hours before tax, after tax about £210 a week or £910 a month- so £200 more. Of course there are examples of people who get more in benefits- but they are the rare exceptions, and you have to take into account other factors such as partners, children, and disabilities. I actually do know people who receive rather more than £910 a month and are on benefits- but they are on disability benefits and it takes into account that they might not even be able to cook for themselves and need someone else to do it as well as the fact they will never be able to work – suggesting a lower benefit for those seeking work might seem good to some, but if someone is incapable of work due to health then the least we can do is ensure they are receiving an amount they can live on. Also, if people on benefits like JSA are getting more than people in work then it is the employers that need to be shaken up- those on £910 a month may well be claiming working tax credit on top which results in a much higher income- but again, why the hell is someone in full time work having to claim benefits on top? Don’t blame benefit claimants for getting more than you, blame your boss for not paying a living wage.

But again, and at the risk of repeating myself, those earning more than a full time wage are rarely those claiming the standard benefit and there are other factors to take in to account.

It is easy to look at people on benefits and see on the outside surface that they appear better off, and sure, some people are gaming the system whereas the vast majority are simply receiving their entitlement after paying in themselves.

  • Benefit claimants should just get a job

When did you last look for a job? Employment is as high as 2 million and there are some areas of the country with as many as 50 people for every job. However that is an extreme case, the average is about 5 people for every job. Can we see the problem here? Full employment is impossible. There are on average five times as many unemployed for the jobs available. Not everyone can form their own business, indeed there wouldn’t even be the demand. It is a hirers market – I have a fairly good CV, but when unemployed I wasn’t getting interviews despite applying to hundreds of vacancies. Why would somewhere hire a person with a degree to stack shelves when they know full well the second a job opens with those people’s skills they will be off? And let’s not blame immigrants here, net migration is around 300,000 and even if they were all unemployed they still would have little impact on the job market, and certainly not enough to be able to claim they are stealing your jobs.

So what about those on disability benefits? Again, in total, 0.7% fraud across the board of all benefits. So again, 0.7% of those on disability may well be winging it- is that really worth the stress of ATOS? I have one close friend who had a panic attack over their ATOS form, another who is struggling with anxiety through it, and another who had to write to their MP for help. Causing people stress, anxiety, fear and pain to stop 0.7% seems overkill. People who have been sanctioned have died- stories of suicide by those sanctioned is but a Google away. This all plays into the hands of those “hard working people” who look around and see benefit scroungers everywhere.

Nought. Point. Seven. Fucking. Percent.

– Final Thoughts

I’m going to say something controversial-  Though ideally fraud would be at 0%, I would rather have to accept some people are going to scam and get away with it than have a single legitimate claimant go hungry even for a day. In this world, where fraud is going to happen, we have decided that stamping out that fraud is worth more than the welfare, safety and lives of the rest of the citizenship. When corporations avoid billions in tax compared to what is lost to fraud in benefits I wonder if we have our priorities right. But right now, in society, it is easy to blame the poorest and most vulnerable. We forget that the largest part of the welfare budget goes not to those on Job Seekers Allowance but those on pensions, that much of the housing benefit budget and the entirety of Working Tax Credits go to those already in work. The dehumanisation and stigma circling around those on welfare- especially JSA and disability- is awful If you share those images and macros shouting about how hardworking people are paying for scroungers then stop and think for a moment about what is being said and if it is really true or just hyperbolic propaganda. Otherwise you are adding to the stigma and the dehumanising of the poor when these stories, if they are even true, refer to not only a tiny insignificant minority but deflect us from where the real problems in society lay.

Television has jumped on the bandwagon and now being in poverty is entertainment for the masses. Television time for the never unemployed and healthy middle classes to tut and shake their heads as they see a heavily edited and biased output designed to make them angry. There is a joke- a politician, a middleclass worker and a benefit claimant have a tray of three biscuits. The politician eats two and tells the middle class worker that the benefit claimant is after their biscuit. We have the BBC creating a new show where the unemployed and low paid workers will compete in blue collar jobs to win £15,000. Apparently it is a social experiment. It is exploitative and cruel- if they really want to raise awareness of these issues there are better ways. It seems that in modern Britain the poor and unemployed are to blame for the woes of society and they are stealing form the wallet of hard working people… and what the hell even is a hardworking person? Its like “British Values”, meaning something different to each person and meaning nothing in the more general sense. We need to end this attack on the poor, we need to realise that those living on government welfare are not villains and over 99% of them are not playing the system, taking your hard earned couple of quid per year.

Britain really is broken, but not in the ways you are being told to think.

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2 Responses to The Demonisation of the Poor

  1. Kyna says:

    “After pensions and Housing Benefit mostly for the employed, we finally come to a benefit for those who are neither retired nor in work- the disabled who receive just 8% of the benefit spend”

    Nice article Ash! Just a wee note on the above, DLA (now fast becoming PIP) isn’t an ‘out of work’ benefit. Yes many who claim it are also on ESA and unable to work. But it is not dependent on this. In 2012, 21% of those of working age in receipt of DLA were in employment (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/227185/foi-3438-2013.pdf).

    I say ‘of working age’ because it can also be claimed for children who are too young to work.

    Oh also by full time students who would not be on unemployment figures anyway!

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