for whose benefit

For Whose Benefit? shows how the hard-won rights to social security have become stigmatised through a series of in-depth interviews, finds Jacqueline Mulhallen


Ruth Patrick, For Whose Benefit? The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform (Policy Press 2017), xiv, 255pp.

Ruth Patrick’s study, For Whose Benefit?, illustrates the effect that the changes in the rules about entitlement to out of work benefits and the attitude towards those who receive them have had on people who are often desperately in need and frequently ill or disabled. Benefit is no longer an appropriate term for what these people now receive, and the application of the present rules are an outcome of an ideological war upon the poor which has its roots in the nineteenth century and was thought to have been abolished by the 1948 National Assistance Act.

The right of social security

During the 40s, 50s and 60s, there was a general perception among working people that if you had lost your job you were entitled to unemployment benefit. That was for what you paid your National Insurance. Working people paid into a national insurance scheme which gave everyone an income when they were ill, retired or out of work. If anyone was unable to work because of ill health or disability that was no fault of their own. No one called them ‘scroungers’ or suggested that they ‘sponged off the state’. After all, these misfortunes could happen to anyone. It was not considered shameful, but a right and no one wanted ‘a return to the 1930s’, when factories closed, and families starved and were humiliated by the means test when claiming relief. This general attitude of workers at the time was articulated by T.H. Marshall who, writing on social rights including economic welfare and security, said there should be a right to ‘a modicum of economic welfare and security’ which meant that those who had lost their jobs should be entitled to a provision of benefit. ‘His model was inevitably bound up in the emergence of the welfare state’ (p.20).

In the immediate post-World-War-Two years long-term unemployment was rare. There were lots of jobs around. Even as late as the 1970s, when it became more difficult to find work, particularly for the young, it was acknowledged that unemployment was a misfortune for which help was deserved. There was no stigma attached to working on one of the ‘job creation’ schemes. But, as Patrick explains in the introduction, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Tory and Blairite governments since then to change the attitude towards the unemployed who are in receipt of ‘benefits’. It has taken a number of changes in language to make this acceptable to working people. Marshall’s model has been so undermined thatthose who are receiving benefits are now demonized to the point of becoming second-class citizens and unable to make those choices about their work and lifestyle to which they should have a right.

Whereas the belief of workers of the immediate post-war generation was that joblessness was accidental, the present attitude has increasingly become that those on benefits have ‘chosen’ to live as they do, and that they do not want to work. This attitude was articulated by David Cameron in 2011 when he spoke about ‘a benefit culture’ which ‘encourages … people to act irresponsibly … trapped in a fog of dependency’ (p.1). As Patrick shows, this attitude towards those on benefit has become so strong that it is accepted even by some of the interviewees in her study, despite their knowledge of their own circumstances.

The myth of ‘benefit culture’

Patrick’s study, however, gives ample evidence through the interviews that this is not true for any of her subjects. For one thing, the receipt of benefits is not as clear-cut as Cameron implies. Pensions, tax relief, childcare, travel expenses, are all forms of fiscal welfare which those in work receive. The unemployed, on the other hand, are made to feel they are not entitled to the form of benefit which they receive, i.e. a basic subsistence allowance, because they are not working. Yet almost all of those in Patrick’s study were actively seeking work and the minority who were not had plans to do so when they had recovered their health or their children were older. Some had actually done so by the end of the survey – but that was no guarantee that they would escape poverty, since often the jobs they took were low-paid and precarious, and sometimes saw them return again to benefit.

The experiences documented by Patrick are heart-rending, and some have had tragic consequences. ‘Adrian’ could not get any paid work between 2011 and 2016 and was ‘subjected to repeated benefit sanctions and frustrations as he tried – and did not always manage – to comply with the demands made on him by Job Centre Plus and the Work Programme’ (p.178). ‘Adrian’ did work, however, as a volunteer in a homeless hostel; fortunately, as the hostel gave him free meals, without which, and without food banks, he would have starved. As it was, he found travelling to interviews on an empty stomach caused him mental problems which made him ‘unsociable’ and unable to make eye contact and therefore unsuccessful at interviews. He was often sanctioned despite being ill and unable to tell the Job Centre he could not keep his appointment (pp.179-80). Another claimant, ‘Chloe’, lost four weeks of money through being sanctioned for ‘not doing enough to seek employment’. She had two children. The stress this caused resulted in a deterioration of her already fragile mental health (pp.131-2).

