My name is Renuka, I’m a freelance designer and writer, and I claim Universal Credit.
I’m not the archetype one might expect in this situation. I had the privilege of growing up in a well-off family, getting an education at an international school in Asia and then graduating with a degree from an amazing creative institute in the UK. The benefits and welfare system was not something I thought I needed to be familiar with, let alone something I’d actually need. But here I am.
On the 20th of every month, I log into my Universal Credit account. After diligently recording my earnings and expenses to the penny for the month – hands clenching a stack of receipts for fear of some sort of repudiation – I submit my claim. And when my statement comes in a few days later, I exhale in relief, thinking ‘Oh thank god, it’s only a hundred pounds.’
Let’s pause though, to question that reaction. I remember initially passing it off benignly as a sign of distrust in the government – how did I know they wouldn’t ask me to pay it all back when this is all over? I then persisted with the idea that the funds should be given to people who really need them, who are really struggling. This, all to cover up an uncomfortable truth: I did need them, and I was ashamed.
The vulnerability of welfare
It is a global pandemic that has come and pulled the rug out from under so many of us. Yet, thoughts of ‘how did I end up in this situation?’ and ‘was I not doing enough?’ were running amok. And it’s all indicative of a larger issue that is latent but rife in the UK – the stigma surrounding those who claim benefits.
So, what is the inherent issue with seeking support? After all, our benefits system runs on the basic principle that everyone has the right to live a decent life with access to shelter, healthcare and food. What makes it contentious for some is that the keystone to these payments is taxpayer contribution. I see it as a sort of pay-it-forward scheme, a social contract that when those who were in need are able to support themselves again, they return in kind by paying into the pot – as well as, of course, vice-versa. For critics though, there seems to be an enduring attitude that the system is all take and no give.
I question whether they’ve noticed that if this pandemic has reinforced anything, it is that life can be unpredictable. Bar the very few who can sit atop a nest egg riding this out, the insurance of knowing a safety net exists is vital for the majority of people, whether they need it in the moment or not.
The pandemic has been indiscriminate in its destruction of working lives. The Wing, a women-only co-working space that frequently gilded the Instagram feeds of millennial entrepreneurs, lost 95 per cent of its revenue within a week of the first lockdown, then shuttered. The hallowed stages of the West End, a huge draw for London’s tourism revenue, fell dark. The most recent figures suggest 819,000 jobs have been lost since March, and many more workers have been forced to accept reduced hours, reduced income, or remain on the extended, state-subsidised furlough scheme. More than four million people are now receiving Universal Credit, and almost two million of them claimed for the first time after the UK locked down.
Outside of a pandemic though, lest we forget, life can still be unpredictable. Health problems and freak accidents can be indiscriminate and unforgiving. Suddenly rendered unfit to work, those who have dependents can find themselves under extreme financial pressure. For those people, the welfare system is a vital lifeline. So why is it still viewed through a negative lens?
The scrounger assumption
In an appearance on This Morning in 2017, single mother-of-four Deborah Hodge was lambasted for using her benefits payments – her sole means of income – to pay for an extravagant Christmas worth thousands of pounds. Having stopped work after her husband was sectioned, she defended her position. “I’ve paid a lot in tax, I feel like I’ve paid my way. I’m proud to live in a country where there are benefits. I wanted my kids to have the Christmas we used to have.”
Despite her intention to move off benefits and back into employment when feasible, the hosts and viewers were quick to brand her actions as irresponsible and manipulative. Hodge had been deemed eligible for benefits – yet enjoying anything more than the most frugal, ascetic lifestyle using money she was entitled to was seen as egregious. Why is it that we feel the right to determine how that money should be spent?
A big part of that attitude surely stems from the idea what the system is swamped with scroungers. The media has often painted this picture of the fraudulent, undeserving benefits claimant, and in a report from the Child Poverty Action Group UK, it was found that public perception of fraud vastly outweighs reality. The organisation uncovered a belief among respondents that 27 per cent of benefits payments are claimed fraudulently. The actual figure is 0.7 per cent, according to the government. Meanwhile, an analysis of newspaper reports from 1995 to 2011 showed a definite skew towards negative coverage of benefits, with a particular focus on fraud despite its minimal occurrence.
This negative view extends into critical areas of society, including the rental market, where the term ‘No DSS’ is still recognised despite the outdated terminology. In essence, many private landlords aren’t willing to let to tenants who would be paying part, or all, of their rent from benefits, with Centre Point, a charity supporting the homeless, reporting many landlords cite fears of late payment and antisocial behaviour from tenants on benefits. This discrimination and prejudice only serves to further the cycle of poor living conditions and homelessness.
Child Poverty Action Group campaign coordinator Kate Bell contextualises this stigma as the breach of a “deeply embedded norm of reciprocity” – in short, receiving benefits is seen as receiving a gift that is not returned. But where does that idea come from?
History of charity
Prior to the welfare state, the poorly and sick were cared for primarily through the church and voluntary charity groups. Nowadays, the term ‘charity case’ is a form of insult and humiliation. To combat the negative connotation of charity, the framework of providing benefits on a needs basis, or through entitlement as a citizen of the state, was implemented. Yet over the last 50 years, the sentiment that those who are claiming benefits are lazy and undeserving only seems to have grown.
And it’s more than just rhetoric. Such thinking can actively lead people to delay seeking help, or to refuse to claim benefits altogether. It was also partially what pushed me into a cashier and stocking job at my local supermarket back in March. Classed as a key worker, I was paid at National Minimum Wage of £8.73 per hour.
I tried to make the best of my time, chatting with customers from behind a perspex screen in a time when many were bereft of social interaction. While most conversations were pleasant, many were also telling of the social stigma still at large. I was often lauded for making the effort to be of use in this time, for actively helping myself instead of just sitting at home. I’d respond in kind, saying I was just grateful for a job – albeit one that required putting myself at risk. I bought into this idea, to justify the fact that I was exhausted, unable to pursue the creative projects that constituted my actual career and, as a result, merely existing and working to pay the rent.
The kicker in all of this was that, while I had a job, I was STILL reliant on Universal Credit. The fact that I could work a 30-hour week and still not have enough to get by – indeed, earning less than solely claiming benefits – was staggering. Why wouldn’t I give myself the headspace and conserve my energy to focus on something that I was truly passionate about? Surely, I reasoned, it would bode better for my future societal contribution and be more likely to get me off benefits altogether.
I now sit away from this situation, staying with family, recovering and recharging. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the privilege of this position, even more so to not reflect on what I saw in this experience. COVID has exposed a lot of cracks in what is a problematic system. Many are facing situations that those we stigmatise have faced continually, regardless of a pandemic – but in that lies an opportunity. We are at a turning point where we can decide what kind of society we want to be.
At the moment, the expectation is very clear: your value is dependent on what you earn, and your ability to work. But as jobs, particularly blue-collar ones, become scarcer in a world becoming more automated even before coronavirus arrived, what does essential work really look like? I’d like to think we have a future where we look out for one another, and catch those who fall. More though, I hope that when we land in that safety net, we are not denigrated for doing so.