One of the blogs I read, Feministe, had up an interesting little article today. I probably shouldn't be surprised that people are deriding Henrietta Hughes for daring to ask for assistance, but it still upsets me. Mainly, because of the bloated and ignorant reek of entitlement that drips from every word. The people that mock, deride or otherwise stereotype poor and needy people are clearly living on a different planet to the majority of us, and yet seem to think they speak for us all.
Poor people, people on benefits, unemployed and/or homeless people are, time and again, portrayed as lazy, stupid, workshy wastrels that have no interest in being gainfully employed, and expect "honest taxpayers" to pay for them to live. In actual fact, such cases are extremely rare. I, myself, am in a precarious financial position.
I am not a lazy, shiftless wastrel. I work full time. I am educated, intelligent, and have a diversity of skills, both creative and analytical. I do not have an impressive range of qualifications, however. I did start studying for a BSc in astrophysics, but had to give up the course because I could not afford to cover the rent. I had 20 hours a week of lectures and lab, 20 hours a week of coursework and exams, 25 hours a week of employment and a 2 hour outbound, 3 hour inbound daily commute to my studies and work, leaving me approximately 9 hours a day to eat and sleep, and 1 Sunday off per month when I wasn't working or studying. So, exhausted, sick and unable to cover my basic living expenses, i gave up on my degree and qualifications in order to seek full time, gainful employment. I am still poor and struggling, now.
My partner of 6 years was made homeless when he was about 19, and as a result only has a brief work history prior to homelessness. (He was still on the streets when we met). He is signed up with a variety of agencies offering short term work, and regularly volunteers, to keep his work history active and show willing to potential employers. He keeps an eye open for apprenticeships that coud allow him to train and earn, or at least train for free. He searches for work daily, but still hasn't been able to get a permanent position anywhere.
We are fortunate that my wages are... whilst very small... above the UK minimum wage and just enough that, with extremely tight budgetting, we can pay rent, cover food costs if we ration and have electricity and hot water for most of a month (electric is on a meter so when we run out of money, towards the end of a month, for it we have a day or 2 of candles!). I can even afford to have an internet connection at home, so long as I go without several other luxuries. But I recently had a redundancy scare.
Because I work full time, we have no benefit entitlement. In order for us to obtain housing or council tax benefits, my partner must be receiving jobseekers allowance. He has no entitlement to an allowance so long as I remain in full time employment. My wages and his unemployment means we cannot even afford house or contents insurance, let alone put money away in savings. I could have started claiming benefits if I lost my job, but not until my redundancy package ran out and it would not be enough for us both to live. If I had been made redundant, I would have received 2.5 weeks worth of wages as my package- within a month we would have been homeless, unemployed, and hopeless.
I am safe for now, but the company I work for is having problems and there is no guarantee that in another couple of months the same thing won't happen again. I am looking for more secure work, but unemployment is so high right now that most jobs receive dozens of applicants, so the chances of my finding work elsewhere are extremely low.
I know that I may be made redundant, soon, and if that happens I will be homeless, as will my partner. Obviously, we would then sell the majority of our posessions, keeping only what was needed, but that money would probably not go far; people selling urgently have to accept low offers, and in the current climate people try to haggle even when getting a cheap deal. Once homeless, we could receive some basic benefits to keep us from dying on the streets, but not enough to get back into a normal life, and housing for people in those sort of situations has a waiting list of several years. Even then, once we have a home, work would be scarce and hard to come by.
Of course, there is also the problem that, once on various benefits, I would risk losing a massive chunk of financia assistance if I did subsequently manage to obtain more than a bare minimum number of hours of work. With a base rate of 20% tax now being paid, I could find that taking a minimum wage, part time job would leave me worse off than if I remain unemployed, as the benefits I receive drop off extremely disproportionately to my situation. Thus, I would likely become homeless again.
And, just like that, I find myself trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness, with little or no chance of escape. With extremely good fortune, I may one day be offered a vacancy in a job role like the one I am currently employed in, and may again find myself poor, but earning enough to basically live, unable to put away savings and looking desperately, constantly for an opportunity. Any opportunity to increase my wages, or find more secure work, or work with a chance of promotion, so that I can finally work my way towards a life where I can put away savings. Maybe even, if I am fortunate, have enough money spare to put some away into a pension fund, so that I don't spend my final years living off of an even tighter budget, and running the risk of freezing to death every Winter, like so many elderly and poor people do.
I am not seeking sympathy. My situation is not unusual or special, or especially tragic. In fact, I suspect that my life is a more average and common one than that of the entitled, priveleged and extremely fortunate people that mock "benefit queens" and other people in need. I would be interested to see how some of these priveleged people would cope trying to live like I do for, say, 6 months. Of course, they would never know that slow, crushing and constant pressure, that low gnawing terror that grips every time I check my bank balance, or try to take money out of my account, or need to buy groceries, during the last 10 days prior to payday. They would never know the slow, heavy resignation of not knowing how to escape, or of seeking daily, and failing to obtain, that prized path out of poverty; that £1k a year wage increase, that new job with advancement prospects, that bar offering work that my partner could do. How could they, when they would know that all the while they play their little "game" of being poor, they need only go to a bank with their fancy credit card and the whole, terrible trial will be over. They might, however, have more of an appreciation of just how little many people really live on. That appreciation of what it is like to live when meat and real toilet paper are considered luxury items.