Who’s ashamed of the big bad ‘B’ word?

Who should be more ashamed that Peter Lumb (left) has been summonsed because he is unemployed and does not have the cash to pay his council tax bill? Mr Lumb himself? Or George Osborne (right) for creating a system in which people like Mr Lumb are thrown away by indifferent employers?

Who should be more ashamed that Peter Lumb (left) has been summonsed because he is unemployed and does not have the cash to pay his council tax bill? Mr Lumb himself? Or George Osborne (right) for creating a system in which people like Mr Lumb are thrown away by indifferent employers?

“Why are you ashamed of being on benefits?”

One of our commenters asked this of another after they admitted that being on benefits made them feel ashamed. It took me completely by surprise as at first I thought it was aimed at me. Then it occurred that it might have been a general question aimed at anybody on benefits. Only then did I see that it was a response to someone else who had said as much.

In the period between reading the comment and realising what it was about, my mind went through several different thought processes which, in the spirit of Douglas Adams, we may call the Why, How and Who phases. The first could be characterised by the question, ‘Why should I feel ashamed?’; the second by the question, ‘How could shame be an appropriate response?’; and the third by the question, ‘Who should feel ashamed?’

Let’s look at the first. I’m on a benefit; I receive Carers’ Allowance. I feel no shame whatsoever for being in receipt of it. Here’s why:

I quit my last (full-time) news reporting job in mid-2007 to become a full-time carer for Mrs Mike. As everyone reading this probably knows by now, Mrs M has been in a great deal of pain for a great deal of time, and her condition has been worsening. In 2007 the government of the day acknowledged this by putting her on Disability Living Allowance (she was already on Incapacity Benefit), and this meant that I could get the allowance if I was looking after her for more than 35 hours a week. I jumped at the opportunity.

Yes – it was an opportunity. You see, conditions at work had been worsening of late. For the hours I was being asked to work, my pay packet had been decreasing, in real terms, year-on-year. Recently the company had decided to move the office where I worked to the far edge of the patch I covered, forcing me to drive 82 miles there and back, every day. I was tired, I felt misused, and I was starting to go into debt.  Swap this for benefits? For me, it wasn’t a decision at all.

Note carefully: My decision to go on benefits made me better-off (I’m not in debt any more) – not because benefits habitually pay more than wages, but because my (former) bosses had been pushing my wages down, in real terms, beyond the point at which I could make ends meet. It was their decision to do so that meant I could not balance my books; it was their decision to move the office that meant I was spending hours every day in transit when I could have been doing something else; it was the same decision that meant I knew I would not be able to cover the patch as well as I wanted to.

I could have made a case for constructive dismissal. This seemed a much more amicable way out.

I don’t think my situation is unusual. Across the UK, millions of employees are probably in the same situation now – or one that is worse. The problem does not lie with them but with their bosses. If any of them had to give up their job for similar reasons, there would be no cause for shame (in my opinion).

The other reason I don’t feel any shame about being on benefits is that I haven’t made that the sum total of my life. I carry out my caring duties diligently – and have gone head-to-head against the Department for Work and Pensions in the course of those duties, as has been reported here many times.

But I am allowed to do other things as well, provided that my earnings do not exceed a certain amount per week. That’s why I was able to work for an internet news service earlier this year (until their funding for me ran out). That’s why I’ve published one Vox Political book already*, with two more on the way.

These are all legitimate – and in fact if the books started bringing in a larger income – enough to support us – I would be overjoyed at the chance to get off-benefit and provide Mrs M with a better quality of life.

What I’m saying is that being on benefits should not put an end to anybody’s ambitions. You might be supported by the state’s (extremely threadbare and fragile, thanks to Lord Fraud’s and Iain Duncan Smith’s interference) safety net, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep working for what you want to do.

This leads me to the answer I found for the second question, ‘How could shame be an appropriate response?’ The only reason a person on benefits should be ashamed of it is if they are not doing everything they can to get back on track – getting into the career they want and earning a living wage from it.

A wiser man once said that the way forward is dedication. If you are able-bodied and you have an ambition to be… I don’t know… a writer, it’s not going to happen straight away – so get a job frying fish down at the local chip shop if that’s what it takes to pay the bills, or go on benefits if there aren’t even menial jobs around, but make sure you spend all your spare time putting in the effort to get that first writing gig, whether it’s journalism, scripting comics, writing gags for radio or TV comedy shows, scripting full-length shows, staging plays on an amateur level with a view to progressing into professional theatre – whatever. The possibilities are endless and anyone who wants to make a living from pounding keyboards will need to try the lot.

