It’s a Monday night and, as has become tradition in this household, I’m watching ‘Britain on Benefits’.
I cringe at the woman who needs to lose weight but won’t join Slimming World and I groan at the teenage, single Mum who has found herself pregnant again.
But in the next second I feel guilty, why do I think it’s okay to find it funny watching these programmes? Have I really been conditioned by the media to judge these people so harshly?
It’s especially frustrating because in this past year I have felt just as judged, having claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance and then Maternity Allowance. I really should know better.
Given the stories we are fed on a daily basis, you’d be forgiven for thinking we live in a country where people choose to claim benefits rather than work and in doing so they are better off financially than any of those who are unemployed.
This excellent article from Petticoats and Patriarchy debunks some of those untruths:
- Most people claiming benefits aren’t doing so fraudulently, less than 1% of benefit spend is on these claims (At 1.3 billion, its less than a tenth of what the country loses to tax evasion).
- There aren’t families with generation after generation stuck in a never ending cycle of claiming benefits, a study in 2012 found just 1% of unemployed people come from families with two generations out of work.
- People on benefits don’t have extra large families that the state are paying for, just 8% of benefit claimants have 3 children or more.
- You aren’t better off claiming benefits than going to work, a person claiming JSA, housing benefit and council tax support will have almost half the amount of ‘disposable income’ left every week than a person working full time and earning minimum wage.
I’m guilty of thinking some of these things myself over the years, particularly the last one, but I was wrong and now I have had first-hand experience of it.
I should say that, unlike so many, I’m thankfully not in a position where I rely on benefits to survive. I have a partner who has paid the main household bills (rent, electricity, food and so on) for me and our son, after I was made redundant while pregnant last year.
However, I was also claiming job seekers allowance and later on maternity allowance, despite feeling embarrassed doing so. One particular incident made me feel so ashamed I almost missed out on support that was available to me…
Following a lengthy and frustrating telephone call with the DWP, I posted on Facebook: ‘Anyone who thinks claiming benefits is the easy way out needs to actually try doing it!’
The responses surprised me, there were several remarks that ‘people are playing the system’, ‘they don’t want to work because they earn more on the dole’ and ‘they shouldn’t be having kids’.
When I pointed out that I was going to be having a baby and claiming benefits, I got the distinct impression that people actually disagreed with what I was planning to do, ‘well you knew what you were getting into when you got pregnant’.
Actually, no, I didn’t. Because when I found out I was pregnant I had a good job with a good maternity package and the intention of going back after spending a year with my first child.
I didn’t know that I was about to lose my job, I didn’t expect to find myself struggling to get work and I didn’t plan to find myself with no income of my own at all.
And surely that is the point? We pay our taxes knowing it will go into the system to support those who need help, in times when they can’t help themselves. We do so knowing that one day that could well be us and to begrudge others of that help seems entirely selfish to me.
As I say, because of the comments I backed off massively from my research into the DWP and took them at their word that there was no support available. I accepted the fact that, come July, I would be having to make my limited amount of savings stretch for as long as possible.
It was only a chance conversation between my partner’s Mum and a colleague that led her to discover the Maternity Allowance – a benefit that is available for women who have worked for a set period of time before giving birth.
It annoys me to this day that I was made to feel that way, I believe I earned my right to that money by working hard and paying into the system for many years before finding myself in need of it.
But it also worries me that some people may not have had the strength to ignore those comments and they might not reach out for help when they need it.
Where has this idea come from that if you are being supported by the state you are not earning your keep? When did we stop feeling sympathetic and wanting to help others?
With that in mind, here are my top reasons we should stop judging people who claim benefits:
- No one actually wants to be on benefits: I was a pregnant Mum-to-be signing on at the job centre and later claiming Maternity Allowance. On the surface, it would have been very easy to judge. But the truth is I would have much preferred to still have my job and be earning my own money. I am certain the majority of people on benefits would say that too.
- You never know when it might be you that needs the support:
- It’s not just about money – financial security and peace of mind are important too: One other comment on social media about claiming benefits was that I shouldn’t be getting anything because my partner earns enough to support us. ‘You’re in this together, as a family unit, his wages should be taken into account’. It’s a fair point, but I wasn’t comfortable relying on my partner. With just one wage we did cutback, buying second hand items and holding off to buy larger items like the cot. But I didn’t want to become a burden on my partner because of something that wasn’t his fault. He had already done so much for me, he pays our rent and bills, he pays for the vast majority of things for our baby, how could I expect more of him? Besides, having my own pot of cash was about independence. There was no way I was going to ask for money to go to the football, see friends or take my son out for the day so I don’t go stir crazy in the flat. I have found it incredibly hard losing my old life and now, on top of that, people were expecting me to go to my partner for pocket money? Feminist Amy wanted to scream.
- A parent who isn’t working is still contributing to society: The assumption that if you are claiming benefits you are sat on your backside watching Jeremy Kyle. Okay, I might do that, but I do spend the rest of the day rushed off my feet. And the same will be said of any parent, particularly if they are bringing up their children on their own. We are all doing our best to make sure these kids develop into healthy, intelligent, well-mannered members of society and make a difference to the world. I cannot understand why that role is so undervalued for society (and yet when you are a mother going back to work society likes to tell you you’re failing your children by deserting them).
So please, next time you feel a Daily Mail influenced rant coming on about dole dossers and scroungers, take a breath and think: ‘I’m just really glad it isn’t me’.