“This is how people on out-of-work benefits actually feel”

I really like this simple diagram. Supporting a person to discover more about who we truly are and to be more content with who that is, leads to us to be more open to new events, suggestions, experiences. Have you noticed how closed off and defensive so many unemployed people can be? There are a number of excellent reasons for this, and one of them is a defence against being swallowed up and obscured by the shame-filled, grotesquely laden title “Unemployed.” You can resist that title all you like, but you know that your status changed with your family, friends, acquaintances, bank, mortgage lender or landlord, anyone you have a standing order or direct debt with, your local authority and the Government within about 24 hours. And your sense of who you are changes too, bizarrely, just because you have stopped earning money.

Ruth Patrick’s research in the Guardian informs us directly about the external loci of evaluation, the sense of self for the unemployed people she interviewed.

“The voices of, and experiences of, those directly affected by the swath of welfare changes being introduced this month need to be placed centre stage. As part of ongoing research, I have tracked a small group of out-of-work benefit claimants over time, exploring their experiences. Talking to disability benefit claimants, young jobseekers and single parents between 2011 and 2013, it is striking how many have begun to internalise and tacitly accept a discourse that pits hard-working “strivers” against “shirkers”, undermining and demoralising those relying on benefits for all or most of their income.

Benefit claimants I spoke to have described themselves as “scrounging” off the state, explaining that claiming benefits felt like “begging”, and feeling ashamed of their reliance on welfare. Isobella reflected on her experiences of having her [sickness benefit] employment support allowance time limited: “I’m off to the scrapheap. The government don’t seem to realise that this isn’t a lifestyle choice for me and there doesn’t seem to be that recognition that people who are on benefits [are] on them because they need to be, or because of their circumstances. So you do feel a bit washed up, sponging off society. Even though for years and years I’ve paid in and worked and have been a good girl and done what I was told to do. And now it’s all blown back in my face.”

My research suggests that government policies to get people off benefits and into work are based on an incorrect analysis of the problem they are seeking to solve. Most out-of-work benefit claimants do want to work, where this is a realistic aspiration, and are stopped not by laziness or an absent work ethic but by structural barriers such as the absence of jobs, lack of appropriate support and perverse barriers within the benefit system such as not being able to attend full-time training courses.

Many of my participants expressed frustrations that they wanted to do courses, say in bricklaying, that were only available full-time. So instead they are pushed onto basic skills / IT courses that aren’t appropriate.

All too often, government welfare-to-work programmes fail to provide any meaningful support and jobcentre staff give mixed messages such as advising claimants not to return to work as their high rent levels in supported housing made this unaffordable. Sophie, a single parent, desperate to work, recounted her experience of attending a jobcentre appointment: “I said ‘if I go back to work whether it be 16 hours or full time I’m sure I’ll be able to afford it’. And she [the jobcentre adviser] replied, ‘aw well we don’t think you’re ready.'”

Defending his policies, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith argues that those in the welfare system should be “on a journey. It should be taking people somewhere, helping them move from dependence to independence.” The government is certainly taking benefit claimants on a journey, but the most likely destination seems to be increased poverty and more stigmatisation, rather than the promised “independence”. If the government really wants to help benefit claimants they need to tear up their current policies and start again by listening to those people with direct experience of struggling to manage on out-of-work benefits.”

• Names have been changed

Privilege at Carnival

1251885575-jouvert-at-the-2009-notting-hill-carnival131939_131939Lord, I dislike WordPress. Sometimes this post is visible, sometimes it’s not. Please bear with me. Thanks.

 

 

I’m writing this at 6am having just come home from J’ouvert, the opening ceremony for Carnival where the route is walked widdershins very early in the morning before the main part of Carnival begins. Paint and flour are thrown at people and buildings, there’s a real sense of anarchy and misrule.  My husband and I were amongst about 5 or so White people there, and he and I were observers rather than participants. In a group of around 300 hardly anyone made eye contact with us and a few people gave off an air of restrained hostility.

It’s easy to call some of this behaviour racist. I don’t particularly enjoy Carnival, for me it’s a massive imposition on an area that has long been disadvantaged – in reality it has never been Notting Hill Carnival, Notting Hill wouldn’t stand for it, this is North Kensington Carnival. North Ken was Rachman territory and the area still has large pockets of terrible deprivation. I find the sound systems loathsome and to those people who say that it only lasts two days a year I reply that in that case I’ll invite dozens of people round to use their garden or doorstep as a toilet and play very loud music into their elderly parent’s house, but only for two days a year.

