Saturday, 29 June 2013

A response to a piece in the daily mail

An open letter to Mark Littlewood following this piece in the daily mail:

Dear Mr Littlewood

I read with interest your piece in the Daily Mail online about publishing all of the names of people on benefits, and I wanted to respond to it personally as one of those people on benefits.

I can understand your interest in finding out where the money you pay goes and who it is paid to, and so I will introduce myself:

My name is Katie, I am 31 years old and I have been claiming benefits for several years. I claim the higher rate of mobility allowance and the middle rate of care allowance for DLA because I find walking too painful and difficult and I need help with basic tasks like getting up and dressed, food preparation and a whole host of other practical things. Because of my disability I am unable to work and so also claim employment and support allowance, including extra money given to me to meet to meet the extra costs involved in my life due to the disability.

My money goes on lots of things, for example I cannot use my hands to write or type without pain and so I use speech recognition software, which I have to pay for myself, and including the headset comes in at around £200. A large part also goes on transport-fuel costs, wheelchair hire, taxis because I am unable to drive because of my disability.

So, I want to say First: thank you.

I am actually profoundly thankful to the people who pay their taxes to enable me to live my life. It is a frequent source of wonder to me that people I don't know are giving me money to a complete stranger, and not an infrequent source of guilt that I am reliant on other people, even though I know logically it is not my fault that I am ill or need to claim benefits. When I was a child and a young adult I never thought that this is where I would end up, but life is unpredictable, and I am grateful that when I became unable to support myself this state supported me.

Tax, and the benefits system, is to me a great gift, an evidence that we live in a civilised society. It is the embodiment of the concept that 'there for the grace of God go I". It is the acknowledgement that life is uncertain, and we would like others to be treated in the way that we would want to be treated in that situation, and that that situation can come about out of the blue.

People end up on benefits for all sorts of reasons - that they are disabled or are looking after a disabled relative, because they live in an  area where there is a lack of jobs, because they are single-parent with young children, because they are elderly, because they are between jobs, because they have graduated university only to find they graduate job market has shrunk.

These are just the people who entirely rely on benefits,  a large amount is also  spent on “top up benefits" the people who are working but are still unable to have enough money to live on.  [1]

I hope that other people will come forward with their names and their stories, to show you why we have come to be claiming benefits. But the thing is, most people won't, most people will be to frighten or ashamed to be honest about it.

You say that if people are ashamed they shouldn't claim benefits, but that shame doesn't come from inside them, it comes from internalising the judgements that people make about those on welfare like your assertion "that we now give payouts to people who don’t really need them – and for long periods of time".

It is also worrying to see your naïveté about people's behaviour towards benefit claimants. You say that “surely, no one needs to worry about violent retribution against claimants". But there has been a worrying increase in physical and verbal abuse towards people on benefits, especially disabled people, because people have internalized the government's judgement that we are “scroungers". I myself was verbally abused a few months ago by a stranger who told me that I was pretending to be disabled and that I was “one of those scroungers". [2]

What disturbs me in your article is not that you want to know where your money goes, or if it's being spent well, but that the assumption that at least half of its is being misspent on people who do not need or deserve. You say“ publishing the data will clearly show that we now give payouts to people who don’t really need them – and for long periods of time” Do you have any evidential basis to back up this claim?

You assume that, like the Victorians did of their poor, that a person's poverty and need to claim financial help is their own fault, that there is something that they could be doing to change their situation but they're not.

I don't normally bother arguing with people who think like you, but you have money, and you have the power to say what you think and it has become something that can influence other people.

You are a director of an economics institute and things you raise are questions of economics not of personal fault. The people you blame are just the ones most affected by the economic situation. They are the canaries in the mine, signalling there is something wrong.

Instead why not look at the genuine reasons for why there are higher levels of poverty that lead to benefit claims:

Why unemployment rates are so high in certain areas of the country, where industrialized manufacturing and mining has ended but new jobs have not been created.

The number of jobs available versus the number of people out of work: However strong an individual’s motivation to work the truth is that there are about 500,000 job vacancies, yet at least 2,500,000 people looking for work.

Why house prices have increased so much that many people cannot afford to pay the mortgage or the rent as well as their other living costs, and how the lack of social housing means that the government is having to fork out so much money in housing benefit to private landlords.

That thanks to new advances in medicine, people are living longer than they used to,  increasing the length of time people draw pensions. People who previously would have died through accident or disability are now also able to live, but are unable to support themselves, and so claim benefits.

At the real wage cuts and freezes for those who do have jobs, meaning that people who work are still below the poverty line and need to claim. Between 2008 and 2013 the minimum income standards for a family have four have risen 25%

Look at the number of job cuts and also the increasing instability of many jobs, where people are offered casual or short term contracts, leading to people having to claim job seekers allowance between jobs.