Many people feel the need to hide their poverty. I’ve been contacted by those who feel shame at their situation: pretending to friends that they have eaten, explaining that the house is in darkness by choice to neighbours.
I write to defy this shame and embarrassment: I’m not living in poverty through any fault of my own. Like you, I’m willing to work, I want to work but a global recession has taken away my job and made a mockery of my qualifications.
I returned home from Billionaire Training the other day and was asked by a curious neighbour where I’d been. It was unusual for him to see me up, dressed and spending an entire day away from home. I told him about my day, about the gas meter charges and my lack of food – knowing he’s in a similar position. This led him not to judge but to advise me that his gas company doesn’t have a £2.50 a week surcharge – useful information. He also offered me a bag of pasta which, while not needed, was a kindness that should cheer not cause shame.
I read today that people are taking their own lives because they feel ashamed at living without heating, food, new clothes, because they sit in unlit homes, the telly off to save energy, they slide into cold beds at night. We should feel angry about this. Suicide rates are rising as more are made redundant – and we shouldn’t accept this as an inevitable result of austerity measures.
I’m not ashamed that some days I have to boil the kettle to have a wash. I didn’t plan this: I worked hard, paid for and gained qualifications, changed careers as needed, I watch my pennies, I sit in the dark and cold, my bed is full of hot water bottles. My one luxury is Chaplin whose food costs money I struggle to find but, to be blunt, it would cost me more than I could afford if I chose to put him down.
Shame is a form of social control – it isolates the unemployed and makes them tolerate the generalisations offered by Jobcentre Plus staff as the norm. Shame makes us condemn “benefit scroungers” as nation rather than focus on the fat cats and a government so out of touch it demands we find work – introducing brutal welfare reform but not creating jobs.
Our media has fuelled this image for too long. Benefit cheats cost us billions a year we’re repeatedly told when unclaimed benefits amount to £13.25 billion. The benefits system is complicated – trapeze-walking, marathon-running, mountain-climbing benefit cheats are a rarity – but news of them serves a purpose in adding to our shame.
I can also entirely understand how someone struggling as I do week-by-week – especially someone with children, especially in the run up to Christmas – would work cash-in-hand, risking the fury of the law and the media while MPs claim expenses for second homes and bankers take big bonuses. It’s not benefit cheating, it’s survival. The benefits are not enough to live on and now the Tories want the unemployed working full time for them – that is earning a third of the minimum wage. Skilled workers will be forced to use those skills for poverty pay because we’re told if they don’t they’re scroungers.
I’m now humiliated and patronised in equal measure on a fortnightly basis. My work experience, qualifications, life experience, knowledge of the world – none of it matters now I’m unemployed. I’ve found that my stress levels rise as I’m due to sign on and, after the awful event, I sleep like a baby.
“You’ve been shortlisted for interviews and that’s a good sign,” I’m told by an irritatingly enthusiastic adviser who seems not to realise he could be next.
“I know how to complete person specification job application, in fact, I’ve taught undergraduates how to do it.”
“But, nevertheless, it is good that you’re being interviewed,” he carries on regardless.
“At my last interview they had over 900 applications and whittled it down to eight interviews.”
“Exactly my point! That is something to be proud of.”
“It hasn’t got me a job though, has it? It’s hard out there.”
“It is,” he beams. “But you’re getting interviews.”
I struggle to see pride in competing with eight people for one job more than 900 wanted for which I was over-qualified. I struggle to feel pride but I refuse to feel shame.
The attitude towards the unemployed is that we’ve lost our intelligence as soon as we lose our jobs. We could be led to believe that our knowledge, skills, understanding of the world, leave us as soon as we’re handed redundancy papers: of course this is not the case, we’re still us but without a job. Journalists have the double shame of unemployment and being accused of hacking phones more often than postmen deliver letters – regular readers will know I was asked about my history of hacking while attending Jobcentre Plus.
As unemployed workers we need to accept that is what we are – unemployed workers. Just as we do when we look back at previous recessions we should acknowledge the awful way the unemployed were and are treated: the images of the Great Depression may be in black and white but the workers were in the same position we’re in now. Unemployment is part of a recession and we’re in a global recession.
The shame in a parent not being able to afford childcare does not belong to the parent. The shame of someone whose home is repossessed doesn’t belong to the homeowner. The shame of an unemployedhack having to boil the kettle to have a wash does not belong to the unemployedhack.
The shame isn’t ours, it belongs to those who messed up the economy and, in the words of Shelley, ye are many they are few.