All that said, I grudgingly recognise the value of Carnival. North Ken has some of the very best community integration in the UK. We have communities from the Caribbean, the Horn of Africa and North Africa, Ireland, Spain and Portugal as well as generations of white working class families who still call Portobello The Lane. Daddy V the owner of the iconic People’s Sounds sums the situation up well, “In our own homes we all say how we don’t like other people, but outside we all get along.’ (Peoples Sounds has been on All Saints forever, but has been omitted from shopping websites more interested in the bespoke upholstery businesses and ‘design boutiques’ that are gentrifying the entire area.

Privilege is a convoluted and dense concept. Here’s the latest Wikipedia discussion on White Privilege:

White Privilege refers to the set of societal privileges that white people are argued to benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of color in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.).[note 1] The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.[1] These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; greater presumed social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely.[2] The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.

And here’s a link that describes Privilege as I understand it.

Counselling is profoundly White and profoundly middle and upper class. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the wife of a rich man and there seem to be a huge number of counsellors who fit that description. If that statement makes you feel uncomfortable or defensive I’d propose that it’s likely your privilege is being tweaked. What did you just lose?

External Locus of Evaluation

800px-House_to_rent_no_dss

Everyone knows that a person on state benefits is a bit shifty. Spongers, parasites, lazy, untrustworthy. Probably fraudsters. Everyone knows someone – or knows someone who knows someone – on benefits who has a huge flatscreen television, buys designer clothes, has children littered about with different fathers or mothers, and who goes on international holidays at least once a year.

This is the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm in the discussion of people on benefits, and this group is treated in ways which, were they black or gay, would be simply illegal. It’s illegal to offer a flat for rent with the proviso of ‘No Blacks, no Dogs, No Irish,’ but it’s normal for a landlord to have the proviso ‘No DSS’. It’s absolutely acceptable to discuss people on benefits with as much hatred as you like in the media, in the pub, at dinner parties and in coded terms within education, medicine, social services, at the hairdressers, in a bus queue.It’s acceptable to put a person on benefits under surveillance. Anyone, without the need for proof and anonymously can call the Benefit Fraud Hotline to report a ‘benefit thief.’ (How often is this done spitefully after an argument or relationship breakdown? The DWP keeps no figures on malicious reporting but the internet is full of anecdote.) DWP officers can put a person on benefits under covert surveillance taking long lens photographs of them, their children, their friends and their home life. They’re allowed to gain access to your bank account. Even if there’s no proof of fraud a permanent note will be made on their records. People who have never had anything to do with the legal or judicial system or read a history book reiterate the inane cliché ‘You’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong,’Imagine other groups under the same conditions: university lecturers bank accounts are accessed. Journalists are put under surveillance. The children of doctors are covertly photographed. The neighbours of Polish people are encouraged, via advertisements on bus stops and on the television, to keep an eye on them. Just in case. It’s unconscionable. But counsellors live and function in a society where we know that people on benefits are treated in this way and it’s not part of our discourse, even though the majority of us will begin our training by practicing on people on benefits. People who are vulnerable and are very likely to have complex, undiscussed needs.

How does living with the knowledge that you should be ashamed of yourself, that other people detest you simply because of your employment status, and that you are at threat of surveillance if you annoy someone, effect a persons self-concept, their sense of self?

Employment statistics are always contested but there’s no doubt that the numbers of long-term unemployed people are steadily growing. I have enormous sense of weariness when I read almost anything about counselling the long term unemployed, like this 
Eurocounsel identified the importance of adult guidance and employment counselling not only as a means to assist the unemployed person to find a route to work and to active citizenship but also as a catalytic tool to prevent unemployment and bring together the resources and actors of local development.
or this (entirely unreferenced) piece in Therapy Today
‘The prime contractor doesn’t want to pay you to have a nice chat and help the person cope with being unemployed; they want you to increase their employability so they can get work, and help keep them in work.’
The long term unemploed person is barely a citizen, their relationship to the State is purely parasitic, they contribute nothing. They have no agency, they’re free-floating in a meaningless sea of ennui, becoming mentally ill and degenerate. God help their kids, growing up to be mindless, under-achieving, underclass thugs. The role of the counsellor, then, is to make the unemployed person suitable for employment, and bloody keep them at work. Because the ultimate – perhaps the only – value a person has is economic and we will save them, save them from mental illness, from their desperate lives, from themselves.

