When will modern society work out that hating and bullying people in poverty doesn’t eradicate poverty?
Last Wednesday, I spent several hours at Oldham foodbank, speaking with people who’d come in for food parcels. I visit Oldham foodbank from time to time.
On Wednesday, I had a long talk with Mel (name changed), 47. There’s a full transcript from that interview at the end of this article.
I’m posting this interview for a specific reason.
Mel and her family were on the receiving end of a great deal of government and public bile.
I want to show you how that looks from Mel’s side of the fence:
Mel talked about being patronised by frontline officers and targeted by people in the neighbourhood.
Universal Credit officers dismissed Mel when she rang the helpline because her benefits weren’t paid: “He [the DWP officer] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one.”
A neighbour had dobbed Mel in with authorities – I think for housing extra family members in her flat.
A secretary at a local school had called Mel’s children and grandchildren dirty: “I didn’t actually punch her…I’m not a violent person but…yeah.”
The list went on. It usually does.
That’s the point I want to focus on here.
I know precisely what government and a judgmental electorate would say about Mel’s family. They would call Mel and her family scroungers. They would hate on the family and think – “Job Done. That’ll Learn Them.” (It’s only a pity that bailed-out bankers aren’t punished as thoroughly for their money-handling problems). Such is our era. The general view is that all that people in Mel’s situation need to sort things out is a kick in the head.
I don’t believe that bashing people when they’re already down is a brilliant social policy tactic. What I do know is that Mel and her family were being crushed by the dysfunctional and abusive public sector bureaucracies that they relied on. That part was absolutely not Mel’s fault. That part was society’s fault. Society approves of institutional aggression towards the worst off and likes to describe people in poverty as barbaric if they respond badly to that aggression. That’s how things roll for the Mels of the modern world.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Mel was ill. She said that she was having radiation therapy. She looked sick. She was tiny and gaunt, and her hair was thinning. She kept saying that she looked old. She was upset about it.
“I’ve got two weeks left of radiation… two weeks left of treatment, three times a week. I look old.”
There were other problems, too – like Mel needed them.
One problem was that Mel was receiving Universal Credit. Universal Credit’s defective payment systems had caused Mel no end of grief. For example: Mel had rent arrears. She couldn’t understand why, because the housing costs component of her Universal Credit was paid straight to her landlord. Her rent should have been covered. It hadn’t been at one point or another, and she didn’t know why. Mel kept getting letters from First Choice Homes about the arrears. She couldn’t repay the money. She would never be able to repay the money. The demand letters kept coming. This happens too often to mention. The threats roll in and roll in. There’s no respite. The debts never end.
So, there was that.
Another problem was that Mel’s flat was overcrowded. Her children and grandchildren were staying with her, because they had nowhere else to go.
Mel said she had seven (sometimes eight) people living in her two-bedroom flat. There was Mel, her five-year-old daughter, her 26-year-old daughter, the daughter’s partner and their three kids (and sometimes another daughter, I think Mel said). The 26-year-old daughter and her family had recently been evicted from their flat, because the landlord had wanted to sell.
There was more.
At the moment, the family relied on Mel’s benefit money to pay for food and clothes. Mel’s daughter had applied for Universal Credit, but had only received one payment in ten months.
Nobody would help the family sort this problem out. Instead, the family had been given horribly confusing (ie useless) instructions and told to get lost in as many words. Mel said that her daughter had been “kicked off,” Universal Credit. Income Support had told her daughter to apply for Universal Credit. Universal Credit told Mel’s daughter that she wasn’t eligible and to apply for Income Support.
Nobody understood what the DWP was saying, or what steps to take to sort the problems out, or even whether the information the family had was correct. Tempers frayed because of that. I don’t know why anyone expects anybody to keep their cool in these situations. People can’t keep their cool, of course. Nobody could. I’ve spent hours over the years on the phone to the DWP and have wanted to kick the walls in at least once during most of those calls. Many calls to the DWP end in a fight.
“They said she [Mel’s daughter] can’t go on the Universal Credit. They said they would put her to Income Support, so like which she was on for. Then Income Support said she had to go on Universal Credit. Universal Credit’s given one payment and then said she wasn’t entitled to it and she had to go onto Income Support. So, she rang Income Support and they said she’s not entitled to it and this is it. She’s had one payment in ten months from the Universal Credit…My daughter got abused off the phone… on the phone too. So, she just give in and I have [the family living with me]… That’s my daughter. That’s my family…”
There was more.
One of Mel’s grandchildren, a five-year-old boy, had behavioural problems. The family was waiting for a meeting with the council. They’d been waiting weeks. They were gearing up for a confrontation. They were worried about going to a meeting with the council by themselves.
There was more.
