The Cold Reality of Living on Benefits

job centre queueFor about fourteen months between graduating from university and actually managing to find a job, I was unemployed. During this time, I was “on the dole“, claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance whilst I was looking for a job.

I suppose that makes me a scrounger, or whatever equally patronising and derogatory term Nick Clegg would prefer that George Osborne and Danny Alexander used instead.

Never mind that I was firing off on average 40-50 applications each month. Never mind that I was applying for every vacancy I could find. Never mind that I was volunteering at multiple places to both fill the time and improve my outlook.

I wasn’t working, and thus I was apparently — in the government’s eyes — part of the problem.

But for those fourteen months I was a job seeker in all senses of the term, and although it is not a time I particularly like talking about, you can imagine that I have something of a perspective on the current welfare debate.

I wonder, for example, how many of the people complaining about welfare know how much JSA is? I received some £56 per week. Which amounts to about £224 each month, and less than £3,000 per year. For comparison, the minimum wage (which itself is insufficient to live on) is £247 per week, £990 per month, and in a year more than £12,000.

I’d like to know who can live the tabloids’ “life of luxury” on an annual income of less than £3,000. They should, if they exist, probably be given a job at HM Treasury.

If I’m honest, I don’t believe that there are more than a handful if people who are happy living on benefits. It has already been shown that the myth of an epidemic of families where no one has worked for generations is just thata myth. And as for fraud, it costs vastly less than tax avoidance and evasion by the rich.

Instead of that, you hear from the Tories about how much benefits would rise compared to average wages. Leaving aside that an inflation-matched rise on a pittance is still a pittance, and a below-inflation rise on anything amounts to a cut, the Tories are right about the scandalous depression of wages.

But as usual, they are approaching it from the wrong direction, and instead of trying to secure fair pay for all, British society is engaging in a tabloid-incited beggar-my-neighbour quest to make sure that others suffer more.

I am working now. And paying tax. Do I begrudge those who haven’t been as fortunate as me the meagre existence they receive? Of course not.

The government would do better trying to get the vast majority of job seekers who desperately want a chance to work and earn an acceptable living the chance to do so, rather than trying to persecute and scapegoat them for the parlous state of the economy.

Youth in Revolt

This is the fate which I, and thousands of other young people across the country, fear will be their long-term future.

(This piece was written for the website of Maidenhead Labour Party, where you can see it at its original home)

These are not terribly enjoyable times to be a young person. Of course, they aren’t exactly fun for everyone else, unless you happen to be an old Etonian politician, or the CEO of a bank. But young people seem to be taking a real hit at the moment.

The recent rise in tuition fees has been a definite headline-grabber, with thousands of students taking to the streets in an apparently futile bid to force the Liberal Democrats to honour the vote-winning promises they made before the election. But beyond that, there are so many other regressive policies which are already devastating the life chances of the young.

The rise in tuition fees is a poorly constructed cover for a massive cut to the budget of higher education institutions. This means that universities will be forced to cut back the facilities and services they offer to students starting from September 2012. So yes, students will be paying a good deal more for a good deal less. Which doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.

And this, of course, is if they get to university in the first place. The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, will hit thousands of sixth form students and prospective students. Introduced in 2004 by the Labour government, it was aimed at encouraging young people to remain in education, by giving them the funds necessary for them to do so. It was a lifeline for the poorest young people in our society, giving them hope of getting a better education, and a better job at the end of it. That lifeline has now been cruelly cut by Michael Gove and his Department of Education.

And even for those who manage to get into university, life isn’t rosy. I have just finished studying for a Law degree at the University of Sussex. Three years of hard graft, and now I’m finding it incredibly difficult to find a job. The recession has meant that there are less jobs available, but even now that we’re moving out of recession (albeit into stagnation, thanks to George Osborne’s misguided economic policies), there are graduates from the previous few years still fighting for any new jobs.

Youth unemployment in the UK is currently at record levels- something in the region of one million young people are not in employment, education or training. My biggest fear as a young person at the moment is that I will spend the next few years queuing outside the Jobcentre, irreparably setting back my life chances. I know that this is a fear unique to myself.

So what is the way forward for young people, in today’s climate? Well, the best thing that anyone can do is keep trying. The moment you give up is the moment you lose- and they win. But more than that, and I am biased here, I would remind young people that in thirteen years of government, Labour massively expanded education and provision for helping them into jobs. For example, the Future Jobs Fund, which was one of the first casualties of coalition austerity policies.

I’d also remind them that the Labour party is still fighting their corner- and tell them that active, passionate and enthusiastic Labour party branches are to be found all across the country. And if you’re under 27, it costs only £1 to join.