And there’s no shame in working for employers who have different beliefs – political, moral, whatever – than yourself. If their dollar is good, then it’s all good experience and (if you are a writer) possible grist for the mill one day. That’s one reason I saw nothing badly wrong with Mehdi Hasan’s application to work for the Daily Mail.

The shame would lie in giving up; turning away from your ambitions and accepting society’s current label for a benefit claimant – being a scrounger. Being a skiver. Being a burden on society. Or never bothering to try in the first place.

So, finally, ‘Who should feel ashamed?’ Not me. Not anybody who has been dropped by their employer because of the downturn, nor anybody who has been trying hard to climb back onto the employment ladder. Especially not those who have been trying so hard, and for so long, that they have suffered mental health problems as a result.

Some people claiming benefits do have a legitimate reason to be ashamed of it. They are the people who are ‘playing’ the system; the benefit fraudsters, the ones who could do better but can’t be bothered, the ones who pretend they are ill when they aren’t.

They total seven people in every thousand benefit claimants. They are a tiny, tiny minority. But they’re not the only ones who should be ashamed.

It seems to me that a far larger portion of shame lies with employers who deliberately push workforce wages downwards, in order to improve their own salaries (and in some cases, shareholder profits – look out, Royal Mail employees). It lies with employers who treat their people as disposable commodities, rather than assets to be nurtured.

And it also lies with governments, past and present, that allowed these practices to go on – and in fact failed to legislate against them; and with politicians who have worked for the advantage of Big Money, rather than that of the Little People who create it.

That’s where the real shame lies.

Not with folk like you and me who’ve got patches on every pair of trousers they own.

But with the people in the expensive suits.

* Vox Political: Strong Words and Hard Times may be bought here, here, here, here and here, costing £9.99 or £4 – depending on the format in which you wish to receive it.

49 thoughts on “Who’s ashamed of the big bad ‘B’ word?

  1. Pingback: Who's ashamed of the big bad 'B' word? | Welfar...

  2. Nick

    for the record I’ve never been allowed to do anything while on benefits as I’m told i need to rest as I’m to thin and getting involved on the internet is not wise and have been told many times to limit my time on the internet or lose benefits
    i know what your thinking but belive me it’s all true

      1. Nick

        that’s true mike but i have always felt guilty it was never my style i understand why people kill themselves living a life on benefits is a living hell and for me that has always been the case

        for those that don’t find it a living hell then they have obversely got to much money coming in from wherever

        most people on benefits live a day by day existence like all poor people the world over and as i say it’s a hell and for myself with 33 years of experiences that has always been the case

      2. Mike Sivier

        Exactly – so the government rhetoric about people lounging around on benefits has to be wrong, doesn’t it? It proceeds from a misapprehension about the nature of life on benefits.
        There is so much that is wrong about our government’s ideas.

      3. Nick

        the rates of benefits per person cash wise are on average for long term sick and disabled people are £150 per week ESA/DLA

        so that is around the the £3-75 mark well under the minimum wage

        You will also get your HB paid along with your rates which on average is around £7000 per year

        so living on £150 per week is not easy even if you have ONE CHILD despite they get £150 per month per child tax credits/CB on average as children are expensive

        if you however have many children say 5 or more then money wise then your individual benefit bill will be high and many people may find offensive
        but in my case I’m just £150 per week in benefits and i pay my own rates and council tax as that is my choice to do so as I’m regarded as a honourable person and it’s also my belief that i have to cut back and make sacrifices

        i have been without for years and am well respected locally that in itself is a major achievement and a few more like myself on every estate across the country would be a god send that’s for sure

  3. Samwise Gamgee

    Ironically (or not so ironically) the government’s push to require all people in receipt of unemployment benefits to look for work for 35 hours per week will mean those who are out of work will have less time to pursue ambitions that could open up new opportunities. Forced to search for jobs working in Poundland or Tesco they’ll be less able to try to escape the cycle of low-paid temporary work followed by unemployment, which will have the effect of locking them into a dependence that they genuinely want to escape from. Even if they do find work they will still end up dependent on in-work benefits, and worse still under Universal Credit they may even be forced to pend time away from their job looking for “more or better paid work”.

    Universal Credit seems designed to ensure people never on low incomes will never get the chance to escape a cycle of crap jobs interspersed with spells out of work. It’s almost as if the new benefits system is set up to stifle what little social mobility we have left in this country. Poorer people will no longer be able to pursue their dreams or hobbies, even if they could potentially lead to a profitable career, and in effect creating a disincentive for people to try to lift themselves up.

