The Deserving Poor

A Begging HandIt’s long been forgotten, but there was a mini-recession between 2000 and early 2003. It occurred largely due to the dot com bust, an event which seems a mere firecracker going off in comparison to the nuclear detonation that is our present crisis. However, I was negatively affected by the downturn: the company for which I worked shed most of its people and I was made unemployed as of December 2002.

What to do? I was living in a small flat in North London, surrounded by the few bits of furniture which I had saved from the wreck of my marriage in 2001. As the situation implies, I had little savings upon which to rely. Soon, I had none. I was forced to seek assistance from the state.

I recall the Job Centre Plus offices on Holloway Road with a special kind of loathing. Everything about the place seemed designed to generate resentment: the officiousness of the people manning the desks, the slight flicker of the florescent bulbs, the too-glossy and glib marketing materials which seemed to indicate that finding a job was somehow easy or pleasant. However, these subtle touches were as nothing compared to how difficult it was to get help.

I had never “signed on” before; I had worked full-time since I’d left University in 1994. I had some vague notion that having contributed to the system so consistently that it wouldn’t be too difficult to draw something out of it again. I was wrong. I had worked abroad between 1999 and 2001 and for this reason, I was informed by the balding middle-aged man in a white polyester dress shirt and maroon and blue striped tie, I would have to be means tested. His expression slightly softened when he saw the look of shock on my face.

Nevertheless, I signed my forms and got my benefits, which meant my cash in hand was a little over £50 a week. However, I was told I’d have to come back every seven days and tell the centre how I was getting on with finding new work. I was informed that for up to 6 months, I could, more or less, apply for a job that suited my skillset. After that, it was said, I’d have to take whatever position was available: I had nightmare visions of having to stock shelves at Tesco, my technical skills and education having come to nought.

So, every day, I sat at my computer and applied, often well into the night. Jobserve became my constant companion. The wireless hub broke, so I trailed a long network cable into my tiny office room and hooked it up to my computer. I kept going. I had to print out the job ads as I went along: they were evidence that I was fulfilling my end of the bargain so far as the Job Centre was concerned. I remember the studied indifference and tired glances of the various officials who looked at the papers each week. I recall the long walks along the Holloway Road after such encounters in the winter of 2003; it was mostly cold, the skies were grey. I had to be careful with every penny when I went shopping for food. I feel slightly nauseous when I think of the lingering scent of cheap bacon in my small dingy kitchen and recall the depression I experienced looking out the window at the bare trees swaying in the cold gusts. At those moments, I pondered over my life and wondered what could possibly be its meaning and worth. After a time, the melancholy would pass: I’d sigh and return to applying.

Eventually, persistence paid. I got a new job in May 2003 and it went well. I recall the day when I received my first pay slip: I was quietly overjoyed. At that moment, all questions regarding life’s value had vanished. And while I have had trials and tribulations since, my life has generally improved from that time onward. I reached new heights just this past year when I graduated with my PhD and my novel was published.

Conservatives will read this story and perhaps see a validation of their political viewpoint: the awfulness of Job Centres and the difficulty in obtaining benefits, they’d say, provided me with an incentive. However, no rational human being wants to be idle: I would have worked just as hard to get myself out of unemployment without the additional pressure. My dignity demanded it. Not everyone perhaps feels that incentive so urgently: yet if we consider the link between poverty and crime, could it not be said, at least in some cases, to be due to dignity being denied and desperation taking its place?

The economy is far worse now. Yet, the government’s rhetoric presently includes references to the “undeserving poor”. This begs the question, how do they know who is deserving and undeserving? If the Job Centre Plus on Holloway Road is any indication, no reliable measure is in place to assess who is striving and who is not, and who is trapped and who has relative freedom. Given the state of the employment market, it is far more likely that there are many more people who feel imprisoned than are gaming the system. Yet the suggested remedy is more stick, less carrot. Grotesque stories in the tabloids about exceptional individuals who are able to obtain ridiculous amounts of state help provide a false veneer of legitimacy to these moves. I cannot imagine how many people’s lives are about to be made even harder: will they look out their windows this winter and wonder if their lives can have meaning and worth, particularly since the government’s demeanour towards them is so negative?

While cuts and more stringent conditions will hit the unemployed, it appears that financiers do not have to jump through nearly so many hoops in order to get their state assistance. For example, in the initial version of the act which set up the American Troubled Asset Relief Programme, there was to be no oversight of the money spent. The banks have been saved. According to the London Evening Standard, bonuses worth up to £7 billion will be handed out this winter: this is being spent on lap dancers and fast cars. While this group will pay more tax on their regular earnings, their capital gains have barely been touched. Meanwhile, those on modest pay, particularly those in the public sector, are more in the firing line than ever. The talk of “undeserving poor” under these circumstances is not only misguided, it’s obscene: society is in the process of becoming two-tiered. If you’re wealthy, not only will you be left in peace, you will be helped by the State without question: if your means are modest, the American acronym “BOHICA” (“Bend Over Here it Comes Again”) applies.

It is doubtful that the politicians will want to alter this status quo too dramatically. Their hope is that a revival of business as usual will make its way sufficiently down the food chain to avoid a cataclysm. It’s a stupendous risk. It doesn’t take too much for despair to turn to anger, and for long, lonely winter walks to coalesce into marches. If I’m right in that humanity strives towards dignity, this will assert itself: the experience may be searing, but such an event may be the only way that natural justice can be restored.

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  • This piece resonated very strongly with me. Those of us who are disabled experience this kind of treatment constantly, but for us there is no happy ending.

  • lucy

    A very moving piece; i’m sorry that happened to you, but what a change since. From my own brief experience of working in Job Centres, there is (or certainly was a few years ago) a very distasteful culture of assuming all those signing on were somehow trying to con the system, and to treat everyone as such (i’m glad to say i did not succumb and was able to quickly find a better job and get out). It’s alarming how prevalent this attitude is in other parts of the public sector too. i fear for those of us who will fall by the wayside in the coming months and years. We will not only compete with ever-increasing numbers of people for ever-decreasing numbers of jobs, but will also have to grow thick skin to protect us from the regular indignity of the visit to the Job Centre. We may well call ourselves the Little Society.

  • Laura

    Well said. I think the two-tier system is already here. The people that I see at the library want work; many of of them have given up hope of it and aren’t able to write well enough to compile a CV along or technically able to fill out job applications online which is often required. We just lost lots of staff in the first wave of (currently voluntary) redundancies; now we don’t have enough staff to run one-on-one computer sessions, the ones that booked up as soon as they opened. The jobs that are available seem to only be possible for the educated to apply for successfully, so Tesco begins to fill up with graduates.

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