Thats what this government and its disciples tells you when you are in a bad place. When you are unemployed after a long and successful career and have worked hard for everything you have, even though to some it is not much at all. If you don’t find a job within a few weeks or months after being laid off, whatever the reason, you clearly aren’t trying hard enough.
Then you have to sign on when the money runs out and the fun really begins. Because you are claiming benefits you are now a ‘scrounger’ despite the fact you have never claimed benefits in your life. You cant afford even basic things like keeping the lights on or heating your house. Buying a loaf of bread becomes an exercise in staring at the shelf hoping that the price will change magically before your eyes. You are short by 3p for the aforementioned loaf and you are too ashamed to ask the man behind the counter to let you off the tiny amount that now seems the size of a mortgage and is between you and a meal for 3 or 4 days.
You are probably reading this from your desk at work, or your sofa at home on a day off and thinking “this doesn’t happen, its a myth designed for a good read” Well, dear readers it isnt a myth and I’ll you why. It happened to me.
Ten months ago i was made redundant from a job i loved and had been in for over 5 years. The world fell from under my feet and I found myself at home applying for benefits as well as jobs for the first time in my life. That in itself was a task i never wish to repeat. Forms and forms and forms that never seemed to end asking the most personal of details all designed to get you ‘help’ when you need it the most. No wonder the most vulnerable in society struggle to get help when they need it if they have to go through that quagmire of forms. Its an eye opener that you half wish everyone had to go through at least once to see what it is really like while on the other hand hoping no one ever has to endure it. The perfect conundrum.
With the help of my local Conservative councillor i got mine sorted fairly quickly and was able to get on with the main task of looking for a job knowing that for the time being at least, my roof over my head was safe. Ah yes, job hunting. How that has changed from the days when we circled a job in the paper and phoned about a vacancy. Now its cold recruitment agencies who often advertise jobs that don’t even exist. For the real jobs I had a hit rate of about 1 in 30 in terms of a response rate to the advert in the first place. By response I meant a real person emailing me back to say that I was being considered. Most of the time you hear nothing at all or just a courtesy stock email saying either “your application is in progress” or “sorry, other candidates more closely matched the profile”. It’s cold and impersonal and adds to the ever growing sense of isolation you start to feel as the days and weeks turn into months.
The bi-weekly humiliation of signing on at the local job centre interspersed with the occasional meeting with an ‘advisor’ is a whole new level of abuse and angst. The first person you see at the JC is the security guard. In my case these were odious unpleasant men with no interpersonal skills whatsoever. I was banned from taking my coffee into the JC as it was a health risk, my electronic cigarette is a fire risk despite it not being alight and when I saw someone who had threatened me previously and asked for somewhere else to sit I was told to go and hide around the corner of the street. Don’t even think about challenging them when something goes wrong either. My benefits were stopped because my adviser incorrectly told me that I did not need to reapply for them after 6 months of claiming. As a result my housing and council tax benefit stopped as well as my job seekers allowance. I was left destitute and had to be referred, by a friend, to a food bank in order to survive. When i was left standing in tears at the job centre the security guard threatened to throw me out because I was ‘causing a disturbance’. I was standing stock still in shock crying yet this was deemed a threat and they didn’t want it on their doorstep. Only a kind person on the DWP phone line saved me and sorted it out some weeks later. Those weeks were the hardest I have ever had to live through. I went for days without food an drank only water or left over juice. Friends ultimately sent me food parcels when I finally admitted how bad it was. The shame was something I never want to experience ever again
But lets also talk about how the Job Centre refuse to help you find work which surely is there primary purpose? They set parameters for you to seek work and off you go. FOr a while at least. Sure, they will tolerate you looking for a similar job to your old one for about 3 months, but then they get bored of you coming in to see them and they change the goal posts. You have to apply for everything that is available. And i mean everything. They demand that you apply for shop work despite being so vastly over qualified that you don’t even get past the initial recruitment stage. If you dont get interviews they demand to know why. They accuse you of not looking hard enough for work. If you present them with a spreadsheet with over 30 job applications a day, they accuse you of lying about your search saying ‘no one applies for that many jobs a day’. Well I did and I refused to give up hope. They then sent me to Work Programme.
