Wednesday, 3 April 2013

You Want to Live Like Common People?

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 


  1. Well said Toni, success is all the more sweeter when it isn't seen as a right. We do all however have the right for a chance at success, when we discriminate against sections of society we take away this right for many, in a first world country this is shameful.Leah.

    1. Thanks Leah, I couldn't agree more. It is easy, lazy and unfair to generalise based on circumstances. Knowing people who will be negatively impacted by the changes that don't fit the stereotype that is so beloved of some tabloids, I wonder how on earth opportunity can be increased when many people's lives will be made harder.

  2. I enjoyed reading this , the argument of benefits is one of my favourites even though Im completely 50/50 on the £53 a week to live on subject. I hope you don't mind me adding my comments ....

    I think what the governments needs to remember is that people on regular income support / job seekers are people who are looking for a job, and they often need to pay for car, petrol etc or travel costs of some kind which isn't cheap, phone bills and nothing seems to be done these days without Internet. The cost of that alone I think is expensive, without other bills and food..

    The amount of get up and go people have is individual and I have often seen enthusiastic people become depressed very quickly when looking for work... It's too easy to lose confidence when job hunting and people just give up. A lot more support needs to be offered to job seekers and you are right, it is a difficult process to work your way out of a situation where you are reliant on benefits and at a point of low self esteem.

    There are also people, men mainly, who have children in past relationships and look after them at weekends or after school, but get no extra benefit for that. It must be hard and i would find impossible, they are only entitled for rent for one bedroom properties and is a very low amount compared the price of renting (some just rent rooms )so they end up stuck in with their kids in one bedroom places with no money to go out, on a regular basis...but like you say and I totally agree, if you have to do it then you do...

    There are people I know of, who do live on their benefits, but who drink all day everyday and I wonder how they manage to afford their bills?
    Maybe they don't and I often (maybe ignorantly ) presume that they are just on a downward spiral of debt..but maybe they are actually brilliant at organising their finances and cutting back on their bills and they manage it... I don't know..

    I guess as a temporary solution then £53 a week is do-able but for people who genuinely can not get a job (I know a few in their 50s who have been looking for over a year) then I think it would be very difficult , and not affordable for a good standard of living. Saying that and to risk contradicting myself... I often see single mothers (different type of benefits I guess )who afford nights out, holidays and even pet horses and they rely completely on the money that's handed to them, and with Graham and I both working, much like your mum and dad did, swapping over the children and seeing little of each other... But still not being able to afford the holiday we wanted... It can be very frustrating.

    My strong belief above all this is that although there are people who become benefit dependant, these days, it is a minority and the bigger problem is that there are just not enough jobs to go around. One job I applied for last year had 88 applicants ! And it was for a qualified position!

    I think a bigger challenge for Iain Duncan Smith would be to live on £53 a week until,as an average person, find and get a job with a wage high enough to cover the cost of benefits, rent and council tax.