Yesterday Radio 4 broadcast a Women’s Hour special called “the state of welfare” which discussed the current benefits system. I was very disappointed with the terms of the debate because the focus, as ever, is on those who abuse the system and outmoded ideas of how people live their lives.
I am twenty-four. I have received jobseeker’s allowance twice: once, immediately after A-levels when I was in limbo because my arrangements in France hadn’t worked out due to a friend’s aggressive and territorial boyfriend; then again shortly after university, for about a fortnight, between finishing a course and heading to Asia to do a residency. In both instances, I was just out of education and was sincerely trying to find work. As a writer, this usually means bit work or part-time work until you can find something better. The third time I tried to claim JSA was rejected on the basis that I live with my partner, therefore she – who works as a supply teacher – is supposed to “keep me.”
The trouble with this arrangement is that I could live with someone who *won’t* keep me. I could live with someone who refuses to give me anything, who possibly steals from me. The assumptions made by the state about the fact that someone is in a relationship are ridiculous, since “a relationship”does not mean “a good relationship”. Luckily I am in a good relationship, but I won’t be taking any of her money because she doesn’t have enough to pay my bills, my portion of the rent, my council tax and so on. If anything this measure is an incentive for younger people such as myself to either lie about their living situation (plenty of people do); to be in jobless partnerships in order to claim the slightly higher joint JSA payments; or fail to take steps to lower their living costs. The main reason we live together is because doing so lowers our rent and makes it easier for any potential work to pay.
The other problem with the refusal to give JSA to someone with a partner, is that it doesn’t combat the issue of scrounging. In fact, I would argue it is worse to scrounge from those around you than it is to go to the state: at least with the job seeker’s programme you have a structure, you are taking responsibility for your situation and you have independent means in the eyes of your relatives and friends. But I don’t see why receiving money from the government is a bad thing: £56 per week from a pot that everyone pays in to is nothing to be ashamed of. One woman on the BBC programme made the excellent point that benefits fraud has vastly less effect on the country’s balance than the billionaires who avoid tax through off-shore accounts, but effect the prices we must pay in this country. Rent wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for rich people. Equally they effect the level of work available. It is not recent graduates and JSA claimants making irresponsible decisions about the economy. The majority of claimants are like me: you’ve hit a rough patch, you are a citizen, you are looking for a more stable income, in the mean time, you sign on. I estimate that the total amount received was about £600. I have paid far more than that in tax and interest on my student loan, and have vicariously contributed far more when I have been in stable employment.
So my first point about benefits is that it should be based on the individual’s needs and the individual only, rather than the individual’s relationships, since those relationships can’t be guessed at. The fact that they are shows the out-moded social structure that the benefits system is based on. I don’t believe anyone who spoke on the show has tried to imagine what society would look like if every single person was fully educated to degree level. Since that is the way our society is – and should be – going, we also need to re-think what it means to be employed and what an educated person’s expectations are. Being aware of your time and its value means that people are increasingly pissed off at the idea of working for peanuts to enrich someone else. The entrenchment of class in a system that says one person at the top can make money off the labour of those at the bottom is obvious. Even if you don’t have the labour rights rhetoric to justify it, anyone can see that their time is better spent volunteering for a social cause, than working in McDonald’s so Ronald can be kept in a style he is used to. But if you go to a JSA meeting, you will be pushed into applying for things that are meaningless and inappropriate because the idea is not to improve anyone’s quality of life, but to get them *a* job. It stinks of people getting *a* husband because the social shame of being unmarried is considered worse than a horrible partner.
Part of tackling this problem might be a deeper consideration of job distribution. Job shares have existed for ages, but the obvious downside is that a lot of people need a full-time job to cover their living costs. However a lot of people don’t, and there are methods for living cheaply perfected by millions of arts students around the world. One of those methods is living with other people. A more idealistic idea is job distribution in kind. So I’m talking about the CEO of a company doing the work of a cleaner, and vice versa. If we actually educated people properly, and took steps to ensure everyone had a decent standard of living, this wouldn’t be as repulsive an idea as it seems, because we would not equate CEOs and cleaners with different “kinds” of people. This would be the distribution of experience and status, which I have never heard anyone in government speak of.