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“Scroungers” are a figment of your imagination

October 5, 2013

In his recent party conference speech and follow-up comments, David Cameron offered the view that young people (16-25 year olds) should be “earning or learning. Like some almighty patriarch sitting on a throne facing the wrong direction, he suggested that the state should and parents alike should push British youth forcefully to greater heights. Well, Mr Cameron, you may think of yourself as a father, but you do not know me and I am not your child. Which is just as well, as your “pushing” would have rendered me homeless a long time ago. I wonder if Cameron really would be so callous to his own children as to force them into poverty for not being able to find a job in a climate that almost everyone agrees is challenging for even the most qualified.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “scroungers” and I’m starting to wonder who these mysterious scroungers are, or if they have ever existed. The whole concept stinks of propaganda, with various “thinkers” relentlessly labouring on the point that we should be blaming individuals rather than systems. Not surprising, since it absolves everyone higher up the chain of any responsibility and allows them to save money by not having to shell out for any expensive, long term schemes. To assume these individuals are a draining minority is convenient because it makes everyone else feel better about society, particularly when they lack the depth of mind to think about why the issue would be causing such a stink if it were the refuge of only a small number of bottom-feeders. In fact, the numbers and variety of people on benefits is quite shocking.

The “scroungers” theory, quite apart from being blind to the current economic climate, also brushes over the many complex social reasons why someone might prefer benefits to work. It is a strange decision, if you are healthy of mind; the whole of society tells you that you are scum for it. Rarely do people in such large numbers opt to be ostracised in preference to integrating into what we might call a “normal” life. If they are unwilling to find such a life for themselves, they must assume that it has nothing to offer them, in a way that people throughout history have never done before on such a wide scale. I’d say that’s quite the indictment on job and wage satisfaction.

I suppose what conservatives call “scroungers”, I call disaffected – and sometimes, even mentally ill, which can be a result disaffectedness. Everywhere you turn, you are told that getting a job is challenging, getting an education is expensive – basically, that you don’t have a chance. It was a message that I became aware of four years ago when I was first at university. After that length of time, the idea permeates in a major way. It has arrested a nation, who apply for jobs, get knocked back, then got told that their degrees are useless for the specific careers they want to pursue, or even worse, are useless for any career one might wish to pursue.

On the other side, there are swarms of people in safe, comfortable jobs, singing “You Can Get It If You Really Want” several octaves higher than necessary, trying to rouse the Troubled Youth out of their apathy. Oh, and the middle aged people. And the disabled people. And the people who were recently laid off due to cuts. We are all subject to the same condescension, but I can’t understand why the young get the worst of it, as if we are laying around sunbathing in Greece on our £50 a week. Of course we make up the greatest numbers of unemployed, since we are a) A small and easily identifiable group and b) Inexperienced. Employers who have an extraordinary amount of choice in applicants are reticent to hire someone fresh out of school or university. Just ask them.

Anyone who used to be on benefits knows how it really is. In theory, it sounds great to be given “money for nothing” – that is the initial, childlike response to benefits. When you realise that benefits are, if anything, a sharp shove into the adult world, forcing you to budget and take responsibility for your appointments with very little gain offered for the amount of disdain you receive, you change your mind pretty quickly. I was actually part of the “disabled” section. I was, I think correctly, taken off this – I had temporary problems with social anxiety that slowly lessened, but I stayed classified as “disabled” simply because it took a while to re-evaluate me.

I didn’t get any more money, by the way, I just got treated a bit more gently – by which I mean, with the level of courtesy that people who are not unemployed come to expect as standard. Before I was classified, I was subject to rather a large amount of condescension and scrutiny by staff in the job centre, some of whom couldn’t understand why someone with A levels was looking at low paid work, others of whom went the opposite direction and completely ignored all my wishes and aspirations, none of which were particularly unrealistic. When I re-entered the “normal” strand, the slight courtesy I was receiving was quickly stripped. I was scorned outright by impatient and standoffish staff, who seemed to think that if they had jobs, everyone else should as well – or maybe they simply hated their jobs so much that they saw the rubbish ones they were finding for their “clients” to be slightly preferable, and resenting finding them.

The word “client” for an attendee at the Job Centre is so inappropriate it is laughable. Most of the time I was not treated like someone who was there for a public service or to be helped, but like some time waster. This is an experience I share with many. Incidentally, I should point out that the Job Seekers Allowance people appear to do very little, apart from file and type information that seemed to be of absolutely no use, since it never led to my getting a job – the one I found I found under my own steam. They would do “a job search” for me, which literally involved using the same site I was using to look for the same jobs that I had just been looking at, and printing out a description of it. Then I would show them list of all the jobs I’d applied for, which they would skim read, then “sign on” (give my signature) and benefits would be transferred.

If I had been attending for more than a few months, they might occasionally suggest yet another damned CV writing course. Any longer, and I was required to come out there once a week rather than once a fortnight for all for 5-10 minutes, mostly sitting their dumbly while they typed whatever it was they were typing. I would love to know why they always seemed so busy, because I did not benefit in the slightest from their expertise and extensive connections. Instead, I had money thrown at me for jumping through flimsy hoops, and was heavily criticised for it.

