The sight of Metiria Turei going alone to meet staff at the WINZ office about her 20 year old over-payment last month was an experience that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Visiting the benefit office for an interview is amongst the most challenging memories of my young life. It was a long time ago when I lived in the UK and came about because within weeks of leaving university I broke my leg. It took a year to mend, another three months before I was fully mobile again and two years in all before I found a job.
After about a year I was called in to the Social Security department for a review meeting and put into a windowless room. The door was locked behind me and I was grilled about why I had no job, even though the evidence of my broken leg must have been in my notes and I was still limping. I was put on a three monthly review with what felt like threats to cut my unemployment benefits. This was infuriating but also terrifying. There were few jobs locally even though Swansea was a good-sized town.
I found the experience of unemployment & needing to claim benefits was a series of almost permanent Catch 22 situations that would not have been out of place in I, Daniel Blake. As in that film, there was some individual kindness, but it failed to counter the systemic cruelty of the experience.
I recall that there was a lot of street knowledge about how to present yourself to the Social Security office. Meetings always felt risky, as if presenting your facts in the wrong order meant that a different interpretation could see the benefit cut. There were worries that being an irritant to the staff would bring about a change or delay to your benefit eligibility which made the interactions very tense.
Like Metiria, I lived in a situation where friends moved in & out and this impacted the benefit available and had to be reported, which involved hours waiting on the phone to the benefit office or spent in waiting rooms clutching a numbered ticket alongside people who were sometimes angry and emotional. Together with the worries of having little money for emergencies and being unable to pay bills and the rent, I continued to apply for jobs and attend interviews and not only from fear. I wanted desperately to make a start to my adult life and each doctor visit estimated that “another six weeks” would see my leg mended.
The stresses were nothing compared to what beneficiaries have faced since the 1991 “Mother of All Budgets” though. Our tenancy remained assured provided we paid the rent, which was controlled by legislation, and the house was subject to minimum standards which were an effective “warrant of fitness”. It didn’t get to needing to go to food-banks — if they were available at the time I don’t remember and mostly I could pay the bills. Even so I found these apparently generous times unremittingly harsh. There was a gradual but ongoing diminishment in the quality of my circumstances. The deterioration of personal belongings — shoes and clothes, household equipment and furniture were patched, cracked, faded and broken or partially working. I became depressed and angry at the world. I recall being tense-jawed, dry-eyed and unable to cry. Sometimes the effect of what I did in this frame of mind made my situation worse. I started to have panic attacks and vertigo, and spent time thinking I was going mad. Being dependent, even on a supposedly properly provisioned social security system was for me an extremely harsh experience. I can hardly imagine what current beneficiaries are faced with in contrast.
Telling this story makes me aware of the way that Metiria’s story was endlessly picked over, speculated on, unpacked for casual analysis and judgement. Why didn’t she just do this? What about family, relatives, ex-partner, in-laws, addresses, options? The hoary maxim that “explaining is losing” in our politics is sadly true and Metiria did explain and did not resort to ‘cease and desist’ injunctions, defamation charges, throwing money at the problem or buying silence or any of the other things that the powerful in our society commonly do to make problems vanish. In this she was identifiably like all of us who wield little public power. She reminds us that there is no perfect person, certainly no perfect claimant when everything we do — accepting gifts, being taken out to dinner, accepting baby-sitting or care for children from flatmates, friends, relatives and in-laws — could in public life be subject to scrutiny. So being able to maintain and benefit from supportive relationships is construed as dishonesty and this has its corollary in the current benefits system. The WINZ website says that beneficiaries who receive gifts while receiving an accommodation allowance must declare them for assessment as income.
We all live with complexity, vulnerability and imperfection — with hopes and fears about people who can care for us but who we do not want to be beholden to or who cannot fund our costs and house us. And in any case benefits should be rights — part of the Social Contract — not subject to judgments about whether we are deemed deserving.
My eventual escape was a move to London to find a job and join my partner. I lived there in a squatting community next to a small urban park. We had a loo but no bathroom so used the local public baths with wonderful Victorian tubs, tiles and copper plumbing. I had no resources initially and so paying rent at the outset would have been impossible but compared to claiming social security being a squatter with a job was a breeze.
The impact of these two years trashed my self-esteem and confidence though and it took years to rebuild. My experience means that I would not judge anyone on a benefit who has made a choice to survive by failing to disclose or fudging information about their living situation or whatever they have done that makes survival possible. Benefit fraud is most certainly different from tax evasion in that respect — it is generally about survival not about relative wealth. If the alternative is a collapse into depression and worse the price seems very high.
Recently I did a submission to the suicide strategy and in the preparatory reading discovered that the number of suicides more than doubled in the years after 1984 and for women rose again following the 1991 benefit cuts. What this demonstrates to me is that some of the people who struggled with Metiria did not make it.