It’s very fashionable at the moment, in Britain’s Tory-led journopolitical fishbowl, to have a crack at benefit claimants for being scrounging, indolent scum. Well, I’m going to out myself: I live on benefits. I live on sickness benefits, because I suffer from panic attacks that make most low-level jobs impossible for me; I’ve got other mental health issues as well and I will need a good deal of retraining before I am qualified to do a job I’ll actually be able to hold down for more than a year. This is despite having a college degree – mental illness doesn’t discriminate. And besides, the degree I have came as part and parcel of my previous life, when I had no idea what I needed to be or do in order to cope in the everyday sense with living. It’s basically a degree in doing things that make me ill.
But you know, I’m actually very thankful for all this. Before I had my problems properly diagnosed, before I understood I needed to change my life, I spent years on and off JSA – jobseeker’s allowance. Living on JSA is a refined form of torture; it’s literally not enough to cover food and bills. Especially not if, like me, you’re allergic to half of reality and have to buy a lot of specialist foods. In an interview session for a retail job arranged through my local job centre, I met a mother of three who couldn’t afford to feed her kids for a week on what JSA paid, let alone think about paying the bills.
I’ve talked to my other Cambridge graduate friends about things like this before. (Yes, even Cambridge graduates wind up long-term ill. It doesn’t half give the lie to all the letters Cambridge’s alumni association sends you, which are mostly about expensive networking events in London or implicit requests for financial support. If I’m ever a success it’ll be as a part-time-jobbing writer who gets his jeans from Tescos, not a glossy linchpin of the financial firmament.)
My Cambridge friends are pleasant, liberal, middle-class people who enjoy an energetic debate about social issues – and who fall silent when I express, for example, my gratitude that the benefit system is there to catch me when I fall. This New Statesman article leads with the line “Poverty is another country; you’ve either lived there or you haven’t.” The silence of my middle-class friends represents just that alienation: I’m talking about a foreign world, one to which they cannot relate at all.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I do come from a middle class background; I do have the good degree. I have well-off, liberal, generous friends and partners who have basically been keeping a roof over my head for over a decade. In my current flat, I pay a third of the rent (there are two of us sharing) and take on most of the housework as the other side of the deal. It’s a nice place. It’s in a nice part of town. If I didn’t have friends like my flatmate, I’d be in a bottom-of-the-barrel rented room (since housing benefit now only covers the cheapest third of the market, wherever you live). I’d be living among people I find intensely stressful, because they’re not from the same world as me at all. And I’d have to think hard before I got myself a nice meal for a Friday night.
I remember when I changed benefits after my health problems finally got diagnosed; switching from Lidl to Asda felt like a graduation. These days if I’m canny I can even afford to go into Waitrose to get my non-allergenic jam. I didn’t eat jam at all on JSA. There’s no way to express the pressure that poverty puts on you; every tiny financial decision is so momentous that you become drained, unable to give even the slightest bit of time and sympathy to the rest of the world. There’s a reason poor people are impatient and hostile at times.
But like I said – I’m grateful I’ve lived like this. I’m grateful that I’ve seen enough of the bleak stuff to get what it’s like to be stuck that way for good. I’m grateful for the goodness my dependence has shown me in the people around me; that was a difficult lesson for my younger self to learn. I’m grateful for the fact I’ve learnt to compromise, to put my ego second to my needs. I’m unspeakably grateful for the rock-hard common sense I now have about money; I’m almost completely debt free. The experience of living in poverty with debts to repay is why. Most of all, I’m grateful that I’ve never fallen so far I have to exist the way that the people being pilloried as scroungers and frauds live each day of their lives. Hell, I’ve seen a good friend who’s lived with depression for years get reported for fraud by someone who just plain doesn’t like him. My friend still had to go through all the questionnaires and stress – while his father was terminally ill and only had one of his children to look after him. Oh, and ATOS wanted to assess him the same day he was meant to be burying his dad – and wouldn’t change the appointment when he called. With a full-blown anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure I’d end up sectioned if I had to live like that.
I sometimes think that what I was put on this earth to do is communicate – and if that’s true, then this is one of the things I can tell to other people like me. There’s a world out there you don’t understand – and some of the people who live in it are your own. So the next time you generalise, spare a moment to think of me.