I think about this one quite a lot.
Over the past few years, I’ve had many conversations with left activists and plenty of others who hope and/or believe that austerity and adversity will bring out the best in people: that the majority of us will one day rise against social security cuts and the housing crisis, and pull together in common cause. The hope here is that austerity will end in revolt of some kind, perhaps very soon. This could happen, I guess. I doubt I’d see it coming, but then I rarely predict the big events. Turns in the narrative usually take me by surprise, especially when they’re positive. There is absolutely a chance that austerity, and the housing crisis in particular, will provoke widespread fight in addition to the fear. There is every chance that people will band together in a big way and help each other out. I already see plenty of evidence of mutual support.
The problem is that I see and hear plenty of evidence of a serious fracturing, too – a siding against, rather than with, people in the same boat. I tend think of talk along those lines as just the latest installments in a very long-running, anti-community, pro-self global narrative. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. I never find firm footing on this ground. I speak to people who are from this country and people who have come to this country from other places. Views are very different and very similar. I have quite a few conversations like the one I’ve transcribed below. I have conversations with people who are on the receiving end of government policy and who are largely sympathetic to government. I talk with people who receive benefits and say that government is right to crack down on benefit claimants. They clearly don’t believe that they’ll ever be in the firing line.
I’ve posted the transcript below as an example, so that you can get an idea of what I mean. The transcript below comes from a discussion with a person who claims unemployment benefits and has for a while. You’ll see that this person is strongly of the opinion that other benefit claimants are scroungers and that government is on the right track with benefit sanctions regimes. This is not a view that suggests unity. It is certainly not a view that suggests revolution.
“How can this be,” people say when they hear claimants taking this line. Members of the claimants’ union I was with on the day of the discussion below certainly wondered at the views being expressed. And who could blame them? I mean – how can this be? Benefit sanctions are extremely unpleasant. They’re particularly unpleasant to see. If you attend a jobcentre regularly, you see people being sanctioned. It ain’t pretty. I can tell you that for a fact. There is reason to feel a certain sympathy for people when they are sanctioned. There’s also reason to feel a certain fear. You can’t always predict who is going to be next on the sanctions list, even when you think you can. How can people imagine that they’re not in the firing line when they’re literally standing in the firing line?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Perhaps you will.
Anyway. Here we are outside one of the northwest London jobcentres at the end of last year. We speak with a number of people. One woman we speak with says that she came here from Russia a long time ago (“it’s complicated”) and is nearly 40. She has lived in England for some years. She is unemployed at the moment and so receives jobseekers’ allowance. She says that she used to receive employment and support allowance, but lost that benefit earlier last year when she was found fit for work at a work capability assessment.
We talk for a long time. The woman says that that people are right to call some benefit recipients scroungers and that something in the local mindset leads people to believe that they are entitled to financial support from the state:
“I know it may sound a bit hard, because I am one of the people who come over here [to the jobcentre] to sign on [for unemployment benefit] but I’ve seen people who you would put into that [scroungers] category.”
“You see certain familiar faces. I just see that this person has no intent of looking for a job – has no intent of doing anything – and I understand why they are sanctioned. It may be not the right way, but otherwise, how will you make the person do something? How you can make somebody to actually search for a job if this person doesn’t want it?”
For herself: She says that she has told her jobcentre adviser that she can’t work for less than £22,000 a year, because she couldn’t afford to pay rent on a lower wage and would still rely on state support in the form of working tax credits.
Here’s the whole transcript.
The woman asks why the local benefit claimants’ group is handing out leaflets at the front of the jobcentre:
Claimant’s group: We don’t like the way that they try to make us out as scroungers
[The woman laughs]
No, I mean…from one side you are right, from one side. I know it may sound a bit hard, because I am one of the people who come over here [to the jobcentre] to sign on [for unemployment benefit] but I’ve seen people who you would put into that category.
Claimant’s group: The rich, you mean? [Laughs]
No, I mean, how you call them, the scroungers.
