I am a resident of the Marsh Farm estate in Luton who became unemployed in the 1992 recession and, for a number of reasons, has been living on state benefits for most of the time ever since. However, unlike the more than a million other people in the UK who find themselves in the same situation, I have been lucky enough to have escaped the worst of the numbing effects of long term unemployment by taking part in the creation and organisation of community self help projects ‘by and for socially excluded people’.
This gives me long, first hand experience of life ‘at the margins’, which means I really appreciate the positive impact the introduction of the Community Allowance would have, not just for the sizeable minority of people living here who are stuck in different departments of the ‘benefits trap’ and highly unlikely to ever find meaningful work, but also for the public at large.
For many people on Marsh Farm who do manage to find work, the story is not much better. The latest unemployment statistics for Luton show that the current economic downturn has seen joblessness go up on Marsh Farm at a rate 3 times that of Luton generally. This is caused by the large number of people living here who, when they do manage to find work, end up in temporary and insecure jobs which are always the first to go in a ‘recession’.
This syndrome of ‘in and out of work’ nearly always leads to a period of severe financial instability similar to that described above for these individuals and their families. This is a disaster caused in these cases by the disjointed nature of the benefits system and its inability to efficiently manage the transition from work to benefits and benefits to work.
As the UK Insecure at Work survey explains “throughout most of the last decade, almost half of the men, and a third of the women, making a new claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance were last claiming this benefit less than six months previously. In other words, almost half of men who lose their job, and a third of women, had had that job for less than six months. This shows the short-term nature of the jobs that many unemployed people go into”.
As a long term resident of Marsh Farm I promise you, the instability caused by the ‘in and out of work’ syndrome is pushing several young families to the brink of impoverishment and homelessness.
Although it almost goes without saying (I hope) that everyone is an individual with a specific set of needs, the welfare to work systems in the UK are notoriously bureaucratic and unable to provide relevant and useful support for the majority of long term unemployed people living on Marsh Farm. The internet dictionary ‘Dictionary.com’ describes a bureaucrat as “an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment”, a description which perfectly sums up the experience for most of the long term unemployed people I know.
For many people, interventions by Job Centre Plus and other support agencies leads not to a pathway to work, but instead to being forced onto ‘courses’ which are widely felt to be box ticking exercises for government targets rather than genuine attempts to help people back into work.
As a topical and personal example of this ‘one size fits all’ approach, I was recently ordered (at threat of loss of all my benefits) to take part in a ‘basic skills assessment’ (due to my reaching 18 months unemployed).
This is a 1 hr ‘exam’ consisting of a set of numeracy questions like: 2 + 2 + ? = 11 and literacy questions like “I wien to the shop to get some tea” – please identify the spelling mistake.
This ‘exam’ was delivered by a qualified teacher who travelled from Dunstable College (which is 5 miles away – and there were only two of us there!). As I hope my authorship of this article shows, this ‘exam’ is a complete waste of my time, the advisors time, the trainer’s time and is nothing less than a scandalous waste of public money. In any sane system, the advisor would have the flexibility to identify those who need such support, and those who do not, and would be free to tailor any support provided according to the specific needs of each person they are working with. But here again, the only support the advisor can provide is restricted to that delivered by those providers who have ‘won the contract’, regardless of whether the training is relevant to the individuals needs, or the quality of the training itself.
My own experience of this ‘one size fits all’ approach to the provision of ‘support’ is nothing when compared with the real and lasting damage caused to other people’s lives who are treated in the same way, but who are not so well placed to cope with it as I am.