“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

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You Are A Bloody Moron

I wrote this entry in October 2010 when IDS and his Centre for social justice looked interesting to the media. Despite his apparent enlightened attitude it was clear to people who knew anything about the reality of benefits that he was either being excessively naive or, two weeks after being voted into government, seeking to lubricate what were to become far-reaching policies.

The media is entirely consumed with people who claim benefits, with people who make claiming benefits a lifestyle choice, with benefits scroungers and benefit thieves. The benefits bill is indeed enormous, and more money is lost through DWP incompetence than through fraudulent claims. Note that what little information is available comes under the banner ‘Fraud and error.’ They are two separate issues but linking them feeds a useful prejudice.Ian Duncan Smith meanwhile, describes the issue succinctly:

“The present benefits system is so complex and unfair that no one understands it. It leads at the bottom end to one of the most regressive tax and benefit withdrawal rates that it is possible to imagine.

“We ask people to go to work for the first time and then tell them to pay back 70%, 80% and 90% back to the state. These are levels none of the wealthiest bankers are asked to pay – they are moaning at 50%.

“If you are unemployed, and you come from a family that is unemployed, all you can see when you think about work is risk. It is a real risk because for all the efforts you make the rewards are very minimal and in some cases none at all.

“Socially, everyone says: ‘You are a bloody moron – why are you doing this? You don’t have to do this.’ So taking responsibility is a real risk for you.”

That he misses the single most important aspect of this mindset is testament to how deep our Hard Working Families rhetoric goes. If you’re a poor person and unemployed you keep a roof over your own and your family’s head. If you’re a poor person and you swallow propaganda you are very likely to become homeless.

Which person is taking responsibility?

What can we say about the messages being sent to the very poor?

How might this affect an external locus of evaluation?
Of the person on benefits?
On the working person who earns less than a person on benefits?

On you?

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.