Oh yes, the dear old work programme we hear so much about. I was referred to them after only 3 months of unemployment. I was hopeful that they would be able to help me get back into work a lot faster as they had experience of the job market in its more recent form than i did. How wrong I was and so easily deceived. My first day with them was as debilitating as going to the Job Centre. I was sat in a room with others being given a lecture about personal hygiene after filling in 28 different forms. Yes 28 forms. I took photos of them all on my phone to prove it and tweeted them. Most of the information asked for was repeated on each form and it was akin to be stuck in Dante’s 7th circle of hell answering the same questions one by one. I amused myself by numbering each form and when a repeat question came up put a note saying ‘refer to form xx for details’ in order to stop the brain rot. After a meeting with an ‘advisor’ who admitted within 10 minutes of my sitting down that “we are not geared up to help highly skilled people like yourself” i left the building feeling even more despondent than before. I did not hear from the Work Programme again for another 3 months. They asked me to go in for ‘tea and biscuits’. Now I knew what being parked felt like.
You’d think that being unemployed and having so much time on your hands would be great. You can go out and do lots of other stuff when not searching for jobs right? WRONG. You cant for two reasons. 1) If you do the Work Programme phone you up and demand to know why you aren’t looking for work. They phoned me at 7.45 one evening when i was at a football match demanding to know why i wasn’t looking for work. Apparently you have no social life when you are unemployed are aren’t entitled to one. 2) The job centre tells you you have to be available to work 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm non negotiable. Anything less and you will be sanctioned. I subsequently found out that this was wrong and I should not have been told this but it still didn’t stop me panicking and looking over my shoulder every time i left the house which wasn’t often as i was too scared.
Then there is the reaction from other people to your situation. Don’t be fooled folks. When you are working you are a valued member of society like anyone else, but when you lose your job you are relegated to the ranks of 3rd class citizen or less. You are put in the same bracket as those painted as scum of the earth by the right wing press of the Daily Mail and regular people look down their noses at you. You also find out who your real friends are. I used to visit my local shop across the road. Initially sympathetic to my being made redundant, as time went on, he became increasingly hostile to my not being able to find work. The ‘good morning, how are you?’ was replaced with a curt ‘have you found a job yet?’. I would shuffle away feeling worthless and try not to cry. Others did the same compounded my worthlessness. Faceless people in the internet who I had never met spent hours of their own free time calling me feckless, a scrounger, benefit cheat, lazy and all manner of insults. Apparently you should take any job offered despite the fact that its salary may not pay your bills or enable you to buy food. You should not spend you benefit money on a bar of chocolate but worst of all you should not spend ‘their’ money on anything that they disagree with. Their money.
The Daily Mail myth about unemployed folks is alive and well and rampant. People assume that ‘it is better to be working than not’ but that simply isn’t the case. One local LibDem Councillor where i live said this to me. I explained that as a single person living alone I could not afford to take a low paid job, pay my bills and eat all at the same time. She just couldn’t see what I was saying to her. Being alone makes it ten times harder when you are the sole bread winner in the house and get the absolute basic benefits to survive on. Having kids and being a single mother would have made me better off! So to compound the issue of feeling worthless because you don’t have a job, you also feel like you’ve failed in society because you are single and have no kids. Its a no win situation designed to make you feel your absolute worst.
My life went on in this revolving door of abuse, humiliation and poverty for just over 10 months before I got lucky. I have in the past week landed the job of my life. It has given me a huge salary increase on my previous role and my first real chance to live without worry about my bills for years, but it has also given me something else. The opportunity to try and make sure that no one else has to go through what I did for 10 months. When I am financially settled again, I am going to give a monthly amount to local food banks and other charities helping those in need so that they can help people who need it the most. I refuse to stand by and see others treated in this way in the 21st century. We are supposed to be social creatures yet I have seen the worst in humanity in the last 10 months. I have seen such awful acts of selfishness as to make me despair yet I have also seen amazing acts of kindness. People who sent me a small cheque to buy food, people who sent money for petrol so I could get to interviews, people who sent food for me and for Lilah, people who paid for my car each month so I did not lose it, people who helped me pay my gas bill so i could keep warm over winter. Yes I had some amazing help and without them I would be dead right now. Thats not an exaggeration at all but a simple statement of fact. When I lay under my 4 blankets at 3am wondering if things were ever going to change and simply staring at the ceiling, those people kept me going and alive. Those who were supposed to care like my family were nowhere to be found but that says so much to me that it is the final validation I needed that i made the right choice in leaving them behind. I found out who my real friends are and they are so precious to me that words here cannot even begin to explain how much I love them and respect them for being human beings.
So my final paragraph of this long and rambling missive is dedicated to the following people. Chris, Julie, David, Carole, Serena, Jiggly, Martin, Aylesbury – all of you were and are the shining lights in my world. Thank you.
ps – if you are unemployed and think this is never going to end, please take some heart from this post. It will get better I promise you. It might take longer than you thought but it will get better. Trust me on this. I lived it and came out the other side.