Context Is Everything

bullingdonclub

A man is hanging out of the windows of the block across the road, he’s quietly telling a couple of children which door to go to and what to say. One the children, polite, neat and apparently confused, goes up to a door, looks back over his shoulder towards the man and says: “Is this the one?” I don’t hear any answer but the child raises his voice and says: ‘Excuse me. Excuse me. Do you live here?’ to the person going into the block. She doesn’t answer and the children wander off, back towards the other block where the man says: ‘See that car? Yes, that blue one, that’s it. Spit on it. Spit on it.’ The children, confused enough now to feel fear, walk away.

The man continues in his low, not unfriendly tone. ‘I want to fuck you. I want to fuck you. Oh, is that how it is now? Don’t you love me any more? I want to fuck you.’ My neighbours’ adult daughter comes into our block and we say hello. “Do you know that man?” I ask. She doesn’t, but he somehow knows her name and she’s more bemused than aggrieved. She goes inside, I carry on gardening, the man continues his monotone commentary. The children have long gone.

 

My daughter and I are walking home and we hear a cacophony of bird noises then see a blackbird fly out of a bush. There’s a nest in there with a second brood of fledglings and I take my daughter over to see it, high up above our heads in the municipal bushes. We listen to the young birds then hear an outraged: “Do you mind?” We can’t work out where it’s coming from, and again “Do you mind? I’m trying to go to the toilet.” And there, 4 feet from us squatting behind the large communal bins is a woman with her skirt pulled up around her hips. I am so shocked that I can’t find the urge or the words to reply and just leave, with no sense of threat but with the feeling that I’ve moved into a Kafkaesque world where squatting, shitting women are outraged that I’ve interrupted their public ablutions.
Across the road there’s a camper van, one of the cheaper ones and very old. The locks aren’t any good and a group of 10 year olds has broken into it. They throw everything out of it onto the street, bedding, pots and pans, a television, reams of paper, tea towels, everything. Then they cross the street and begin ripping a young pear tree apart, bending it under their combined weight, screaming loudly and intensely until the tree suddenly snaps and they land heavily. One boy is hurt and they begin to kick him. He has to get up or be beaten, staggers to his feet, laughs, throws a punch which misses and the lot of them move off down the street, leaving the road covered in the strangely unsettling contents of someone’s holiday life and the young tree. A number of us called the police who never arrive.
Mandy’s mum and dad were first cousins. She did well at school but left at 16, immersed herself in New Age philosophy, conspiracy theories and illegal drugs and called herself an artist. When she was 27 she filmed herself drilling a hole through her skull. Now a pensioner, she remains passionate about LSD and magic mushrooms.

A family just up the road allowed their two elder children to smoke dope when they were 12 and 14 years old. The parents often went away leaving the three children alone, the youngest being 10, and they would have parties in which alcohol and illegal drugs contributed to the house being trashed, time after time. The 15 year old daughter started a relationship with a 30 year old whom her parents welcomed into the home and he tattooed her at 16 with her parents consent. On a school exchange the elder son made constant Nazi references at the two young German people staying with them which the rest of the family found amusing, and at 15 the youngest daughter put up pictures of herself on Facebook snorting coke.

Dee had what used to be called ‘emotional incontinence’. She felt she must share the most intimate aspects of her life with anyone who’d listen. Her partner who was over a decade older than her and demonstrably didn’t love her; her multiple, dramatic affairs; her children both of whom were taken from family home at the age of 8 to spend the rest of their childhood in special schools; the fact that her younger child has a close resemblance to one of her lovers; her eating disorders and self-harm. She had one job working as a nursery assistant and the rest of her life was spent supported by the State. Dee was killed in a high-speed, late-night, alcohol-fueled crash.

Context is everything. Dee is, of course, Princess Diana who is venerated. Mandy is Countess of Wemyss and March. The family with dope smoking children live in a detached home in huge grounds which means that neighbours don’t need to call the police to their rowdy parties and the underage sex and drug abuse is ignored. The men in the photograph were notorious for getting excessively drunk, destroying restaurants, smashing windows, letting off fireworks in the street, and other behaviour that has been described as ‘toxic’ ‘disgusting’ and ‘shameful.’ Now, a fair number of them run our country.