    The Tories’ determination to control the lives of the unemployed, low-paid and disabled will only further entrench poverty, and will end up making a truth out of the Tory lie, that there is a “culture of dependency” in this country.

    1. Mike Sivier

      My answer to your main point is, treat the requirement to do 35 hours’ jobsearching as being equivalent to doing a job that you’re only doing in order to pay the bills; use whatever spare time is left to get on with your own ambitions.
      It IS hard, but until someone devises a better way forward, I think it’s the best solution available.
      I do agree with you about Universal Credit and about the ‘culture of dependency’ lie that the Tories are trying to turn into the truth.

      1. AM-FM

        If you happen to lose, or be made redundant a reasonably paid job, you leave with a pay packet or two on the way, perhaps even holiday or redundancy pay to come. A recent reference, a car outside, wardrobe of clean clothes, food cupboard full.

        Then you don’t even need to consider any of the hassels of social security, and it’s possible to spend 35+ hours a week very actively seeking a new job. BUT it costs a fortune, mostly in phonecalls, travel and fuel.

        With the level of JSA now, where you have almost nothing, and are trying to survive on next to nothing, and where every 50p counts, then I can’t see how it’s possible to spend the 35 hours in meaningful jobsearch.

        Just don’t ask how I know!

      2. workshyscrounger

        Absolutely! And then any interview has to be approved by the jobcentre or else you won’t get the money for the bus or train. Coupled with the risk of sanctions, it makes a jobseeker highly inflexible.

    2. AM-FM

      “pursue ambitions that could open up new opportunities.”

      J.K. Rowling. I can think of a few more.
      I agree people need to be left alone(mostly) to be creative and even innovative.

      A few years ago, mostly for my own amusement, I studied how some successful small businesses had been born into existence. After working my way to the very beginning I often found it was 2 people sitting in a pub doing nothing very much. But they happened to get talking, and they realised one of them had some good ideas, but no money, and the other had some money but no ideas!

  4. gary

    the only benefit I get is carers allowance and I feel like a scrounger the way the media keep putting people down

    1. Mike Sivier

      Well, don’t. You’re saving the authorities a fortune. Think how much they’d have to shell out to a private company for the services you provide at a knock-down price of less than 60 quid a week!

  5. Carrie

    I’ve had stints on and off benefits, relationship break down with young children, switching between jobs etc and I never felt ashamed. It was a necessity for me and my children to live but now…I avoid admitting it.

    I am on ESA and DLA. 1ST ATOS WCA the Dr said that I should never have been called in. Didn’t need a 2nd WCA as they went off the first report and placed me in support for 3 years (the maximum allowed I believe) so why do I feel so embarrassed about admitting it now? The hate propaganda put out by this government and its brown nosing media!

  6. ben

    i don’t think anyone should feel ashamed for realising that most work is a complete waste of your only tiny window on this earth as a sentient human. why should you give up the best years/days/hours of your life for a bogus lie of inane slavery? until politicians give up their own lottery win equivalent pensions, etc, they are quite literally in no place at all to lecture others on getting money for nothing.

    (you may also enjoy this article: http://jacobinmag.com/2012/04/the-politics-of-getting-a-life/)

  7. elle

    I’m not ashamed of claiming, I’m a lone parent of three girls, and I’m also I’ll, I won’t recover, but I refuse to allow it to beat me.

    I remember a time not so long ago where those that were sick and disabled were treated with dignity and respect, not anymore.

    I remember when the Tories were just about to begin in parliament, they said the weak and the vulnerable with be protected.

    So much damage has been done in 3 years, it’s shocking, the sooner they go the better.

  8. Thomas M

    I must admit, the only time I tried to get myself a job was by putting my old e-mail address online in random places. All that happened was that people tried to scam me and my old e-mail address was spammed so much that I needed a new one.

  9. workshyscrounger

    My main problem with being on benefits is people’s reactions. When you see me outside, it means it’s my good day. There is no indication that there’s anything wrong with me at all. Then the staff at my local shop who have known me for years try to make small talk “Back from work?” or “Tough day at work?”. Or they talk about their own health problems, are older than me and work whereas I cannot do anything because employers won’t give me a chance.

