300,000 people have had their benefits suddenly stopped by sanctions in the last 12 months, many of whom have been plunged into poverty, unable to heat their homes or even eat.
On today’s National Day of Action Against Sanctions, Ruth Patrick highlights the reality of welfare reform as laid out in her new book, For Whose Benefit? The truth is that our punitive welfare reform agenda leaves people further away rather than closer to the paid labour market.
While Cameron and Osborne may no longer be in charge, their welfare reform agenda continues apace. This month sees the implementation of another wave of reforms, which will further weaken Britain’s social security system.
Over recent years, politicians have robustly defended successive rounds of welfare reform. They argue that reform is needed to end supposed cultures of ‘welfare dependency’ and prevent people from being able to ‘choose’ benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. In making their case, politicians draw upon simplistic but powerful demarcations between ‘hard working families’ and ‘welfare dependants’, and suggest that welfare reform will help those on out-of-work benefits join the ranks of the hard working majority.
“Our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right. Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.”
But does Cameron’s moral case stand up? And has welfare reform actually helped people make transitions from ‘welfare’ and into work?
Over the past six years, I have been researching experiences of welfare reform: walking alongside a small group of individuals as they anticipated, experienced and reflected upon changes to their benefits. By returning to the same people several times, I was able to contrast their expectations with what subsequently happened, and to unpick individual journeys through the benefit system against a context of far-reaching welfare state retrenchment.
The single parents, disabled people and young job seekers I spoke to did not recognise the idea of benefits as a lifestyle choice. Their lived experiences contrasted markedly with the popular stereotypes so often peddled by politicians and replicated and reproduced in the media. What they instead showed was the hard ‘work’ that getting by on benefits demands, and the ways in which welfare reform simply added an additional burden to their already difficult lives.
One of the individuals I interviewed was Adrian, a young job seeker and care leaver who had a history of offending. Adrian had never worked, but expressed strong aspirations to find employment, aspirations that endured over time despite repeated setbacks. Challenging the popular narrative of ‘inactive’ claimants, Adrian volunteered at a local homeless hostel, enjoying the chance to ‘give something back’ and provide support that he himself had once benefited from.
At the time of our first interview, back in 2011, Adrian was on a benefits sanction for failing to apply for a job after a misunderstanding between himself and his Job Centre Plus adviser. Over the following five years, he was subject to repeated sanctions, and these often seemed to be due to poor communication, confusing directions as well – on occasions – as Adrian’s failure to turn up for appointments on time or when unwell.
For Adrian, sanctions meant immediate and extreme hardship, and indirectly led to his becoming homeless when he was unable to pay back rental arrears. To survive, Adrian turned to foodbanks and was also caught shoplifting sandwiches for which he received a fine which he was unable to pay because of his sanctions.
While Adrian continued to seek work, he felt the sanctions made this more difficult:
“You’d ring them [employers] up and they’d say “oh, come down, we’ll go for an interview”. You’d go for an interview and if it’s a point where you’re being sanctioned, you’re all…skinny and everything, you look proper ill. They look at you and go “nah, you look like a crackhead or something.”
When I spoke to Adrian last year, he explained the impact sanctions had on his work-search and mental health:
“[I go to the work programme] more or less every week….Just talk about looking for work, and then they’d put me on some mock interview and [I’d] never get through. They did say why, they said [poor] eye contact, which were pretty good. Cos I don’t make eye contact after the sanctions and that, I became very unsociable, didn’t want to trust…now it’s just lasted, made me unsociable with people and that, made me feel down…”
Adrian has been ill-served by a punitive welfare reform agenda that is grounded in a baseless rhetoric that suggests that individuals require ‘tough’ measures if they are to be activated off benefits and into employment. Over five years, repeated sanctions left him destitute and – ironically – further away rather than closer to the paid labour market. What Adrian needed – but what was notably absent – was targeted and effective support.
Any further changes to the social security system should start with a complete rethinking of the assumptions that currently underpin ‘welfare reform’. Unpicking these assumptions requires a recognition of the lived experiences of poverty and out-of-work benefits receipt, experiences that expose the weakness of David Cameron’s moral case for welfare reform.
For Whose Benefit? The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform by Ruth Patrick is out on 12 April 2017. Order your copy for £19.99 here.
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