It’s interesting to me to listen to the round of benefits debate that surrounds the Conservative Party conference. Particularly because there are such set narratives on “benefit culture”.
I have in my life seen multiple aspects of the benefit culture and there is a semblance of truth in many of the narratives, but they seek to minimise the complexity of the issues.
So, a bit of disclosure. Benefits pervaded my formative years, my father left my mother when I was six months old – they were married and had set out to be a typical suburban family, but it didn’t work out. As my father sought to avoid paying any reasonable level of maintenance, my mother was left with a house she could not afford and little chance of returning to work in the immediate future, she had given up her job to look after me whilst I was young and my father was to be the main earner until I went to school, this didn’t work out.
We were soon moved into a council house when eventually the owned house had to be sold, these were the days where single parent’s were not given much support and in my early years my mum claimed benefits for a while, but it was a pittance and we struggled to cover the basics. We learnt not to want for much, but thankfully this was not a world then when you were bombarded with advertising and marketing pointing out what you didn’t have. That would come later.
I started school and had free school meals, it was a badge amongst other children , other parents and the teachers that you came from “a broken home” – this was to be a phrase I would hear throughout my formative years, I didn’t understand it – my home wasn’t broken, yes it had some damp issues but far from a broken. Other monikers I heard were “wrong side of the tracks” and “he’s single parent family”. Throughout my schooling everybody had an expectation that I would be a bad kid because of the cultural perception that was given to me. It even seemed to annoy some when I outperformed some of the “better raised kids”.
Once I was in school my mum returned to work, she actively lost out as her income was less than she could receive on benefits, it was a struggle and if it weren’t for an amazing neighbour friend who helped out with childcare it would have bankrupt her, but she saw the long term gain if she worked hard. She also had an amazing and understanding boss who gave flexibility and understanding a long time before flexible working was ever invented. If it were not for these people my mother would have been destined to benefits for a long time. She did well at work and moved up the ladder quickly, because she is bright. I suppose her boss and neighbour must be what David Cameron alludes to as The Big Society, I’m not sure though.
Through her company there was a scheme to give sponsorship to children to go to private school and I was eligible, I had to sit the equivalent of the 11 plus to qualify and I passed.
I went to the school for a week, but the years of being told in education that I was a lesser being and the equal attitude of the other students towards “broken home” children, I knew this was no place for me. I wanted to go to a standard comprehensive. Also I could not handle an all boy’s school having been raised and surrounded solely by women, I simply didn’t really get masculinity and had no social cues to integrate, and all my friends at school had been girls.
Once again at my comprehensive I met the same issues of negative reinforcement about “single parent families” and “broken homes” and I was put in a form room with other children “the same as me”, it was a form of segregation to ensure the higher achievers weren’t disrupted by unruly children, even though I had never been unruly in my life. There were a large number of unruly children that I was suddenly surrounded by, I learnt to quickly fit in or run the risk of being picked on – I soon learnt to be the class clown, make them laugh and they’ll leave you alone and the best source of comedic inspiration was always the teacher, this got the biggest laughs.
There were subjects I enjoyed and tried to engage in, but my profile was rapidly becoming one of troublemaker, I was accused of lying when I said in an English class how much I had enjoyed seeing an RSC production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. So I disengaged, my results were poor and I had to retake most of my GCSE’s therefore instantly becoming a year behind my peers.
I got through that re-take year purely because I didn’t have to be at school much as it wasn’t a full curriculum that I had to re-take. In the spare time though I started hanging around where other youths who were not in further education hang out. Whilst I have never broken the law myself, I learnt lots of ways to do so in this second string to my education. There were aspects of that part of my life that had elements of Larry Clark’s Kids and HBO’s The Wire, but I learnt how smart most of these people were too, they were disenfranchised for all the same reasons as me and were all very able and very smart, but life had put a narrative on them too and they didn’t have some of the moral guidance that I had been lucky enough to have. I didn’t want that life though, no matter how exciting at times it could appear.
