One of my first actions as a Londoner was to sign on for as many benefits as I could get my hands on. In my puerile post-university fantasy, the move to London was one that could be made with consummate ease: a house would be found, and, once inhabited, keys would fit the locks and boilers wouldn’t break. Sadly, hazards both unforeseen and ignored at the time of ‘planning’ have wrecked the fantasy.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the process has been the search for part-time work in the media and publishing sectors. With no internet access in my flat, looking for work is slow. The correlative impulse to simply grab my coat and pound the streets with a clutch of CVs is similarly curtailed by the need to sit around the house for large chunks of the working day while I wait for the boiler repair man to turn up with some spare part or other. As a result, I’m about to start an almost-full time internship, without any source of income, and a rapidly diminishing pile of savings.
The benefits system is plagued by injustices, though I can’t claim to have encountered the most serious of them. Nonetheless, the fact that there is no Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) provision for someone doing over 16 hours a week of voluntary work is symptomatic of this government’s myopia towards the provision of welfare. There is no qualitative distinction made between work that is socially useful and work that serves no valuable function to either the individual or society.
Internships, payment for which rarely extends beyond basic expenses, are a crucial step on the career ladder for today’s generation. They offer vital experience in a professional context, a prerequisite of any job application in our times. Sadly, some of the most ethical, social-justice orientated employers operate on a shoestring budget. Interns and volunteers are therefore essential to their continued operation.
People should feel no shame in seeking financial support from the state
The economic logic presented by the government’s welfare provision is catch-22: to fulfil personal ambitions you may need to work for several months in unpaid internships or similar voluntary positions to gain the necessary experience. This is more true of some industries than others – it is a rule of thumb that the more scrupulous the industry, the less generously it compensates you for your time. In order to be able to undertake the internship, you need a separate source of income. Part time work is difficult to find, particularly when the hours you’re working for free take up most of the week. So you might think about taking benefits to help you out. But to claim JSA while working full time as an intern is considered benefit fraud, even if you never earn a penny from your job. The system of eligibility is so convoluted that even jobcentre staff are none the wiser as to whether you can claim housing support without JSA. The benefits system requires you to take any job you can, no matter how demeaning, in order to qualify for financial support.
The government should facilitate benefits claimants’ endeavours to get a job to which they are suited. In its current manifestation, though, the system merely perpetuates the logic that welfare claimants are idle by actively inhibiting them from undertaking full-time voluntary jobs that might lead eventually to paid work. On the other side of the coin, it assumes that internships are the preserve of the middle classes, for those with families who can afford to support them until they begin earning.
The atmosphere in the job centre confirms much of this. Visitors sit in a line waiting for their name to be called. A number of underworked private security guards lean languorously against the walls. During my visit they interjected when a woman tried to stand between the final chair in the row and a pillar. They told her to sit down, for health and safety reasons. She pointed out that there were no free chairs, and that it was absurd to claim she was breaching health and safety regulations. As the exchange escalated she demanded to see the health and safety code in written form. The guards told her that the policy was “implied” and that unless she sat down she would be removed from the building. ‘You’re just bullies’, she retorted. ‘I didn’t come here to be bullied. Why are you even here? The only reason you came over here is because you haven’t got enough work to do!’
The welfare system must stop privileging the unqualified status of ‘employed’ over being engaged in work of genuine social value. As a middle class white male I occupy a position of privilege in our patriarchal, class-based society. My personal frustration with the system is hardly paramount. Yet people should feel no shame in seeking financial support from the state. In the midst of vacuous assertions that ‘we are all in this together’ the truth remains that many people are unable to undertake the work they would hope to, in large part because the jobs no longer exist. While the greatest leniency continues to be shown to those banks and corporations implicated in the financial crisis, with contempt reserved for the poorest in our society, we can feel no compunction in taking advantage of whatever financial support we can secure from central government, while we are in need of it.