    What do I say to the store assistants? Once I tried saying I don’t work but they just looked at me horrified and then promptly forgot about it and started asking about my job next time we were in. Do I lie? I don’t really want to. Do I tell the truth and go into details of what my health problems actually entail so that they understand and don’t judge me? I don’t want that either. I just need a nice stock response that says it’s none of your business, let’s talk about the weather instead.

  10. Florence

    In my family – 4 generations of active trade unionists – we have always been sure of what we wanted, as working class and with our wider community, and why we fought so hard for the welfare state over the last 100 years.

    To make it a RIGHT to have support to maintain dignity and quality of life as a functioning member of society, whatever befalls us. FOR ALL OF US.

    Whether it’s disability, old age, mental or physical health problems, or unemployment, or family caring commitments, the welfare state is there to make sure it doesn’t leave us destitute.

    We have to be proud of the system, that we fought for, that provides for us when we cannot provide for ourselves. It’s a massive achievement. We should never, ever, feel ashamed because we find ourselves in situations – sometime dire – which the safety net specifically ANTICIPATED AND PROVIDED for.

    For You, For Me, For all of us.

  11. Deborah Harrington

    Thank you, Mike. This particular and proper explanation of life on benefits is rarely heard and needs to be repeated loud and often. Like Carrie I’ve had a slightly checkered life, with times of well paid work and relative plenty and other periods on benefit. I’m of the generation that received grants for university and we were allowed to sign on during the summer holidays (unimaginable now…).

    One of my main concerns is that the corrosive attitude to social security benefits has meant that it is no longer perceived as a ‘safety net’ for anyone and everyone at times of crisis in their lives, but rather as a dividing line. You either spend your life ‘on welfare’ or you spend it as a ‘hardworking individual/ family’. Some people will need the support of the system all their lives. For others it will be a temporary measure, often the result of employers’ poor practice, as in your case. In either situation when I was young this was a cause for sympathy and support, not blame and shame.

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  13. Daijohn

    Perhaps we should all feel ashamed because we have allowed the regime in power to indulge their ideological whims when they had or have absolutely no political mandate to do so. They seem to think, and possibly they are right, that all we require is a few crumbs from their table when an election approaches and they will be able to carry on. Shame on us

  14. Claire Peach (@PeachyClair)

    I have tried so many times to make myself marketable or find work- from studying (MA level now, incredibly part time), to voluntary placements that never lasted beyond 2 weeks because appointments have come in, and recently attempts have been further hindered by the retirement of one of my only two possible references (am fairly housebound by the boys so hard to make new contacts). I have 3 children with SN to care for and my head says I do everything I can ; typically I exist of 2 – 4 hours sleep a night. I’ve just told a friend in a similar position she is silly to feel ashamed about needing to claim. Husband works, too- even if on an incredibly low wage. He was made redundant a few years ago from a really great job, there was a vague possibility of a significant demotion as an alternative (they did away with his grade entirely), but I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t get that as it was minimum wage and bridge tolls alone were around £100pcm, and another £200pcm in petrol. Still, had he been offered it he’d have taken it. Did he just sit by? No, he returned to training and set up a small business, which is still expanding even if slowly. I don’t think we could have tried harder, yet I still feel bad. Why? the downside of being raised in an old fashioned working class household with a strong work ethic I guess, both our fathers turn 69 this week and both are still employed in manual jobs. A work ethic is a positive thing but when things happen in one’s life it can also become incredibly negative, it seems.

  15. Tim Maidment

    Reblogged this on TimMaidment.Com and commented:
    Having been forced to live on benefits while caring full time, and having taken up writing (something I’d always dreamed of), simply as a way of getting food on the table some weeks, this hits a lot of buttons with me. Food for thought.

  16. beetleypete

    I agree with Deborah.
    You have explained your situation perfectly, and I would like to see your post on the front pages of every newspaper. This is one of my favourite articles ever published on VP, perhaps because it is personal, or because it explains your attitude, and situation, so well.
    Carers should always consider their role as a massive saving, to the real cost of care for the sick, or disabled, if it fell to the NHS and Social Services..
    Well done Mike, a classic piece.
    Regards, Pete.

    1. Mike Sivier

      Thanks, Pete!
      Unfortunately, I’ve put it out at a time when VP is going through one of its periodic downturns – fewer people are reading the blog this month – so it seems unlikely it will be seen by the wider audience you believe it deserves.

      1. beetleypete

        How about sending it out as an article? Just send it to everything, you never know! Not a lot of point re-blogging it on redflagflying, as I have a miniscule following there, and they are all ‘sympathisers’ anyway.
        Perhaps the Labour Party would print it in a journal, maybe even the Morning Star? Send a link to all the political blogs too, spam it about if necessary, It really is that good. Cheers mate, Pete.