Mel’s Universal Credit had been sanctioned for 13 weeks at one stage because she missed a meeting:
“I’ve got a lot going on… [it’s all] out of control…”
On a couple of occasions, Universal Credit had failed to pay Mel:
“When over the bank holiday, when I was due a payment, they’ve left me over the bank holiday without a payment – absolutely without nothing. I’ve been promised it would be in before midnight and it’s not been in. That’s happened twice, that, so not been paid…I still had to argue for it when I rang up on the Tuesday.”
Mel also had council tax arrears.
She was in trouble for not paying her TV licence, too:
“Council tax – I’m in arrears. TV licence – for I’m getting threatened with bailiffs, but I find that now..[I’m] past caring. One time, I would have panicked, but… innit.”
The upshot of all of this was that Mel regularly hit the roof when she was dealing with DWP and council officers:
“I got angry. One of the weeks [of my sanction], I don’t know what that was for. It was just for nothing…I did start off [asking the Universal Credit helpline] nicely. I ended up angry…He [the DWP officer] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one…” I said, “can you not just give me something, a tenner or something, anything at all?” He said, “you’re not the only one.” He was rude…but that was after being on the phone all day, trying to get someone to help.”
I hope you see my point.
People in desperate need are downright abused by the bureaucracies they rely on. It’s time to stop blaming people for responding badly to that abuse.
The facts are that nothing works. People are expected to keep their tempers even when the bailiffs are bashing down the doors. Everybody is screaming at everybody else. I think this has long been government’s plan with austerity: to cut social security beyond repair and then to leave desperate people and stressed-out frontline public sector officers alone together in the hope that they’ll all eventually kill each other. Two birds with the one stone and all that.
With government in mind, I asked Mel for her views on government – and on Brexit, since Brexit is the political class’ overriding obsession at the moment. I almost feel embarrassed asking such questions at foodbanks now. People look at you like you’ve lost all sense of proportion, or, at least, as though you’ve taken an unexpected tangent.
Mel certainly did.
She described government as a joke.
On Brexit, she said:
“To be honest I haven’t thought about anything… [I’m thinking] about what food are we going to get. It’s not… it doesn’t stop at food. Obviously, they had school uniforms. We had to bought a lot of it, but there’s like three uniforms and PE [kit]. It just doesn’t stop. Three coats. The receptionist at my granddaughter’s school called them like [dirty]. They have a bath every day. She’s the secretary. I didn’t actually punch her but…I’m not a violent person but…yeah. But they weren’t dirty… they play out.”
Here’s a longer transcript from the whole conversation:
“I’ve got a five-year-old and a 26-year-old. My daughter lives with me. She lost her flat. Her landlord sold it and she’s so desperate. [They weren’t allowed to take] no toys, no clothes [when they were evicted]. They just had to leave.
She [the daughter] was on Income Support. I had two grandchildren at this time and she came to me and I got a two-bedroom house. I’m on Universal Credit.
Well, I’m behind on me rent. I don’t know why that is, because they pay it straight to the landlord. I’ve been sanctioned for 13 weeks for missing one meeting, but I’ve got a lot going on… I’ve been radiated…
Out of control…
We’ve been trying to get help for a year with housing for my daughter. Been trying since February. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She’d lost a lot of weight and then a baby pops out… she was…you couldn’t write a book about it… she had a boy.
Sanctioned for 13 weeks for missing one appointment. Prior to that, they messed me money about and they left us with nothing. [They are] not bothered by anything. It’s just been a really horrible time. Got social services now…
She [Mel’s daughter] was on Income Support, but because of the baby, she was not allowed to have that, so they put her on Universal Credit. We filled all that and she had one payment and then they kicked her off that and the other one is saying No, she can’t have that, so she has no benefits. Three children now and no money apart from the family allowance, but she’s got to register the child, but my money goes on food and clothes. I’m feeding all of them…one of my neighbours has reported me. It’s nothing to do with me. I’m not bothered…I’m not about to tell her what is going on…
I used to work as a support worker. My daughter I’m supporting, because of her baby…there’s nothing wrong with him [Mel’s grandson], but I do love him… and then… it’s a mess. We’re trying to get help. Nobody wants to know.
We have to have a meeting to see with social services…
It’s like nearly 12 months…some more help.
It’s been over four weeks we’ve been waiting, just for a meeting [with social services]…
I did appeal the [Universal Credit] sanction. I missed an appointment…I had to fight for my money. I’d never claimed before. Anyway, to have that… I got angry. It’s a long time, but one of the weeks [of the sanction], I don’t know what that was for. It was just for nothing…I did start off nicely [being polite on the phone to the DWP] [but] I ended up…angry…He [the DWP officer on the phone] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one.” I said, “can you not just give me something, a tenner, or something, anything at all?” He said, “you’re not the only one.” He was rude…but that was after being on the phone all day trying to get…
No hardship money…That’s feeding me, my daughter, my other daughter, three grandchildren and my daughter’s partner. You know what I think? People don’t like it as well – [that] we’ve stuck together [as a family]. People don’t like it.