I went back to college to study A-Levels, around this time the country was going through a major recession and my mother’s company was taken over and wound down, making everyone in the company redundant with immediate effect and with minimal remuneration. My mother’s income had been decimated overnight and there was serious concern as to how we would personally not go bankrupt. Thanks to my street level education I was able to work out that my mother would get little or no support for me as a dependant living under her roof and I would be a drain on the family income etc. However, if I moved out whilst in education I could claim housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance if my studying was under a certain amount of hours per week. I was learning how to game the system to all our benefits, so that’s what I did, I moved in with others that were gaming the system too. This is how I kept myself in education, otherwise I would have had to give up and find full time employment in order to pay my way. In that year I was privy to lots of ways to game the system from other well seasoned benefit cheats. I could have supplemented my benefits by cash in hand work from unscrupulous employers, there were plenty about from flower stalls, labourer work and a number of small fast food outlets? I only ever occasionally did this type of work to cover for my other benefit cheat friends when they had a back to work scheme etc to attend, being in part time education a number of hours a week held me back from engaging further, but I could see how enticing it was to earn a few hundred quid a week on top of benefits to live a lifestyle beyond pure survival. Others chose to supplement their income with even easier methods, dealing drugs and theft to order for fencing operations, I saw firsthand how easy it was to slip down that slope, luckily it spurned me on in education as I did not want that life for me, though there was no mechanism or support structure to help or aid that, lecturers didn’t care that I was struggling to stay awake in lessons or stay focussed due to the fact there had been a fight in my lounge the night before over someone trying to rip someone off over a drug deal or that I had been up all night because I had taken an overdose victim to hospital. I was lying to myself and to my family that everything was okay and that I wasn’t at risk in anyway.
I eventually snapped, a night that ended in me shouting at my household over some minor infraction and being threatened with a knife, I backed down and packed my belongings that night and returned home the next morning, I was a few months from completing my A-levels and my mum had a job that was covering the overheads, it took a most of those months for the benefits office to withdraw my benefits and I wasn’t going to bring to their attention my change in circumstance. Once on benefits it’s actually quite hard to get you off them.
I passed the A-Levels, though without great results, but enough to aid me getting an office job for an okay salary in the local finance industry, I’d earn enough to pay my way and keep my head afloat legally and safely. This was a huge achievement for me given what I had been staring at. My past life was not going to let go easily though, I was intimidated socially whenever I saw any of the people I used to frequent with and had my well being threatened numerous times, including a group of them trying to kick my family door in whilst dressed in balaclavas. I don’t know why, but when you leave that world, it doesn’t want to let go of you, I’m not sure if it’s because you pose a risk in terms of what you know or whether it’s the camaraderie between criminals, that when you turn your back on it you are being disloyal. It’s a story that has been played out in cinema and literature for decades and many aspects ring true for me.
Systematically over the course of education and this social scene I had believed that I had nothing to offer life and that my dreams, aspirations and talents were unobtainable, I had always wanted to be involved in media since being a child actor once in a BBC dramatisation, I felt alive in that environment, not just the acting, but the whole process. I wanted to know how films and TV programmes were put together, what a camera did, how was it cut together etc. I had always been told it was impossible and too difficult to achieve, especially someone like me, whatever that meant.
Through the office job, I started to re-discover my confidence and abilities that had application other than just pure creativity in a classroom. I sought out the internal video production department and asked to shadow them and pick their brains, I realised there were multiple applications of media production other than big BBC drama or film. I realised that my outlook to seek different ways of doing things was actually a rarity and had a boss that encouraged me make suggestions, run presentations and aid marketing ideas. I started to re-connect with who I was and what made me happy and gradually I realised that just working my way up the corporate ladder was not for me, I still had avenues to explore and another colleague asked me why I didn’t go to university or do a course in media production. I thought this avenue was dead to me, I hadn’t excelled at GCSE or A-Level, therefore surely I wasn’t good enough to get to University, and didn’t you need amazing grades to achieve that?