All of these people and families are worthy of our care and concern, but the woman who, with great dignity, squatted down in the hedge; the man in the council flat who had been ignored for so long he was becoming dangerous; the ‘feral children’ whose boundaries are so confused, are much more likely to be dealt opprobrium, low-quality interventions and incarceration. Somehow, people who are very privileged and who demonstrate behaviours that would usually result in police and psychiatric involvement, don’t seem to be subject to the same treatment as people at the other end of the income scale.

Why is that?

Counselling and Money

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Counselling began in private practice and thrives in a free market economy. A good number of counsellors treat their practice as a way of making a great deal of money from the unhappy wealthy and every counsellor with a private practice will have come up against the ethical dilemma (most often easily dealt with) of wanting to be with the client in a particular way but hesitating because the client is a source of much needed income.

 

It is a fact that the profession is absolutely dependent on the poor as clients and that the poor are denied the opportunity to join the ranks of the profession. As the professionalisation of counselling has becomes the dominant model so courses moved from local colleges into universities. University courses are obliged to become accredited by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) if they want the slightest chance of employment for any of their students to so tutor workload increases, which in turn means that they can justify higher wages and so the cost of the course increases.Students are required to gain at least 100 client hours and those hours are gained via counselling agencies that offer a low-fee or free service to clients – that is, those people who cannot afford private counselling. Which in turn means that people on a low income in need of counselling are also most likely to encounter the least experienced counsellors.

 

Agencies offer some supervision but a majority don’t offer adequate supervision, in some cases requiring that volunteer counsellors first prove that they have a private supervisor before they’re allowed to offer their services. In addition, some agencies require volunteers to show proof of personal insurance cover which costs around £50. BACP membership at the time of writing is £35 a year for student counsellors in receipt of state benefits. Psychotherapy courses start at around £2,000pa and can be as much as £30,000. A single person on Job Seekers Allowance gets around £70 a week.

 

Once qualified, many counsellors will continue to volunteer in order to gain experience as well as client hours towards BACP accreditation. Some of us will feel a kind of duty to continue offering a service to clients who cannot afford private counselling, and some of us will not. There are counsellors who on qualifying are given a Harley Street practice as a congratulatory gift from a spouse. In Therapy Today, the magazine for members of the BACP, there is the occasional classified advert for ‘Prosperous Private Practice.’

 

The Byzantine BACP accreditation process created a new way of spending and making money: BACP accreditation workshops, paying supervisors or counsellors who are already accredited to help the applicant complete the process; the cost of the BACP administrative process which is at least £90 and which takes around 3 months to process, plus £110 more if one mistake is made. The ads at the back of Therapy Today have 2 pages of jobs, some voluntary, and 27 pages of CPD: counsellors making money from each other.

 

So money is absolutely central to the profession and one that remains taboo. As one of the founders of  the BACP noted, it is the elephant in the room.

Intimately entwined with this taboo is the way in which counselling perceives and works with ideas of poverty, class, income and what a ‘good life’ might be. This is so undeveloped that the BACP campaigns manager could write the following in appreciation of government proposals to be seen to make unemployed people get a job.

. . . access to psychological therapy and/or support, with the aim of helping people achieve improved mental health and wellbeing, thus improving their ability to gain and/or maintain employment.

Robinson 2008:5

The above is from Therapy Today and, though the magasine is at pains to distinguish between itself and the BACP, represented the BACP’s opinion on the links between employment to mental health. Importantly, it also places the BACP in political relation to the importance of employment, suggesting that getting people to work is a positive thing for counsellors to work towards with their clients. Interestingly, this conclusion is not the one that the Royal College of Psychiatrists drew from the joint Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Medical Research Council and Royal College conference.

Work is broader than ‘employment’ and should encompass voluntary work, home making etc. The majority of the research evidence refers to full time work whereas it might be more informative to consider ‘activity’.

Waddel 2007:5

Of course, what a client chooses to do in terms of employment or unemployment is none of the counsellors business, just as what a client chooses to do with an intimate relationship is none of our business. If the purpose of counselling is to allow a person to explore their lives and relationships in order to gain a better understanding and perhaps better mastery of their life, then the counsellor must be very clear in their own mind about what their own expectations might be.

 

This can be difficult when the counsellor lives in a society that equates poverty with victimhood at best and more often as badness, a position that isn’t helped when it’s ‘common knowledge’ that good mental health is helped by being employed and that the reverse is also true, that being unemployed results in poor mental health. When the BACP reinforces this, unemployed clients are doomed to second class work from counsellors.