This post is about drug and alcohol testing for people who claim benefits – and a worldwide government enthusiasm for encouraging loathing of addicts and alcoholics who claim.
I had a few thoughts on this a week or so back when reading about a ridiculous drugs-testing-for-benefit-claimants concept that Australia’s caring government (ha) plans to trial.
You read about such targeting of drug and alcohol users a lot, of course. The general global theme is that you treat addiction best by treating addicts harshly (and, needless to say, that there are votes in being seen to treat addicts harshly). Here is America and Australia extolling drugs testing for people on benefits. Here are various UK press outlets moaning (in chorus – I presume they all took delivery of the same press release or story on the same day) about the number of addicts and alcoholics who claim Employment and Support Allowance. Pursuit of the marginalised is a global game. There are no borders when it comes to free movement of ideas such as screwing social security recipients for political gain. The message is as clear as it is hopelessly simplified: all addicts take the piss, so cut them loose. It’s a message which is particularly suited to our times: mean-spirited, small-minded, based in vindictiveness rather than fact, and the exact right size for a tweet. Long gone are the days when society accepted that there were some people it should just support and had grownup discussions about that.
I’ve been thinking about this, because I’ve been spending a lot time in Oldham recently with Vance, 43 and James, 50 – two blokes who’ve been in and out of street homelessness and trouble at least in part on account of the drink over the years. Vance says he’s done the odd stretch in Strangeways. Both guys have been banned from malls and lunchrooms from time to time on behavioural grounds. Whatever. That’s how addiction and alcoholism can look. There’s good in there as well, as there often is. Vance, for example, invited James to stay with him in Vance’s housing association flat when James was street homeless. Vance found James sleeping on the concrete landing outside his flat and invited James in.
“He was sleeping outside on the landing. I can’t see that, because I’ve been homeless meself…I did if for years meself.” You find a mix of good and bad behaviour right across the social classes, as any AA or Al-Anon attendee will tell you. The only difference between well-appointed addicts and guys like Vance and James is that well-appointed addicts and/or their families have resources to paper over the cracks.
Image: At the pool table at a Salt Cellar lunch
Back to the story.
Lately, there’s been a twist to things. Vance has started to become ill. On some level or another over the past few months, we’ve all been watching Vance get sicker and sicker from the booze. I’ve known Vance and James since about October last year. We talk on the phone and meet up in Oldham’s free lunchrooms to play pool and to make snide remarks about the world. I’ve enjoyed this, because I like Vance’s and James’ company, we’ve had a laugh and there’s much to be said for snide remarks.
The regular meetings, though, mean I’ve been in a position to note Vance’s deteriorating health over the months. He lost an awful lot of weight very suddenly. By March, he’d reached skeletal. He was shaky and clearly concerned. He sometimes didn’t turn up to lunch, because he was in pain. His health seemed very bad on some days and better on others. He’d improve and deteriorate and deteriorate and improve. That’s the way things rolled for a while. I’m not a doctor, or any sort of addiction expert, so I don’t suppose I know exactly what I’m looking at.
I do know about conversations and events that stick with me though. There have been a few of those:
“I got to cut it [the drinking] back, but it gets worse when I do,” Vance told me one Tuesday in March as we walked to the King Street tram stop after a lunchroom meeting. That day, Vance and James were drinking Frosty Jack’s from the big plastic bottles. Vance said that the week before, he had tried to go without a drink for a bit. He was in pain and he’d lost a great deal of weight, as I say. Hospital appointments had been booked. So, Vance cut his drinking down for a day – and promptly, he said, had a seizure on the concrete in the Oldham shopping precinct. He was still upset about that, as well he might be. People don’t find illness, seizures, or – if you will – concerns about impending death easier to accept just because they’re addicts or drinkers. Certainly, those things are not easier to watch, or hear about first-hand, just because a person is an addict. There’s nothing like sitting in a cold tram-stop with someone who is damned with or without the bottle of rotgut he’s clutching to leave you with a dim view of governments that want to abandon people in these situations for political gain.
You get my point. These situations are desperate. They don’t just disappear because a politician with an eye to the main chance insists that they should. I keep hearing the political class say that toughlove works. I keep finding people whose circumstances suggest it doesn’t. The truth is that wanting to deny people benefits or housing or whatever at such points says less about addicts than it does about the rest of us.
Of course – the Daily Mail, or Malcolm Turnbull, or your choice of opportunists want the rest of us to think that basic support for addicts and alcoholics is an outrage against taxpayers.
I’m a taxpayer, though. I know that people only get the basics as it is.
After years of street homelessness, Vance has a small housing association flat (he had to fight for it):
“I did it for years meself… I slept on the streets…I lived in a tent for five year. It is very cold and wet… and with snow…” He also receives ESA, although we can only guess how long that will last. James, meanwhile, still had nowhere to live the last time I saw him. Up until recently, he’d had no benefits, or money coming in at all.
I am perfectly aware that addicts and alcoholics are not angels. A fair number of my interviews in this neck of the woods involve Strangeways alumni, as I say. Some people have done terrible things. Some will probably do more. There is also someone with a long-term addiction problem in my immediate family, so I know something about pointless years spent trying to fix someone who doesn’t want to be fixed.
I can tell you this, though. Vindictiveness for political gain is not a treatment. It’s certainly not a treatment when addicts and alcoholics start to get sick. There’s nothing like hanging out with a person who is at the arse-end of such an illness to turn you against hardliners who say that addicts and alcoholics should be removed from support equations. Toughlove may work with or for some people, but it doesn’t work for all by any stretch of the imagination. Relapse and recidivism rates are high. You don’t change that by simply insisting that everyone can be knocked into shape.
You learn a great deal about your society when you get to know the people that your society is keen to cast out. You also ask yourself a lot of questions, such as – how much longer can voters around the world be led to believe that problems like lifelong alcoholism and addiction are fixed overnight by giving someone a quick kick up the arse? It’s all so simple in the social media age.