Channel 4’s latest documentary series, The Yorkshire Jobcentre, aimed to dispel some of the myths about those claiming benefits by focusing on several claimants at one of seven Jobcentres in Leeds. While it did humanise people previously seen in the media’s attack on ‘scroungers’ who are being supported by the state, it also showed why we need to not only drastically re-structure the way welfare is given out in this country, but also how we think about benefits as a society.
The term ‘benefits’ implies that there is something additional gained – an added bonus, an extra, an advantage. Statistics from August 2019 show that 20 million Britons were claiming some form of ‘benefits’, with a third being working age claimants. These figures are largely unchanged since the same period in 2017. Despite any push in the two-year period to create more jobs and get people off benefits, there has been no movement.
Yet ask any of those claimants whether they feel they have achieved an additional advantage – a benefit – and they will most likely tell you of their struggle to make ends meet. Nobody wants to be on ‘benefits’, yet the term itself is a dark cloud that changes how they are viewed in society. By using the term ‘benefits’, we automatically think of something gained. But what are benefits really if not insurance for when times are hard?
The welfare state – begun from ideas set out in the 1942 Beveridge Report, which outlined a system of social security for all citizens and implemented post-war – offered a sanctuary for those who had, by sheer luck, fallen on harder times. Yet, instead of a country looking after its own, recent years have resulted in benefits claimants becoming nothing more than a burden; considered the scourge of the earth by the rest of society.
The combination of TV series that follow benefits users and abusers – from Benefits Street, to Benefits Britain, to Can’t Pay We’ll Take It Away – have left the general public with the idea that anyone on benefits is a ‘scrounger’ or out to cheat the system. Some have the idea that being on benefits provides more money than working.
The Yorkshire Jobcentre did present a kinder look at those on benefits. But the show still maintained the idea that the ‘Work Coaches’ were swooping in to offer some kind of favour to those requesting help from the welfare state. In exchange for the less than £100 per week, claimants had to spend 35 hours a week searching for a job (a task which anyone on the job hunt can quickly tell you is not something that can be maintained in the long term). With 35,000 people on benefits in Leeds alone, that’s a total of 1.2 million collective hours every week applying for a limited pool of jobs.
Even the benefits system itself is designed to make the claimant feel the burden of responsibility for ending up in the situation. From the 35 hours a week of job searching, to the weekly meetings, and the huge array of sanctions available, the benefits claimant is treated like a reformed criminal. Not to mention the time it takes for the first paltry sum to trickle into the claimant’s bank account – five weeks from the accepted claim. The entire process is designed to make the claimant feel as though they are being bestowed some gracious charity and should be grateful for every penny.
But what can be done to remove the stigma of ‘signing on’? Benefits should be given a makeover of sorts. Perhaps the solution is for benefits to be thought of as more like insurance, which is what they essentially are – a hardship insurance. We spend a lifetime paying into the pot through National Insurance and tax, and some can get by without taking any out. But others are less fortunate and are forced to dip into the emergency funds they have paid into the system already.
Users, most of whom are genuinely trying to get back on their feet, should be treated as though they are merely activating the insurance they have paid for on an expensive car, rather than be shunned for asking for help.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to a reprieve of benefits sanctions and a slight increase in the amount paid to claimants (or ‘customers’ as they are known in the Jobcentre). But with many industries struggling and the workforce becoming even more competitive, will the benefits system become even more Draconian? Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey already faced a backlash for reinstating some of the sanctions during the ‘Stay Home’ portion of lockdown.
The show focused on 61-year-old Karen, who had previously spent 20 years working for HMRC and had several health problems which blocked her out of other jobs – namely, she had reached an age where her eyes and ears weren’t working as they had been in her prime. With the job market becoming even more saturated, would a company employ Karen over someone new to the job market? With the welfare state being relied on more than ever before, it’s time we stopped looking down on those who have to rely on it – and started looking for ways to help them.
As labelling theory states, those who are treated as engaging in deviant behaviour, often live up to their title. So those treated as less-than may psychologically fare worse, and therefore make it more difficult to get back on the job ladder. By reconfiguring how people on benefits – or hardship insurance – are treated, and to actually help people out who have fallen on hard times will be most likely to improve their prospects of getting back on their feet.
For all the defence of Jeff Bezos – who increased his wealth during the pandemic – many people seem to forget that they are more likely to have to visit a Jobcentre and become a Universal Credit customer than they are to end up rubbing shoulders with Bezos, Branson, and Zuckerberg. We should be careful how we treat those considered to be on the bottom rung by society, lest we wake up one day to find we have joined them.