“To either cut down on beer, or the kids new gear,
It’s a big decision in a town called Malice”
So sang The Jam thirty years ago, last time I was signing on.
A couple of weeks ago I overheard a guy in the queue at Beeston Co-op after a match. It wasn’t his dissatisfaction with the performance or the effort of the Leeds United players that caught my attention. It was when he said “and I bought the ticket instead of paying the gas this week”.
These are the choices people are making everyday in South Leeds.
There’s been a lot in the media this week about the realities of poverty. On Monday The Guardian covered the rise in food prices and deterioration of poorer people’s diets. Fresh fruit and vegetable prices are rising faster than other foods. People are buying less fruit and veg and looking for stodgy food to fill them up. Of course it’s a false economy, but you understand why people do it.
I read an excellent blog from a food writer who has lived on benefits for years because of disablility. She graphically explains the effect of long term poverty and the inappropriate tips that well meaning, but comfortably off, media pundits offer.
“It’s cheaper to buy a 25kg bag of rice than 25 1kg bags.” Well yes it is, but when do you get to save up enough to buy it? And where do you store it? Because if you’re single and living on benefits, you’re probably living in a bedsit or shared house.
“Shin beef is cheap and delicious if slow cooked”. True, but can you afford to run the oven for two hours? If you’ve been on benefits for any time, you won’t have a slow cooker.
It is actually grindingly difficult to manage a tiny budget year after year. But let’s blame the scroungers who try.
Wednesday’s Guardian reported on research about the language governments use to describe those of us on benefits. The report talks about a “climate of fear” where “1.8 million people have potentially been too scared to seek help they are entitled to”.
The government stirs up this mythology for its own ends. For example, by briefing that 1,360 people had been off work for a decade with diarrhoea, when in fact they had severe bowel disease and cancer.
We all know people who cheat the system, right? Really? You know this cheat first hand? It’s not someone that someone else told you about? The Government’s own statistics show that benefit fraud runs at only 3%. I’m not condoning fraud, but it’s a lot less than unpaid taxes and it receives a lot more attention.
They conjure up an image of people on benefits being out of work and probably cheating. So when they say we must cut benefits, people say fair enough. It is becoming clear that most people on benefits are actually in work. Low paid, often part time, but in work.
I’m a scrounger now. Apparently. After thirty years in paid work, I find myself unemployed and signing on every two weeks. The process is just as degrading now as it was thirty years ago, despite the carpets and comfy chairs replacing standing in line outside Eastgate dole office. It’s not the staff’s fault. They are as helpful as they can be whilst they inform us of the latest change to the rules and the new hoops we’ll have to jump through.
I just feel guilty turning up. It’s a bit like when you approach customs and feel guilty even though you haven’t brought anything you shouldn’t. And I understand that I’m entitled to help. I’ve spent thirty years arguing with people at work that national insurance is a good thing to pay, because you never when you’ll need help. But I still feel guilty.
I’m lucky, I am not living in poverty. I haven’t been out of work that long and my wife works full time. But I am aware that for more and more people, South Leeds feels like a town called Malice.