The system's chaotic flaws are inbuilt, both to make it intensely difficult to claim, and incredibly difficult to continue to claim once you’re in receipt of benefitsby Dawn Foster / August 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
A few days before the general election earlier this year, I sat in a south London food bank, as people collecting food parcels told me what had brought them there. Over cups of tea, the strangers told me how getting by was a full-time job, and the slightest bureaucratic blip or whim of Jobcentre staff thrust them into destitution. Some had kids and partners, some were single; some disabled or unemployed; some in work; some were in tears, while others were barely concealing their anger. All were struggling to cover their meagre costs of living and spent hours a week trying to right errors in their benefit claims, appeal sanctions and even find out what they were entitled to.
A few weeks later, a young woman emailed me to tell me upon having a baby, she and her partner found their Universal Credit had been stopped. On giving birth, she’d attempted repeatedly to call the Universal Credit hotline to report her change in circumstances, each time receiving no answer. When she finally managed to make contact, she was chided for her tardiness despite reporting having spent hours on hold unsuccessfully, and had all benefits stopped for six weeks while a new claim was processed. With a newborn baby, no money for food or electricity and now the fear of eviction as the prospect of a month and half with no rent loomed, she was understandably desperate. They’d been to the food bank, but were told they could only issue one parcel every three months.
Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee this week warned that these situations were alarmingly common—and a deliberate function of the Universal Credit system. For these people, the benefits system isn’t failing them: it’s working exactly as it’s intended to. The bureaucratic chaos is inbuilt, both to make it intensely difficult to claim, and incredibly difficult to continue to claim once you’re in receipt of benefits. Supporters of the Conservatives’ welfare reform argue that this makes perfect moral sense: benefits should be difficult to obtain, and work should be the route out of poverty, not handouts.
This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of benefits: simply looking at who claims should reveal this disconnect between ideology and reality. More households in poverty are in work than out of work, and rely on housing benefit and tax credits to support their income and make it liveable. Many people in receipt of disability benefits have degenerative or unchangeable disabilities and are unlikely to find their circumstances alter enough to find enough work to lift them entirely out of benefits. And most claimants are not in long-term unemployment: they’re out of work due to illness, a change in circumstances or because of the increasing precocity of the workplace.
Those claiming benefits simply want a social safety net: instead, they’re subject to an impenetrable system that both impoverishes them and demands huge amounts of time and energy purely to gain access to basic entitlements. After a talk earlier this month, Chris, a man in his 30s who’d been out of work for three months after the company he worked for went bust, showed me the diary he tracked his job hunting in.
Each week, he showed staff in the Jobcentre how much time he spent job hunting: alongside the job titles and time spent applying, he tracked how long he spent on the phone or in person attempting to put right his benefits. Since being given a job offer, all his benefits had stopped, despite the fact the job didn’t begin for three weeks, and he would have no income until his first pay check a month after his start date. Instead, he was spending his days topping up mobile phone credit to beg indifferent call centre staff to reinstate his benefits and offer him a paltry loan to cover the cost of travel to his new job until he could support himself.
The mental stress and financial destitution led him to wonder if it hadn’t been more trouble than it was worth to do precisely what government ministers had advised those struggling to do: work their way out of poverty.
A perverse double standard exists for the rich and poor: after the financial crisis, we were told bankers’ bonuses and exorbitant pay packets were crucial to ensure their performance. For the poor, we starve them to encourage them into work. Forcing people to mire themselves in this labyrinthine system purely to feed themselves and secure shelter isn’t just cruel but counterintuitive, taking away time that could be devoted to jobhunting, and causing greater financial stress on health and local services than is saved. A civilised society should have a functioning social safety net, not a bureaucratic hellscape that sends people destitute and hungry to the doors of a food bank with their children.