Today I have to walk back from signing on in the rain. It’s hardly a journey of biblical proportions and, to be honest, I need the exercise but, as I look out at the rain and dread having to get off the settee, I remember how I once almost took first class travel for granted.
Flying to Oman first class, seduced and outraged in equal measure by the luxury, I enjoyed free champagne, free red wine and, if I remember correctly, a free gin and tonic; making me very vocal.
“Did you see that?” I said, putting down the glass; and I mean glass, no plastic in first class. “That prince, or whatever he is, just had that fella carry his bags in for him, get him seated, and then sent him back to cattle class. Did you see that?” If my fellow journalists squirmed at this point I didn’t notice. “I mean, it’s not as if he couldn’t afford to buy him a seat and there are seats, look. What a way to treat someone. Did you see that?”
At this point an air stewardess with perfect make-up put food down in front of me and smiled like an irritated mum trying not to lose it with a demanding toddler. The prince hadn’t heard or understood a word but, when I looked around, there were people shuffling awkwardly in their seats. I still wonder, though, if that was because I had taken my shoes off and undone my top button within seconds of sitting down.
While on the first class flight to America I was more subservient due to the full length beds and no obvious signs of the wealthy oppressing their staff; unless you count the many businessmen on laptops who could’ve been sending angry emails to some poor soul in an office, having been momentarily relieved to see the back of him.
I even flew with a well-known airline to Ireland first class. Staff on the national newspaper I worked for always flew first class so I sat at the front of the plane in a large leather seat, hidden behind a curtain from the riff-raff , eating a salmon sandwich instead of cheese. It struck me as pointless but it’s what people start to take for granted with wealth, I suppose.
I couldn’t afford any of this on a journalist’s wage; not the first class travel and not the luxury hotels I stayed in paid for by tourist boards keen to promote their countries and cities. I enjoyed the insight into how the other half live. Now I wonder if I’ll ever get a holiday again, never mind a first class experience. My last holiday was in September 2009.
So, now I live on £67.50 per week to pay for water, gas, electric, broadband, telephone, food, bus fares, dentist, which also leaves Chaplin living in a style which is not to his satisfaction.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Sir Ian Duncan Smith, assures me there is “no objective way of deciding what is an adequate rate of benefit.”
“From April this year”, he tells me, “the Consumer Price Index is being used as a benchmark for prices growth for the purposes of uprating most State benefits from 2011. This is because the Government believes the CPI, the headline measure of price inflation used by the Bank of England, better reflects the expenditure patterns and living costs of benefit and pension recipients.”
As I have explained before, the bank recently took £30 from my benefits because I was a few pence overdrawn; a massive penalty for a small unapproved overdraft. This is likely to happen again and has left me unable to buy food, to leave my flat in two weeks and have enough bus fare just to get back from signing on.
Rowntree Foundation, a charity seeking to understand the root causes of social problems, and identify ways of overcoming them, stated back in 2010 that an adult needs £46.10 per week to spend on food. People on benefits who spent this would be left with just £21.40 for bills, travel expenses and a social life. This money is also expected to cover minimum payments to creditors, should the unemployed person have credit card, overdrafts and other unpaid loans.
My last shopping bill came to £31.85 and was to last a fortnight. Of course, it didn’t and I eventually went without meals.
Using CPI also means that from 2013 housing benefit, which I also receive, will be adjusted based on the fluctuating cost of a random basket of consumer goods and the cost of an average meal out – rather than the real cost of rents.
IDS continues: “The method of calculating changes in the Consumer Price Index should, in itself, ensure that the typical price changes that people face from year to year are reflected over time. However, it is not possible to reflect exactly the change in cost faced by individual households in different parts of the country.”
It has often been argued that how CPI is calculated massively underestimates the inflation rate and so, ultimately, hides it. The benefit to the government is to reduce its debt obligation not to help its citizens on benefits.
Tackling the crippling charges by banks, the extortionate prices of profit-driven utilities companies and the ridiculous cost of renting from a private landlord would be a reasonable place to start.
But this is the reality of unemployment in 2011, a situation that is facing many and likely to be experienced by many more.
I continue my search for work: I’m told by my Job Centre Plus to keep applying for at least three jobs a week, to be willing to take any work available and to live anywhere in the country. So, despite working hard and paying for qualifications, moving around the world to gain work experience and living by the rules of an imaginary meritocracy I’m now living in abject poverty – and walking in the rain when I could once afford to drive everywhere.
Amount of money I have: £2.20 less £1.70 for bus far, one way to sign on, leaving me with 40p to last five days.
Things to cheer me: My good friend has bought me a case of Rioja due in three days and I have a number of un-read novels.