Living with Fear: Part 4 of 'Reports from the Poverty Line'

Deborah Padfield, a citizen’s advice bureau adviser, returns to report from the poverty line. In the fourth of a series of five posts, she describes the debilitating levels of insecurity under which benefits claimants, and especially those with disabilities, are often forced to live
Deborah Padfield
27 July 2011

Deborah Padfield, a citizen’s advice bureau adviser, returns to report from the poverty line. In the fourth of a series of five reports, she describes the debilitating levels of insecurity that many benefit claimants are forced to endure. Her first report describes life under the welfare system; her second contrasts the attention given to benefit fraud as versus tax avoidance and evasion; and the third examines the call to "get 'em off benefits" and how best to respond.

The people I work with live with fear or, at the least, with a continual undertow of grinding anxiety. No doubt there are quick-witted scroungers who end up doing well out of the Department of Work and Pensions, but they have skills which are far from most claimants. The people I meet live a life subject to a system whose operations are unseen, faceless and incomprehensible. They never know security. They are members of what Professor Guy Standing calls “the precariat”.

Imagine for a minute that you have a serious disability, either physical or mental. You have been assessed on paper and in person for your ability to work, in a process which is both intrusive and alienating. It is arguably not possible for a system designed for everyone to feel sensitive to anyone. A significant number of the people I see have been fucked up: first, literally by family members or carers; and then figuratively, by society’s indifference. They don’t find abrupt questioning by strange male authority figures easy to handle.

But you have “succeeded”; you have been “awarded” (anomalous word) Employment & Support Allowance. You have no idea when you will have to go through the same process again or what the outcome will be, for people you know are being re-assessed and turned down, whatever their disabilities. All around you the media and casual conversations are rancid with news and comment about cuts and changes to benefits stripping away entitlements, while you’ll almost certainly know someone (or someone who knows someone) who has been shopped by neighbours and investigated for fraud.

For anyone with an invisible disability, that’s a real added fear. One of the people with whom I work suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. She was told by the Job Centre Plus “compliance” officer investigating her that she and her friend/carer should make a joint claim, as only then would they stop being periodically “watched” by Job Centre.  

These insecurities are relentless. It is a life sentence. If you have a serious chronic disability, you have no alternative to living with it and with whatever benefit system a distant government deems fit. So far as you can see, you will always live on the edge. Such strains have recently been sufficient to drive people I know into serious relapses in their mental health including rehospitalisation, and one woman (so far) to a suicide attempt.

Purple prose? Read the letter from Mind, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and others published in the Guardian this May. Or go along to a mental health service-users’ discussion group.

This isn’t only about people with severe disabilities. Imagine now having just about enough money each fortnight to pay the gas, the electric, the rent and the food. And maybe the cigarettes and the pet insurance, because smoking and the cat are necessary aids to survival. There aren’t any savings. And imagine that the money doesn’t arrive in the bank account on Tuesday. Or Wednesday. And you ring the Job Centre helpline and you can’t get through because the lines are busy all morning. And you try again and you can’t understand the explanation. And you try again and you get a different explanation. And you try again and you get cut off.

There is quite simply no means of talking face to face to a real person. (And in any case you don’t have the bus fare to get into town.) And you don’t know what to do. Again, this isn’t a life-style choice. There is no way given the simple economics of your life that things will ever be significantly different; at best, you will rotate in and out of greater and lesser insecurity as jobs come and go and the benefit system is reformed, both work and welfare being in the grip of forces way beyond your control.

If this seems exaggerated, remember that according to the Millennium Cohort Study 2010, 30 per cent of families in Britain lived below the poverty line. Nearly 75 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children and 26 per cent of white children lived in poverty and nearly 20 per cent of seven year-olds in severe poverty. Official statistics showed in 2010 some 61 per cent of the children who live in poverty are in households where at least one adult was in employment.  Poverty is defined as below 60 per cent and severe poverty as below 50 per cent of median UK incomes after housing costs.

Remember also that with the newly-introduced flexible tenancies, social landlords can now join private landlords in a norm of short fixed-term tenancies which – subject to human rights challenge – can end without reason being given. (See this Inside Housing article). Social housing for new tenants is in any case only available to those in priority need.

These flexible tenancies, like many in the private sector, give no right to decorate: a detail, but there is something poignant about the reality of people with little hope, ever, of being able to decorate their own homes. But the more serious reality is of people always unable to be sure where they will be living in two years’ time. Local authorities’ homelessness duty to those satisfying the stringent five tests (homelessness, immigration status, priority need, “intentional” homelessness, local connection) can now be satisfied with the offer of a two-year private rental anywhere in the country. Refusal to accept without adequate reason – as assessed by the local authority itself, though appealable by those with the personal resources to do so – can end any further public responsibility.

For people partly or wholly dependent on welfare benefits, there could be few longings greater than for a job which is predictable from week to week; which pays enough to cover travel to and from home, child-care and rent while saving a bit for shoes and for when the cooker breaks down; and which gives some companionship, status and structure. For people with a chronic health condition,  the dream also depends on an employer and colleagues able and willing to work with the often unpredictable realities of managing disability. For most, it remains a dream.

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