Claimant’s group: The rich are the scroungers. They haven’t got money for us – but they had this vote to bomb Syria. Do you know how much every missile costs on that?
The woman says:
I know, I know…
Claimant’s group: They destroyed every oilfield. How are the people there going to get any oil?
The woman says:
It’s funny politics
The woman also says:
It’s not them [jobcentre staff] who are introducing [sanctions and penalties] It’s not them. Their hands are tied. They are given instructions on what has to be done and then they have to follow. They have been put in a difficult position. They have to enforce.
Another woman outside the jobcentre says:
They have to be on our side and also protest. They have to realise that we’re all being treated like shit and this – like queuing up to be treated like shit
Me: How often do they make you come in [to the jobcentre to sign on]?
The first woman says:
Every two weeks.
The second woman says:
For £70 a day (sic – JSA is about £73 a week). You’re supposed to find a job on £70 a day (sic). You can’t even get a travel card for that. It was £35 a week 30 years ago. That was when I last signed on and my rent has trebled, so it should be at least £105.
The first woman laughs
It is not up to them [jobcentre staff] what to give and who to give. I don’t see sometimes the point of fighting against them [the jobcentre staff] but what can they do? They find it difficult, but then again, everyday staff is controlled by Glasgow. What can they do?
Me: I think they should join in fighting – join a union. They were saying that half the staff have been sanctioned (sic) here, or taken out, or the staff numbers have been cut.
The first woman says:
The thing is – that even with the sanctions, I’ve seen a few people over here… you see certain faces. You see certain familiar faces. I just see that this person has no intent of looking for a job – has no intent of doing anything – and I understand why they are sanctioned. It may be not the right way, but otherwise, how will you make the person do something? How you can make somebody to actually search for a job if this person doesn’t want it?”
Me: What jobs are you looking for?
The woman says:
Um… I’m trying to get into legal field, because I did the law degree, but I had a car accident just after graduation, so I was on the sick leave. And then – I still have the minor health issues relating to the accident, but Atos decided that I am fit to work. A friend of mine said to me – “why didn’t you go through the appeal [process against the Atos decision]?” – but I did not have the energy. I just said [to the DWP] – if you want to transfer me to the jobseekers [allowance],’ fine. Just leave me alone. I know I need a job myself. I am not happy with the situation, but what can I do? Most of them [the jobcentre staff] – I’ve been dealing with them with the different applications for nearly two years. I think I had only one person who I had dislikes for, but all the rest are very friendly and at least trying to help.
I was on the sick leave – ESA – and then they moved me to this. [Been coming to this jobcentre] for a few months. Most of them [jobcentre staff], they’re happy to help you, but sometimes there isn’t much that they can do. I can see why certain services have been cut. I can see why people are fined. (sic)
I asked my previous supervisor what about the courses [training courses provided through jobcentres for people who are out of work], this and that, because I know that a few years back, they were on the list. She was like, “They [the courses] have been withdrawn for a number of reasons.” When she [the jobcentre adviser] started explaining and I was saying I could see why they [the courses] have been withdrawn. Before they have more professional courses and I asked them if you have anything that would help and most of the courses they are offering they are for people with the minimum skills [CV writing] basic English, GCSEs and I’m like – “guys, I have two degrees. I don’t need this. I need something else.” [Laughs]
Me: Are you from here?
Yes and no. [Changes the subject back to the discussion about government courses for the unemployed]. She [the jobcentre adviser] told me that when they had the courses, the government funds them. People will take the courses, so the [course] provider will get paid. Then, three weeks down the line, they [the unemployed people] stop coming. But they money is paid and nobody will refund them. But they [jobcentre staff] can’t take everybody by the hand and drop them [at the course centres each morning].
Me: …and make sure that they go.
The woman says:
Like at school. So, the government is losing money and so they stopped funding them. Then [sometimes], the people will take the course and then come back and say “I cannot find a job.” So the question there is – what is the point of government to fund the courses if people don’t go there, or waste other people’s time and money? And if people don’t use the courses as a way not to push for the job?