Both ‘Adrian’ and ‘Chloe’ wanted the stability they believed being in work would provide, but both lived from day to day in the knowledge that being on benefits means that you cannot plan for the future. Despite wanting to be independent with a job, ‘Chloe’ felt she could not go back to work as no salary would be sufficient to cover childcare.

In common with others, ‘Adrian’ was sanctioned for not going to an interview because he already had succeeded in getting himself another job. As the decision for sanctioning is made by someone who does not know his circumstances, he compares it to being sentenced for a crime in his absence (p.133). ‘Chloe’ found the mental-health problems caused by being sanctioned made it harder for her to care for her children. ‘Chloe’ believed that ‘being a mum’ was the only job she was good at and she and other parents and carers felt that this work should come before seeking paid employment, an opinion with which the government disagrees. The government is using sanctions as a means of forcing those on benefits to seek work but, in the case of ‘Adrian’ and others in the survey, it had the opposite effect.

Disabled people who had well-paid jobs which their illness prevented them from continuing found it particularly ironic that being on benefits was considered a ‘choice’ since they had been much better off financially while working and had enjoyed their work. ‘Isobella’ pointed out that her priority was to get better, and she was worried about being assessed as fit for work which she knew she was unable to do (p.93). ‘Isobella’ and others appealed successfully against their assessments, but Patrick notes that stress takes its toll, and with each change to the benefits system, claimantsbecome less and less inclined to fight, and therefore risk losing benefits to which they are entitled.

Internalising stigma

Another reason for claimants losing their entitlement is the stigma attached to claiming benefits. Many of those surveyed experienced others sneering at them in the supermarket for buying the cheapest foods or within the family when asked how long they’ve been receiving benefits. A way to avoid this was not to claim their full entitlement. None of them wished to be considered the kind of person depicted in television programmes such as Benefits Streetand they blamed such programmes for encouraging the stigma attached to benefits. Yet they felt worthless and described themselves as ‘scroungers’. In one sense, then, stigmatising has worked, although it is arguable that it has been unsuccessful in getting people back to work since the lack of self-confidence and mental health problems engendered by this stigmatisation work against interviews being successful.

There are many other ways in which respondents to the survey suffered. Some lost their homes and had to sell possessions, and continual changes to the system caused stress as no one was certain of their income. Another cause of angry resentment is the way in which the Job Centres are managed, with security guards, no toilets, and advisers who are rude, unsympathetic and bullying. There are endless complicated forms to fill in and no help.

Despite this, most of those interviewed thought that the changes to the benefit system was correct. Their attitude towards politics was ‘What’s the point? They’re all the same?’, and they did not vote. The study was completed in 2016, however, so they may now see hope in a Corbyn victory.

Patrick’s study surveyed fifteen subjects over a period of five years. There is also a video made in 2014 by doleanimators, which is a good summary of some of the experiences. The study shows the lengths to which the propaganda of neoliberalism has shifted the attitude towards benefits from one of entitlement to one of believing those on benefits are ‘scrounging’. People have suffered severe mental and physical hardship as a result of government policy on benefits intended to force people to work when the work is not available. Most of those on the survey had found their own work, and the only job found by the Work Programme for one of those interviewed was for eight hours a week!

Meanwhile, the government continues to attempt to divide the working class by suggesting that those receiving benefits are what the Victorians described as the ‘undeserving poor’ whereas only a hair separates them from the ‘deserving poor’ in work who also receive benefits. This attitude is a return to the times of which the 1948 National Assistance Act was designed to get rid.

However, in the end, this project of demonisation may not be successful, since a recent survey shows that only 21% agree that ‘most social security claimants do not deserve help’. This is the lowest ever figure for this response (the survey began in the 1980s). Also, only 22% now believe that claimants are ‘fiddling’ the system – a drop from 35% compared to just two years earlier.’ This study helps make the case for why it is vital to act to improve the lives of those out of work, for whatever reason.

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.