I found a brilliant course that was a vocationally focussed degree, it was the first time a course like it had been run at degree level, the entrance criteria was based on your passion and pitch for why you should be there rather than pure academics. I decided to go for broke and apply; making a short film on a broken video camera I borrowed from a friend. I studied extensively the physics of television and the engineering to aid the entrance exam which covered the technical aspects.
Shortly after I was accepted for a place and awarded a maintenance grant to aid my living whilst at college, given the practical nature of the course it took place over two years intensively, the principle being that it would be like working in industry, but in a rubber roomed environment. Once again I was one of the few that weren’t being supported financially by parents, so it was a hand to mouth existence at times, but I put my all into it so I would never go back.
I graduated successfully with a 1st degree and some TV credits through work experience; I also had footage for a documentary that I would eventually complete for broadcast on Channel 4 some years later. My tutor recommended me for a job that lead to me line producing a feature film with key players at Disney that opened other avenues; with each step I put my background further away from me. Nobody made an issue of my academic credentials or coming from a single parent family or living off benefits. It wasn’t all plain sailing, there were times in my early career where the work was thin on the ground and I thought I would have to claim benefits again, I always managed to find other temporary employment to cover the gaps, ironically one job was working in the housing benefits office in Islington where I was on the other side of the desk and got to see the institutionalised waste and lack of care within the civil service for the people they support. I was once so frustrated with the lack of caring in the council department I went round an old lady’s house out of hours to fix a window that was stuck ajar. It was against the rules, but we seemed to just follow the rules without ever achieving anything. I worked out how the outsourced maintenance contracts had the potential of over a million pounds worth of systemic fraud that everyone acknowledged, but nobody was going to do anything about it.
What does this little autobiography have to do with the narrative being played out about benefits culture? Well I think it’s more complex than is laid out, the narrative works on the assumption that all people are out to cheat the system and are undeserving, this is not true. Nor is it true that benefits purely provide for those that need welfare through difficult times in their life.
As stated there are multiple points I touched the system and was failed by the other systems around benefits. In the UK today and then, we have set things out to create vast swathes of inequality, aspects of my education worked against me, partly down to cultural stereotypes and archetypes about children from single parent families/ council housing or economic deprivation. If you look at stats in Ofsted’s RAISE online, there is a quite clear linkage between free school meals and educational attainment – why is that? Working in education I still some of the old fallacies played out, governance tends to be the playground of middle class volunteer parents that seldom have any understanding or experience of this inequality, therefore stereotypes continue in the language of the disenfranchised. It cannot be true that all children from stable economic backgrounds are genetically more able and “bright” and therefore achieve statistically more, yet the stats would let you think that.
Additionally we believe the narrative that vast swathes of people on benefits are gaming the system for their own benefit and cheating the meritocracy that we believe exists for all that put effort in, yet the system is actively gamed against those on it, preventative of enabling people to get off the system and thus breeds the culture of gaming it, surrounded by exploitative employers ready to take advantage of that or equally criminals and their own workforce requirements of street dealers and thieves. This is then added to by outsourced private providers of public services that take advantage of the system to their own commercial benefit, unchecked and under contracts that are undisputable due to the machine of public service – reigning in one of these providers could be worth hundreds of individual benefit cheats, but you won’t see that in a headline to soon.
The other benefit cheats we hear nothing about are the tax avoiders, particularly the large corporations that are being given big tax break allowances, if Vodafone had to pay their tax liability in full it would add another £6billion to that deficit, you need to catch a lot of benefit cheats to make up that amount, yet that’s what we are focussing our attention on. We’re thinking so small on this issue.
We are broken Britain, but not because of the reasons that have been given, we broke when we decided in the 80’s to create a culture of individualism that bred a status orientated and overly consumerist society, we focused on targets to the detriment of a wider perspective of value.
Cameron has something in his Big Society idea, there is a need to re-connect to community focus and egalitarian principles, but it’s flawed on thinking it should be a volunteer workforce. You can’t undo the damage done that easily, we’ll have to do it gradually and probably by the same methods that got us here, just in the opposite direction. Probably by incentivising through personal gain, but let’s game the system to the benefit of society this time.