Flickr/Max G. Some rights reserved.
As I entered my third week of unemployment after being made redundant from my job as a caseworker and researcher for a former MP and after 2 visits to my local job centre I was defined as eligible for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).
My only prior experience of the job centre came in the form of helping often desperate constituents challenge sanctions and/or make complaints about job centre staff.
Now I am on the other side of the counter and the abstract concepts I used to highlight on behalf of ‘claimants’ – humiliation, shame, stigmatisation and punishment – have suddenly become very real. I can’t help but question what the function of ‘welfare’ is in Britain today. Why is it administered the way it is? What are the social and emotional dimensions of job seeking? What will my personal experience of welfare be?
Welfare reform under the Conservative-led government has been framed as restoring the balance in favour of the ‘rights’ of taxpayers, who have for too long paid for the shirkers, skivers and the welfare dependent. The ‘work must pay’ mantra! Social protection has been recast as a generous gift from ‘us’ (not me at the minute) – the government and the aspirant tax payers – to ‘them’ – the workless recipients of welfare. It seems that fairness within the politics of welfare is no longer about the rights of those in need of material goods or employment – but rather a justification for strengthening the old principle of ‘less eligibility’.
‘Less eligibility’ was a British government policy passed into law in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. It stated that conditions in workhouses had to be worse than conditions available outside so that there was deterrence to claiming ‘poor relief’. Hence, ‘less eligibility’ meant not only that the recipient of welfare received less than the very poorest labourer did from her/his wages, but also that she/he received it in such a way (in the workhouse for example) that made pauperism less respectable than work.
I am not about to compare the workhouses of the 19th century to the job centres of 21st century Britain – but there are significant parallels to be drawn between the stigmatising way in which welfare is administered and received in our job centres and the ‘poor relief’ of Victorian England.
My first day of ‘signing on’: degradation, humiliation and punishment
It’s my first official ‘signing’ day. I walk into the job centre feeling suspicious of my surroundings and welfare policy, but optimistic I would at the very least find a supportive and compassionate environment. An island of civility if you like! After being welcomed at the door, I was ushered up to a vast open plan room and seated next to fellow job seekers. A work coach then went around the room and collected our work books one-by-one. There was no explanation for what she was doing or a polite adult greeting, she simply said: “work book please”. It looked and felt like a teacher taking colouring books from a group of children – like she had been instructed to be as paternalistic as possible. It was degrading.
Bad start I thought, things will improve!
Then I see the G4S security guards plodding around the room, I immediately felt ill at ease. Questions whirred around my mind: Who and what are they securing? Are job seekers really perceived as an inherently threatening group of people?
All this got me thinking about the symbolic function of the G4S security guards and the ways in which social policy institutions securitise and shame job seekers in their daily or weekly interactions with welfare. It occurred to me that perhaps the symbolic function of G4S surveilling and monitoring perfectly calm job seekers in the job centre is to marginalise a sense of agency and reinforce a sense of moral deficit and shame within the job seeker.
Slightly raised voices then alert me to a fellow job seeker – he is in the middle of his work search review and is being interrogated. Two job coaches are standing over him and one of them is quizzing him about why he didn’t attend the previous week. This interaction is of course taking place in full public view due to the layout of the space and everyone can hear the man desperately trying to explain his reasons for not attending. He states that all his young children were really struggling with chickenpox and he contracted the virus too. His work coach challenges him:
“Have you had chickenpox before sir”?
“Yes” he replies…
“You can’t have had it again then sir! Unfortunately we can’t accept that as a ‘good reason’”…
“I promise you I was poorly! What’s the chickenpox you get when you’re an adult”…
“I think you mean shingles sir, but unfortunately we’re going to have to sanction you”...
A work coach then shouts the sanctioned man’s confidential details – name and full address – across the room to a colleague – his life now an open book from which his eligibility to welfare is determined. I was furious; I wanted to believe that local job centres functioned as supportive and protective islands within a punitive welfare system; unfortunately the lived reality on my first signing day was job centre staff publicly humiliating and punishing a fellow job seeker.
In front of my very eyes, welfare was being administered in a degrading and humiliating way. I saw unsympathetic and disbelieving work coaches’ shame a fellow job seeker by questioning his credibility and subjecting him to unnecessarily public scrutiny. And to what end? It seemed clear to me then that the concept and institutional practice of ‘less eligibility’ was alive and well in my local job centre. So whilst the Government’s analysis of Britain as marked by welfare dependency and worklessness continues to conjure up popularised notions of ‘shirkers’ and ‘skivers’ and helpless dependents – the ‘undeserving’ and ‘deserving’ – the job centres do the dirty work by creating hostile and shaming environments for all those who find they need social security.
Deserving and undeserving
That’s not to say that these environments are experienced in the same way by everyone, inevitably a person’s interaction with welfare is intersected by their class, age, gender, ethnicity and religion. And so to my first signing! It’s now around 2:15pm and after pondering the presence of G4S and witnessing a man being publicly humiliated; my job coach is ready for me. We exchange pleasantries and settle down to the nitty-gritty of signing on.
The second I tell her I used to work for an MP and have a post graduate degree… her demeanour changes from slightly suspicious and abrupt to deferential and positive. She beams:
“You’ll be absolutely fine… people like you don’t usually stay with us that long… you’re a professional and will find a job in no time”.
The difference between how I was treated and the way my fellow job seeker (the man inflicted with shingles) was interrogated and disbelieved only moments earlier, was frightening. I was a worthy professional, believed and deserving – he was a “long-term” claimant who had failed to attend his previous ‘signing’ date and had to be punished.
21st Century Paupers?
The civil servants that run job centres are not intentionally vindictive - they do not set out to shame, stigmatise and/or punish job seekers. Indeed I imagine the majority of those who work in job centres really do care and want to make a difference to people’s lives. However, we must not let the laudable intentions of those who work in job centres obscure the fact that welfare is being administered in such a way that recipients experience shame, stigma and humiliation.
As was the case for ‘paupers’ in the workhouses of Victorian England, life on welfare in 21st century Britain is made far less respectable than life as a working tax payer. Media-fuelled rhetoric about welfare dependency and ‘benefit scroungers’ combined with institutional paternalism within our job centres reinforces the notion that welfare recipients have lost the entitlement to equal social status.