Why I write …

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.

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15 thoughts on “Why I write …

    • I stroked him for you as soon as he came out from under the coffee table where he now lounges, oblivious to poverty and happy in the glow of the halogen heater. It’s nice to know someone is benefiting from my being home an awful lot! He is a very happy cat.

  1. It is a great help to me to read this, I have subscribed to your blog because I don’t have anyone to talk to about how it feels not to be able to get a job in my field or any other field now. I find myself pretending to other people that I have money, for example my landlord, so I can have an apartment. There is so much more to say, but you have hit on a phenomenon of social repression here where it is a crime to be poor. And if we are poor it is through our own fault, and we are treated like criminals. I have observed the same psychological ramifications of being on unemployment in other people besides myself. You are constantly questioned and have to prove you are worthy of getting your checks. I will describe it as a psychological beat down that induces terror into the psyche for no crime other than when you are poor you don’t have a leg to stand on for support. One automatically is in the wrong and guilty.. of being poor. We are taught to hate poor people. We become isolated in or poverty. We don’t ask for help from our community because we are ashamed.
    The saddest thing I feel here is the unfulfilled potential of the human being, Someone who is capable of doing great work being unable to do it. The rotting of one’s talents.
    However, I realize as I write this that you are not wasting your talent and are reaching other people like myself, serving a greater good. There is no law saying we can’t work on what we love, we just can’t get paid for it right now. I have been thinking for some time that I would like to start a project about work, have I just found a writer?

    • I’m sorry to hear you’re having a hard but you’re genuinely far from being alone. And you are in no way to blame. I’d also say your talent isn’t rotting – it’s yours. You have ownership of your skills and talents beyond selling them to an employer – an employer lucky to benefit, to profit and to enjoy success because of those talents. We’ve all helped business succeed because of our skills. Keep doing what you enjoy and own it. Now we recognise the social repression, the spread of blame to those that aren’t at fault, we can gain strength from talking to each other. It’s not a crime to be unemployed but it bloody should be to take away our livelihoods.

  2. Twas ever thus. My own memories are sudden anonymity and the time it took for a day to pass. The opposite happns in retirement. One seems to have breakfast every half hour

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  5. I have to say your blog is some of the finest journalism I read on a regular basis. Perhaps the best!

    I hope you feel proud and know its value is greater than pounds and pence. You help people hold their head up.

    • Blimey, thank you. It has helped to keep writing and to think I might be dispelling a few “the unemployed are all stupid and lazy” myths along the way. Thanks so much for reading. And I’m surprised they haven’t been to count my chairs or ask why I haven’t sent Chaplin out to work or even to count him as a dependent, I must say.

  6. God, Your so talented I hope some of the people who rtwt my tweets will also stop by and comment Keep up the good work and pls remember am only at the other end of the computer when you need me x hugs x

    Susanas4321

  7. Another brilliant and poignant piece of writing that makes a mockery out of Government rhetoric and poorly researched , bigoted and blatantly untue gutterpress journalism. I have to believe that someone with your obvious gift will find an opportunity to do what you were so clearly born to do. Please keep writing , you touch my heart . Wishing you all the very best of luck , you deserve better.

  8. I feel you are a writer who’s time has come. There’s a lot of material out there and you strike me as the man to get the job done. Anything on single parents, reality checks on using the ‘job’ centre, ‘child support’ agency, getting doled out stale bread in church aid parcels etc… would be right up my alley. I fell into the world of benefits in 2004 and am now in shitty job with no sick pay or holiday pay and am supposed to be grateful on minimum wage with no contract. Got lots of great stories. Happy to share if the material starts drying up. Got a feeling it won’t, though.

  9. Absolutely amazing blog you make me feel like im not alone with all that shit (sorry about that word )i was working part time for 4 months without any support from job centre my wage was just £143 (that mean for Job Centre i am able to pay for everything)wasn’t able pay for my rent or food for myself (rather feed my child than myself) so that was very hard for me not being able give her what she need school clothes shoes or even light in her room 😦
    Yesterday i loose my job and i need back to Job Centre if they decide to help me!!!
    So i gonna back the same square when i was 4 months ago stress insomnia and obssesion for LOOKING FOR JOB i will love to work but how i need to do that and survive with child??? why if Job Centre want me to work why they can find me job well obviously there it’s no job for me because im too ambitious??was even move to other town to find job leaving my little girl to earn some money and what i got massive debt that why Job Centre pushing us to do!!!!
    Absolutely no idea how i gonna survive this month !!!!

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