I was a support worker and I was good at my job. It’s a joke, isn’t it?
The sanction’s finished for now. I keep getting letters for rent arrears and I can’t understand, because if my money gets paid to the landlord. [If it went to me] I would have spent it on food. I would have done.
Well, I have applied for that [a discretionary housing payment to help with rent]. It’s not for me, for my daughter. Council was not helpful… a lot of things… we talk this social services…like it’s embarrassing for a start. I’ve never been in this situation. Been asking for help and asking for help…[I left the job] because I got pregnant. I didn’t know I was pregnant and then I had problems with the dad.
My five-year-old is doing well. She is really clever…
Grandson – he has got behaviour problems and nobody is listening to us…This is what the meeting is about. The girls’ headteacher at school has been very good and they’ve invited the school nurse…
When [my daughter’s family] they lost their house, their landlord – he wouldn’t let them go in for nothing…lost the furniture, the kids’ toys… I was there. You couldn’t write about this…it’s [the flat] been sold now. They could see their toys on the floor. It were dead sad. Behavioural problems, social services… no, they’re not under protection. Been waiting, waiting for the meeting and then the… I got… my money’s gone…got to pay gas and electric. You can imagine. We have to ration… you shouldn’t have to ration.
[My] daughter got abused off the phone, on the phone, too [when she rang the DWP], so she just give in and I have… that’s my daughter. That’s my family…
When over the bank holiday, when I was due a payment, they’ve left me over the bank holiday without a payment – absolutely without nothing. I’ve been promised it would be in before midnight and it’s not been in. That’s happened twice, that, so not been paid…
I still had to argue for it when I rang up on the Tuesday. I had trouble with mine and then mine’s been sorted out.
And then trouble with my daughter’s [benefits]. They said she can’t go on the Universal Credit. They said they would put her to Income Support, so like, which she was on for and then Income Support said she had to go on Universal Credit and Universal Credit’s given one payment and then said she wasn’t entitled to it and she had to go onto Income Support. And so she rang Income Support. They said she’s not entitled to it and this is it.
Takes her out. She’s had one payment in ten months from the Universal Credit and I had benefit today… we don’t have money for extras. [It’s silly] but it upsets me when the ice cream van comes and we can’t [buy the kids ice cream] and stuff like that. I don’t know. It’s just all wrong…”
I asked: “What do you think of things like Brexit, the government, leaving the EU?”
Mel: “To be honest, I haven’t thought about anything… it’s about what food are we going to get. It’s not, it doesn’t stop at food. Obviously, they had school uniforms, we had to bought a lot of it, but there’s like three uniforms, PE [kit]. It just doesn’t stop. Three coats. the receptionist at my granddaughter’s school called them like [dirty]. They have a bath every day. She’s the secretary. I didn’t actually punch her, but…I’m not a violent person, but…yeah, but they weren’t dirty. They play out…
Council tax. I’m in arrears …TV licence for I’m getting threatened with bailiffs, but I find that now..[I’m] past caring. One time I would have panicked… but innit…
They did offer them a place [Mel says that her daughter and children were offered temporary accommodation at a Travelodge] but they had to get to school, the kids, over the M6, the M62. For goodness sake, why did they do that for? Why didn’t they just do them down the road? I don’t know. I just think if I was like, I’d have to think about Travelodge on M62 and then get over here…I don’t have a car. I can’t have a car now I’m on benefits, but when I were working, I run a car, but I haven’t had a car for six years…
I’m 47. I’ve got two weeks left of radiation. Two weeks left of treatment three times a week. I look old. It’s just me on my own. It’s out of control. I mean this meeting [with social services]. I’ve got…a lot of things… we haven’t spoken yet. He [a council officer] sent me two letters. Just say it was a Monday. I just looked at them and didn’t know if was a Monday or a Wednesday I’ve got… they say that’s escalated, because of the day, but she’s got the day wrong…I can’t get through to social services.
Can’t get over there… if they can’t get hold of me, I get punished. If I can’t get hold of them, they don’t do anything.
The jobcentre… [it’s a] waste of time, but the last person who I had was all right, but that was the first time… she was all right. I’ve seen a lot of them… I don’t have to go in and sign on because I’ve been sick…she has been all right…
I felt like screaming, but then it just makes you feel like giving in…I’ve got social services – didn’t give it us. They didn’t chase anything up. I’m desperate. We haven’t got any food, because we couldn’t get a voucher and she said she did rang. Then the last time that we come here, they give us a reason. Just for money – why can’t we just some help to get the benefits if you’re English? I can’t understand…I’ll get reported. I’m not rude. I’m not rude and I’m in the situation I’m not rude when I start off.