I eventually gave up on the Job Centre, against my better judgement, because it was so stressful, dull and useless. Even with the support of my well-off parents, I started to shrink into debt. I stopped spending money as far as possible, and even though all the money I had been receiving was what we call “expendable income”, that paltry amount was allowing me to live a life outside of looking for jobs. Presumably, I am not expected to do this 24/7. In any case, my minimal phone charge, occasional travel expenses and cost of medication – which I could not longer get free because I was not already taking money from the state by way of benefits (there’s a counter-intuitive concept if ever I heard one) all mounted up and made me very nervous. It was getting to the point where any invitation to go out was overshadowed by obsessive concerns about money. After a while, this can make you depressed.

I say this as a person who has a support network, both financially and emotionally. Imagine what kind of a toll this sort of situation would have on someone who actually needs to buy food, pay bills and pay rent. Moreover, attempts to get unpaid work were (and probably still are) penalised. My internship placements offered to pay my travel expenses to come in, so that I wouldn’t make a loss. However, at the job centre, I was told that this “counts as an income” and that if I continued, my benefits would be stopped. Plus, at a sign-on rate of once a week always on weekdays, going in to sign on disrupted the work schedule. Of course, I stopped the internship. It was a job placement that I enjoyed, and the job centre took it away from me with a silly rule no one thought to check.

Now the government has the cheek to suggest that people on benefits should be made to pick up litter for their money, when voluntary work out there people would do if they were not penalised for it. Not to say that it is not competitive; I’ve been turned down for plenty of voluntary positions as well. Far from being a motivating reward and encouragement system, it feels like a community order. That said, as a person who worked as a cleaner and picked up litter voluntarily at other points in my life, I can tell you that kneeling on a hard floor ineffectively scraping dried jam out of the carpet of a reception classroom with a disintegrating scour and a low grade household cleaning product is far worse. Yet, as others have pointed out, the scheme puts out of work all the people who already do this job for minimum wage. It’s supposed to “encourage” us, but it might only exhaust and diminish a group of people who are already down on their luck. It is clearly not a scheme that cares about the feelings of people who will be affected by it.

When you can’t get hired at a kitchen porter, largely considered one of the least interesting, least rewarding, most tiring jobs there is – and with a high turnover for these reasons – it obviously has a knock on your self esteem. This is not improved by being given work considered so trivial that you will not even be paid a decent wage for it. It is also not improved by being made to attend countless “workshops” on CV writing which all contradict each other. The one consistency among them is that they say: “prospective employers do not usually appreciate attempts to be humorous”. Well, prepare to shit a brick, because the one job that I did manage to land, I landed because I completely ignored that rule. Really.

It makes sense if you think about it; employers are individuals with individual preferences. They look though a wide range of applicants who may all be inexperienced. Sometimes they are just looking for someone with a little wit and common sense, or at least someone they will remember. There isn’t anything to lose from taking a chance and using whatever assets of your personality you can to stand out, so why advisers would advise against it, I can’t imagine. Here’s my advice: don’t say anything prejudiced; don’t say anything puerile; don’t say anything naïve or immature. Keep it light, like office-water-cooler light. Or, however you imagine conversations around the office water cooler to be, since you may well have no idea.

Cameron wants everyone who isn’t working to be learning. Well, student finance is going to have a problem on its hands then. If we follow his advice, universities will be overrun with people who figure that student loans are the next best thing to benefits. Rather than living their life slowly using the support of benefits, making careful decisions and getting up on their feet in their own time with an apprenticeship that suits them, or a standard job that lets them work their way up the ranks, more people than ever will rush into a £9000 a year tuition fee education, plus the maintenance loan and all the interest, just because we are being told that without a traditional education, you’re screwed.

Yet more and more people are saying they feel like they wasted their time on a useless degree, because they felt like they had no choice. They were led to believe that university, no matter what they studied while there, would be the answer to their problems. It’s an idea that ignores the changes in the landscape that insist on “extra-curricular activities” team-speak, the ability to fill out endlessly tedious forms. It also ignores the lack of change, such as prestigious establishments preferring degrees from particular universities.

It would be far, far, cheaper for everyone if young people in particular were given more options, before we start banging on about how they should take them. There aren’t enough to go around right now. A gap year on benefits, provided they were paid back later when the individual is comfortably employed, is obviously cheaper than supporting students. It would allow some much needed acclimatisation to the adult world and adult responsibilities, and could be a time to guide rather than a time to pressure. It isn’t a mystery to me why people my age drink and waste their time; they have no idea what else to do, and society tells them they are lazy for it.

Then, there’s education itself. Cameron insist that people who don’t pass Maths and English at school will have to retake. What a waste of time. English class hasn’t taught basic reading, writing and spelling for years; it is mainly critical thinking and literature appreciation, which some people take to and others enjoy. You should also listen to your teenagers when they tell you that “maths is pointless” because they are right. If you don’t like or understand maths at the age of 12, you are not going to need any of the complex theory you learn after that point because you won’t understand it, you won’t be interested in it and you certainly won’t pursue a career in it. It’s common sense, but were obsessed with our “national curriculum” and are convinced that adults know best and kids can’t make their own informed decisions about which subjects they want to take, or at least try.

People who are good at maths talk about how maths is the answer to the universe – and so it is, but only if you have the capacity to understand it. So many people do not. They forget all that they are ever taught about complex maths after only a year out of school. What about French, or Geography? I learned basic French from the age of seven, but there was so much repetition and inconsistency between the school years, I can’t speak French at all. I remember being taught about cultures and population density in Geography, but I have no idea where half the countries on the map are. This kind of general knowledge I am having to attain in adulthood in order to not be judged ignorant, and evaluation I have always thought was unfair; after all, who was responsible for my education until about, say, five years ago? Certainly not me.

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