Is COVID-19 the end of Benefits snobbery?
Updated: May 10, 2020
What do you think of when you hear the word 'Benefits'?
Benefits. 'A payment made by the state or an insurance scheme to someone entitled to receive it.'
Benefits - a word that has a simple, positive meaning, is loaded with hate, derision and superiority. No matter the inequality in this country, no matter how shitty a hand the most vulnerable in our society are dealt, the narrative around the welfare state is one of greed, of unentitlement and of 'scrounging'. People on benefits are lazy, no good slobs who can't be bothered to go to work, who rampantly reproduce to access the boons of child benefits. People who wash up on our shores in rubber dinghies loaded with their living and dead peers came here for our free money. You know the drill - just picture the front page of the Daily Mail.
You would think that all you had to do to be handed this boundless 'free' money is wander into your local job centre and hold out your hand without so much as a please. Except, for anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of the welfare state, first-class, premium benefits experience, it goes without saying that's hogwash. Ask anyone with a mental illness who's waited in a dreary waiting room that stinks of injustice, who's sat with their sick anxious stomach on a sofa that's apparently made of concrete, who's heard the first 63 seconds of Vivaldi's Spring on a loop for interminable hours to be told, some years later, that the agents are too busy and promptly hung up on. Ask the computer illiterate people who've tried to log into the Government Gateway with half a code on a piece of paper, a quarter of it saved in the cloud, some of it only remembered by singing the first five verses of Good King Wenceslas and decoding an acronym of the first letter of each line. Ask those people. I'm pretty sure nobody's doing it for the fun.
Furlough payments on the Government Job Retention scheme are a benefit of the welfare state. And for the disabled people who have been waiting six months for a PIP payment, and they don't have a freezer because they can't afford one and the supermarket is too risky because they're classed as highly vulnerable, for the people who died after being declared fit to work and having their benefits stopped, the Furlough scheme is abject evidence that if you are middle class and work a non-essential job and happen to actively contibute to the oiling of the senseless, ruthless, ravenous cogs of the capitalist machine you have a higher implicit value to the Government than them.
Furlough payments are benefits. If you are receiving Furlough payments you are on benefits. You may not have had to sign on, you may not have had to lift a finger but lets make it extremely clear that the money you are living on is a Welfare Benefit awarded to you because at the present time you have no recourse to earn an income and therefore have been forced to rely on the welfare state.
Now, consider the social narrative around the people who RELY ON BENEFITS BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO RECOURSE TO EARN AN INCOME AND THEREFORE HAVE BEEN FORCED TO RELY ON THE WELFARE STATE.
And consider this, too. We are entering a cataclysmic recession that will impact our lives for a generation. It's nobody's* fault (*It's a little bit the government's fault). But we're going to be facing the consequence of two things for the forseeable future. The first is the grinding to a halt of the economy, which if you share any of my political leanings you might see, in another world, as quite cool - except it's not because in order for that to happen we've had to sacrifice the lives of quarter of a million people.
The second is more complex. There isn't a magic money tree. They're not wrong about that. So the Furlough scheme has so far cost the Government around 8 billion. And OK, it's not your fault you were put on Furlough, I know that. I know you have rent to pay and bills to keep on top of and a car to insure, so I know you needed the money and in no world would I wish any other outcome to this hideous situation than that the people of the country were adequately cared for. However, the implications of this are yet to be seen but potentially catastrophic. While the Government skip along bailing out airlines and slimy billionaires who deserve to be dissolved in vats of acid, slowly, as they're forced to watch their wealth be redistributed among the poor, it is once again the poorest people who will feel the ongoing effects of this the most keenly.
Of course you remember Austerity, people are still dying because of it (people are dying of COVID-19 because of it, too). The people hardest hit by austerity are not the people who have non-essential well paid jobs who are at home because they're on furlough but still being paid up to £2500 per month. Nope. The people worst affected by austerity are the people who are putting their lives on the line to go to their essential jobs and STILL earning less than the average monthly Furlough payment. They're the people who aren't getting Furlough because the only work they could find was dodgy cash in hand work that's disappeared and whipped away their safety net, whose ability to save for crisis is negligible and whose only way of feeding their children was the free school meals that have now stopped. They're the people who are, indirectly, paying your Furlough benefits - and the inevitable tightening of public purse strings will affect them most when this phase of the COVID crisis is over.
So take a minute to think about how you perceive people on benefits - any why you think those things. The media is powerful and we need to undermine it. I hope we take this time to, among one thousand other things, dismantle and reconstruct societal attitudes to vulnerable people forced to rely on the state (and remember their government gateway passcodes).
I don't know if this is the end of benefits snobbery, but it had bloody better be.