  17. Ms Deceased


    There’s no shame in having no ambition nor in “being a scrounger. Being a skiver. Being a burden on society. Or never bothering to try in the first place.” We do what we can to survive in a hostile, oppressive environment, often from a baseline of great distress and as victims of abuse. The Protestant work ethic is world-destroying, soul-destroying sh*te.

    There should be no shame in being a homeless, destitute, unemployed drop-out.

    There are scavengers and freaks in every ecosystem. They serve a purpose.

    Our current growth-based economic system and the industrial civilisation it enables look likely to bring about the demise of not only the human race but of most species on Earth, too. Why should anyone feel loyalty to such a horrific system?

      1. beetleypete

        I read the above with some sadness, to be honest. None of ask to be here, and most of us disagree with the system. But surely we owe it to ourselves, to do the best with what we are dealt? If you don’t want to be any part of any system, and that’s OK, then don’t accept the offerings of that system, and fend for yourself. After all, it is funded primarily by the hard work of ordinary people, with the same disappointments and frustrations as yourself.

        The alternative would be domination by force, roaming gangs, crime, terror, and virtual slavery. Even what we have at the moment, has got to be preferable to that.
        If you don’t want to work for any of those organisations, then be a volunteer instead. Help the disabled, unfortunate, or mentally incapable, to lead better lives.

        Have some self respect, even though you have a right not to respect others.

      2. Mam Bach

        @ beetley pete: Domination by force, roaming gangs, crime, terror, and virtual slavery? Your evidence we don’t already have this?

        They call the gangs police, and the slavery is that of indentured servitude not serfdom, but crime (stealing our taxes to watch porn and build duck houses) terror (ATOS; also the police uniform design brief was to be more scary) and force (pay us protection money or we’ll put you in jail)

        Oh, and re volunteering: any job you could be paid for, will be counted as though you were being paid and your benefits docked accordingly.

      1. Pete Lumb

        Well my friend I am sure I do not need to tell you that my representation by the BBC was a very clipped rendition of my broader views on the subject but at least it managed some small representation of the horrors of modern day serfdom under corporate fascism. If I was quoted only as saying that I felt society wanted rid of me and looking close to tears then so be it. had I the editing powers myself II would have suggested that “MAKING PEOPLE FEEL LIKE THAT IN THEIR MILLIONS IS A CRIME THAT HARMS THEIR METAL HEALTH AND ITS PERPETRATORS SHOULD FACE JUSTICE” If you will forgive me. I had to do the interview as unsurprisingly it was not easy to find someone to look like that on telly. It remains my own duty to get my own points across and there are many. but at least we had a minutes reprieve from the vile post office fest to consider the council tax victims. No doubt Tory central were spitting bile at that point so well and good. Meanwhile I guess I had best at least start a blog but it will not be easy to make it as good as yours. Blessings. P.

      2. Mike Sivier

        Would you like to do a ‘guest’ piece on this one, to get your hand in? ‘What I would have said on the BBC if I’d had the chance’ – or something similar?

  18. Franky Barton

    I’m not ashamed of being on benefits because unemployment is not the fault of the unemployed, Unemployment is caused by insufficient jobs resulting from all our industry being sold off by thatchers mates and her putting villains in charge of the banks. 400,000 jobs between 3,500,000 people. It doesn’t take a genius to figure where the problem lies. I’m ashamed of three successive governments who rather than fix it, try to hide it by blaming the unemployed.

  19. All-Of Us-At Fifty-Eight

    I am ashamed of being on benefits and I know I shouldn’t be, but people judge unfairly without knowing all the facts. I have never worked a proper job, only ever work-experience, work-placements or in an apprenticeship type position. I’m 24 and physically fit and strong. Since a very young age I have had Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depersonalisation Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder (with Agoraphobia), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder. All of this was due to extreme, childhood sexual abuse and torture from my father and many of his so called friends though mostly his drug dealer, death threats and attempts on my life amongst many other smaller traumas.

    Being on benefits is just one way people make judgements of me with out having a clue of how I live my life, even those within my family who don’t know what I’ve been through. But I end up feeling like I am using it as an excuse to not work, when I know all too well I physically and mentally don’t have the capacity to do so without the symptoms I experience from the above diagnosis let alone with them -the person who judges me the most for being on benefits is myself using other peoples’ voice as a weapon against me.

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