As further cuts came into force through the Government's Welfare Reform, Iain Duncan Smith says "I could live on £53 a week if I had to". A petition has been set up to see if he would like to prove it but of course he could live on £53 'if he had to'. We all could, because in a situation where you have no choice, where you have little income and are reliant on the state to support you to some extent, or totally, then you just get on with it. Many families already do.
This is not about to become a tirade against people who rely on benefits, nor a lengthy defence. What it is about is requesting a little more understanding of how bloody hard it can be to work your way out of that situation.
When I was growing up, both of my parents had low-paid jobs. Dad got home from work in the late afternoon and was immediately handed the parenting baton so mum could go to work in the evening at a shampoo factory. Our family was 'dual income' but we had bugger all to show for it. No holidays, just hand-me-downs and great smelling hair - thanks Alberto Balsam! We did, however, have an appreciation of the importance of work because during the short periods when my dad didn't have a job it massively impacted our household budget. This was to become permanent however due to my his ill-health and subsequent death. Without the benefits system as it was in the late Eighties / early Nineties I have absolutely no idea how my family would have survived.
Now, when you are poor and a teenager, and wishing that your dad wasn't dead, and that you had enough money to get the bus and not have to walk three miles to town, and that you didn't have to wash your clothes in the sink because the washing machine is broken, and that you didn't have to keep asking the neighbours for bread and sugar, and all the other stuff that goes along with living on almost nothing and everybody knowing about it you are in quite a precarious position. You really are only a couple of choices away from being reliant on benefits for the rest of your life. But, if you can see through the grief and the shame and the sick and tired feeling that comes from relying on hand-outs, it might light a fire underneath you that makes you work like a bitch to do everything you can to get out. Which is what I did.
And because of that I know how hard it is to move away from home at eighteen with nothing to fall back on, to leave behind friends, family and siblings that need you, to end up spending 90% of your wages on rent and train fare which means you have to live off beans and marmite sandwiches (not together of course, that would just be wrong). I understand the difficulty in making friends when you've moved to a place where you don't know anybody, the feeling out of place, lacking confidence, not having the right social skills and struggling to shut away the part of you that thinks you don't belong. I know what it's like to rent a room in a house that seems fine then the landlord turns out to be very weird indeed so you don't feel safe and end up jamming your bedroom door shut by putting a chair under the handle. It is far, far easier to not do this stuff, to 'stay put' where you feel more comfortable and are among the people you grew up with.
But I'm so glad I didn't go back because every minute of effort was worth it to reach the evening in the Bull & Chequers when I was introduced to the man that is now my husband. Loads of other great stuff has happened; the career and material things have worked out well, and my teenage self would be jumping for joy at the life I now have but without him it wouldn't mean quite so much and of course, we wouldn't have had our children, little smashers that they are. So thanks 'the B&C', I owe you one.
So far, so very lovely and heart-warming; see kids - getting 'on your bike' works! But my point is this. Finding the strength to invest that kind of effort and cope with the moments of loneliness, 'being broke-ness', and generally feeling like you're dragging Eric Pickles uphill on a sledge is just about do-able when you're young, single, healthy, positive to the point of naivety and have a couple of A-levels. But to find yourself in that position in your forties, with a family, or because your partner has died, or because you are ill, or if for whatever reason you came out of school with nothing. How much harder is it then?
The Government wants people less reliant on benefits and more inclined to work and yes, I agree. There is pride and fulfilment in going to work, bringing home a wage and feeling that you have made a contribution. It gives you confidence when you have your own money and feel in control of your circumstances. It feels incredible to achieve things in our professional and personal lives but what if something happens that takes those things away or knocks you so far back that you wonder how you'll recover? Could you just 'snap out of it' then?
So yes Iain, help people to make changes, find a way to bring more work into families and make more choices available to young people who aren't starting out from a solid foundation. But do it with a little more understanding and perspective and don't think that platitudes like yours work when delivered by someone earning over £130,000 a year. We could all live off £53 a week if we had to, but we sure as hell wouldn't choose to.
Soundtrack: Common People by Pulp