So, it’s a vicious circle and until you change a certain people’s mentality, what you got to do. It goes around and around. It’s like people who come here who want a job, who want a house, who want a help, they cannot get help, because there is somebody else who comes through the system before them, so what’s the solution there? You cannot punish them for this, because even the government argument would be – we give the courses, [but] people don’t do them. People don’t take them, so why should we fund it? So, it’s a very difficult situation to find exit, believe me. I know. I’ve seen it. I have seen it myself.
I find the key – a lot of people have the slightly wrong attitude. Slightly wrong. I mean – I came from Russia 15 years back. I could take any job at that time with the ten years’ of office experience, with a degree. I didn’t mind taking cleaning. I didn’t mind working in a coffee shop, because I just needed the work. I just needed the money, but then I spoke with a number of like acquaintances, not the friends, who are like – “I am not doing this for this amount of money.” I’m like – “what’s the difference between you and the girl behind the coffee machine? So why can she work for £7 and you think that it’s below you? She may think it’s below her as well.” I had a few friends who had Master’s degrees and they had to work in the coffee shop just to get the kick start, but for a number of people who come here, they think it’s below them.
Me: Do you think it’s below you?
No, because I did this. It was a shock to me, because when you’re older, you works in the office, you know, working in the nice comfortable conditions and you end up working in a coffee shop and it can be a shock, but I did it you know and … I end up here, because of circumstances. I never thought that I would end up signing on.
Me: Because of the accident.
Yeah. Because of the accident. I was like in the situation – with the crutches, you know.
Me: It’s interesting.
That’s life, you know. You’re trying to change the situation, while there is a need to change the people’s mentality. A lot of people in this country think that they’re entitled to a number of things and in reality from one side, maybe, yes, but [from the other side]… yeah. You know if this was the Soviet Union, that would be one thing. Certain social communists, who you know, yeah. If you want the money, you move your arse and you will work, but people think – “No, I want to sit on benefits. I want to go on holidays. I want to have this and I want to have that.” It doesn’t work this way.
Me: I think that part of it has to do now with wages being so low.
The woman says:
Yeah, but then don’t forget you know…[the economic crisis]… and not every sector has the low wages.
Me: No, it’s more the retail sector and the jobs that people are placed in [we talk about housing benefit and how people can really struggle with very low-paid work when wages won’t cover the rent].
The woman says:
Yeah. For example, as much as I know, I have this conversation with my previous supervisor, because I said to her – you know what. There is no point for me to take anything below £22,000. For one reason, it won’t cover… because I won’t get off the system’s neck, because I will still have to apply for the housing, because I cannot afford my rent. I cannot afford the council tax and I will have to get certain tax credits, because it doesn’t cover my expenses. So I am like – what’s the point?
Me: What did she say?
She’s like yeah.. and that’s why we don’t push you to go out to take any job. The system is changing for the new people who are joining in will be Universal Credit… the system will change.
Me: Are you on Universal Credit?
No. I’m on the old system. For us, I’ve been told it won’t hit us for another year, or year and a half…but again, you know it all depends on the people. Because you get a number of people who don’t want to study, who don’t want to work – they don’t want anything. They just want to sit at home watching telly, I’m sorry. And they are the people who think they are entitled. I used to question, when I worked myself, where my taxes are going. Why me – working long hours, studying together at the same time – why should some people want to stay home and do [nothing]? That’s not fair as well. So the whole thing needs to be changed.
Me: How old are you?
Nearly 40. …. the thing is, certain type of legislation needs to be changed. The mentality of people needs to be changed, because even with the sanctions, even with the other things, I could see why they are punishing them. Because people come and say – did you search for a job? Yes, two jobs a week, you know. I do understand that there are certain people that made the mistakes and they need a different kind of help and end up being put aside by the society, but again it’s not the jobcentres….