The benefits system is perfect just as it is and nobody should panic; it's fine

The benefits system is perfect just as it is and nobody should panic; it's fine

By Emma Kernahan

I’m a Support Worker. I help people to access social security and move on positively in their lives. This is an easy job, because government benefits are generous and easy to access and social security is highly valued, as are the people who receive it.

The government invests heavily in services to make sure they lift people out of poverty, even if doing so goes against individual, donor or party interests. Doing that is what they are known for, because it’s their job. When they have agreed work commitments, they stick to them.

The system has been designed by people who have received social security themselves, and used it to progress into training and well-paid government jobs. They work in offices that provide flexible working, and on-site childcare. There are a few people who work as policy makers who have no experience of living on a low income, and that’s great for diversity.

I have a case load of five people - not 30, and not 90 if I work in London. I work with five people intensively to ensure they have enough money to control their own lives, and to connect them to other well-funded and effective services, because this is literally the only thing that works. Nobody needs to have a local connection to use essential services, because that’s a system that underpinned the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601, and it is not 1601.

Today I’m meeting Kate. Kate has a three-year-old son and is seven months pregnant. Kate is funny and clever and wants to be a journalist. Her ex-partner is abusive, and even though she doesn’t have family nearby, Kate was able to leave that situation because high quality social housing is plentiful and easy to access. She and her son have never been housed in one room above a boarded-up pub, in a remote area with no public transport. Her son does not have chronic respiratory illnesses caused by damp living conditions, because that would be unacceptable for any child growing up in the fifth largest economy in the world.

We are meeting at the social security office. The social security office is a bright and welcoming place in a nice part of town, because that’s how much we value the people who use it. Their success benefits everyone. They are allowed to use the toilets.

We are meeting there because Kate has debts. These debts are not a result of having been unlawfully fired from a poorly paid job in the care industry because she was pregnant. Nor are they the result of three months with absolutely no income while her eligibility for state benefits was assessed.

Kate has rent arrears because for years her partner controlled her finances. He made unreasonable demands of her in exchange for small amounts of money. Sometimes, he withheld money from her for long periods without explanation or redress, trapping her in her relationship and making her physically and mentally ill. This was humiliating and abusive. The government does not do this.

Instead it provides Kate with a Basic Income. The Basic Income is paid straight away, fortnightly and in advance. It is not means tested and it covers all of her needs, including those of her children, however many children she has. It allows a little extra to save, cover unexpected costs and make long term plans, because being unable to do this would make poverty inescapable. No government would set out to make poverty inescapable for a large proportion of the electorate, or to benefit from that process in any way.

At the office, Kate is Kate. She is not a customer, a client, a scrounger or a cheat, she is not bone idle or playing the system. She’s also not in the library, because that’s a place for borrowing books, not for people in crisis to discuss the details of their personal life with strangers, even in a glass booth that is called a pod.

Kate, like all people claiming social security, is working a little harder to get by than others who have been luckier in their circumstances. This takes skill and resourcefulness and she is actively celebrated for it. Not vilified, not tolerated. Not even simply supported. Celebrated.

On the wall is a reminder that every person is entitled to the realisation of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignity and the free development of their personality. It does not feature a list of reasons the police may be called and sixteen posters about chlamydia.

Together, we speak to Kate’s regular adviser in person, and call a debt specialist on a single Freephone number. We spend one minute on hold, not 90, which means everyone still actively enjoys hearing Vivaldi, and Kate does not miss any of the university course that she attends for free. Her son has had free access to an excellent nursery since his first birthday, so she will soon be able to complete her journalism studies and find well-paid, secure work.

Her rent arrears are cleared with a grant, and debt does not stop her and her children from having a home, or from heating it. As survivors of domestic abuse, Kate and her son receive regular, high quality care, often in their own home. So does the perpetrator of the abuse. She is not put on a six month waiting list for counselling, or given a leaflet for the anger management hotline with the wrong number printed on it, or offered a series of free shiatsu sessions, at the library.

This is done because everyone wants Kate to fulfil her enormous potential. They know that a good social security system does not mean a budgeting sheet and a lecture about ready meals. It does not mean food bank vouchers, or calling a sick note a ‘fit note’, or disguising funding cuts with words like ‘empowerment’. It does not cut holes in the welfare safety net, and then briskly toss people into it. Also, nobody knows what the benefits cap is, but it sounds terrible.

A good benefits system is fundamentally redistributive. And what it redistributes is value, making those at the bottom as important as those at the top. It means a huge number of highly trained staff, a well-connected infrastructure and a clear and transparent line of responsibility, so that nobody sinks beneath the weight of poor and unjust decisions. It means free and easily accessible legal services to hold both employers and the government to account – no ifs, no buts. It means understanding people’s choices and opinions, and respecting them. It means a rich bedrock of support services, from early years to mental health to housing. It also means money. Money changes things. Money. No strings, no judgement, easily accessible - money.

Within such a system, Kate takes control of her life and moves on positively. She believes herself to be funny and clever and with unlimited options, because this is what she is told, in a hundred different ways, every day. And also, because she is. In 15 years of highly paid front-line work, nobody I support has had their child removed from their care because they are poor. Nobody has died of exposure in the doorway of Marks and Spencer, and nobody I work with has ever taken their own life. It is a good system.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Emma Kernahan. Emma is a blogger and writer from Gloucestershire who works in the third sector. She can be found on Twitter @crappyliving.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

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