Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dole Diaries

Previously called 'Year and a Bit on the Dole', it's now 'Dole Diaries' and below are a few more excerpts. Rather lachrymose this lot, but I don't think you'll need your hanky.

Wednesday, 20 April, 2005
I’m feeling beaten by the Jobseeker (what a misnomer that is) thing. Crying, weeping, wailing, desolate.
Then the doorbell rings. This brightens me up until I discover a pair of Jehovah Witnesses. Who do I think Jesus Christ is, do I read the bible, what do I think about the world’s wickedness, and am I ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom? It’s a lot to ponder. I promise to read the Watchtower. Unemployed. Unloved (because that's how you feel when you're on the dole), but still attractive to religious proselytisers.

About my office lie the corpses of my business chequebooks; the carapaces of the paying-in, paying-out books. Although my mobile is no longer live, my recorded phone message still refers callers to it. It has been like a bereavement. I have wept like one who has lost a loved one. As an earner when I walked out during the day it represented an interlude in my work. But, now when I go out it is as a person with no calls upon her (apart from renewing food stocks). I am aimless. There is no need to speed my step. I tell myself I'm not a victim. This is temporary. I will scratch and scramble out of the slough. I bloody will.

This afternoon, lucky me, I'm going to Tate Britain to see the Turner Whistler Monet exhibition. Art is the last refuge of the impecunious. It will feed my soul and open vistas closed off in my tiny office with its Velux blind closed against the world. It seems to me that art is all.

Thursday, 21 April, 2005
Before leaving for Tate Britain, the post clumps onto the mat. I study my bank statement. Has money from the Jobseeker's Allowance been paid? It has not. Since applying I have received precisely nothing. I phone Makerfield Benefit Centre (the oracle on these matters), and ask what's going on. I am told that the first payment went through a week ago. I am relieved.
‘Thank you, Darren, I say (they always give you their first name).

Next, a letter from Southwark about Council Tax. I’ve already been to the Housing Office with evidence of Child Benefit. But, I must re-present already presented documents. It's simple enough. As I’m dealing with this, the phone rings. It's Darren.
He’s spotted a problem. What happens after you first sign, he says, is that the right-hand box moves to the left-hand box on the screen, and that means the money is sanctioned to go through. In my case, this hasn't happened. The box has stayed to the right of the screen. He says this is probably because I get Child Tax Credit. I must go to my Jobcentre as soon as possible (no show, no money) and fill out an MF47 to make a JSA statement that I don't receive WTC (Working Tax Credit), but I do get CTC (Child Tax Credit).

(He goes on to tell me that for 20 years he worked in industry, and when he moved into this line of work, he was bamboozled by the letters and numbers that are the building blocks of the entire benefits' system. Last night he was explaining a work situation to his wife when suddenly she screamed: 'You've become one of them!’)

For some reason these two further demands dent my precarious sense of unity in mind and body. I could wail. But I have to go see Turner Whistler Monet. This is good. In former days of solvency I joined the Tate so now I can enjoy gratis admission to exhibitions.

Friday, 22 April, 2005
Art was yesterday. Today I must tangle with the Jobcentre. I am in tears. It’s going on six weeks since I entered the alternative universe of the Jobseeker. I have had a bellyful of mis-information, form filling, delays and obstructions. What I haven’t had is any money.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Dave, the humming milkman

Another excerpt from my Dole Diaries

Monday, 11 April 2005
'Eighteen years ago, I was at the tail-end of pushing out my baby. In fact, her birth is about 15 minutes away. Her head is about to crown; I'm about to give one last exhausted push. No time for pain; it's beyond that. Now, these many years later, I cannot tell the pleasure she has brought.
On Sunday, we celebrated with friends, bottles of Cava and the largest, creamiest, fruitiest cake allied with one other, a gorgeous chocolate creation, baked by one of her friends. After they took off for the pub I washed-up and picked up and felt satisfied. I like Sundays as they are no-man's territory in the real world.
Not so a Monday. An email from my accountant who has heard from the Inland Revenue that I have changed my work status. I should say I have. I must explain my sorry state to him. I've been reluctant to do this, feebly hoping for a miracle.
I look about at the day's options. I can't wash-up any more. My bed is made. I'm running out of diversions. My daughter is in the bath with a blare of music leaking out. She goes to school late on Mondays. I write this.
No milk on my doorstep today. It was a twice-weekly routine that I have had to abandon. I can't afford to pay extra for milk and the luxury of its delivery. But, I'd rather have Dave in his humming milkfloat dropping off milk than the 40 pence saving each week.
I'm walking more, and the saddles of flesh are disappearing fast. A few years ago I abandoned car ownership.
When purchasing the Cava last week, I couldn't remember my PIN number. I tried again. No luck. Stressed about my financial situation? I think this tells the story. The numbers have become scrambled. Even now I'm spending intermittent moments going through combinations of the four numbers, having had the same PIN for a decade. If I don't get it right next time, a machine will gobble it. And if it does, I'll be given a new PIN, and how challenging will that be for my stressed-to-breaking-point brain?
With the weather sunny, I have spent the afternoon in the garden. Weeding, mowing, tidying. Strikes me (a little too late) I should be growing my own vegetables. But, sharing the garden with several cats, families of foxes and ever-more squirrels, I'm not sure of the wisdom of that course. All is quiet until the next-door neighbours return and the kids start screaming about a slaughtered robin in their garden. Is it the tabby that has left it blood-spattered? The father digs a small grave for the corpse, but before he can deposit it, a cat slinks along and pees in it.
About five o'clock I'm exhausted from doing not very much and take a nap.
Before that, I have a telephone conversation with a woman who is following-up my enquiry about getting into teaching literacy skills to adults. Ah, she says, firstly I’ll need to work for a year as a volunteer (no expenses paid), then I’ll need to study for a PGCE -- one year full-time or two years part-time and at that point I can be considered for employment. I say I'll think about it and laugh my head off. Then, feel sad because it is something I could do.'

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Poor love

So, our adolescents are the most depressed, unloved, pissed and promiscuous in the developed world which rather begs the question: what kind of development have we developed? One where values translate into BOGOF offers, where parents are too busy earning money to nurture their children, where friendship doesn’t always mean kindness, and where role models are get-rich-quick sellebrities.

Poverty is about more than money. For children not to feel loved and nurtured is an egregious impoverishment of their very humanity. Love will get you through the night; a pair of Jimmy Choos won’t.

Let me finish this sermonising with a letter published in the Guardian that suggests the malaise is even more widespread: ‘”British children: poorer, at greater risk and more insecure”. Only the children?’

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A leg to stand on

Below is another exerpt from my 'Year and a Bit on the Dole'. Official refusal of my benefit claim was the first I heard from the Department of Work and Pensions.

"Friday, 1st April 2005
Another manila envelope. This one contains a letter stating: 'We cannot pay you Jobseeker's Allowance'. There is no explanation. To appeal, I must fill in the form in leaflet GL24. I am stunned but somehow unsurprised. I'm even wondering if it's a good thing: this attempt to obtain a modicum of money from the State, plus, possibly, the payment of my Council Tax. Maybe, I can do without the money; do without the humiliation, the unfathomability of it all.

When not sobbing into rationed tissues, I have been filling my days with more cleaning and tidying. The airing cupboard is cleared of odd socks. I have had time to deal with this sort of thing.

So, it's with the greatest of upset that I see black things on a kitchen shelf. I open the cupboards, and see more black things the size of match heads. Have they been there all along, or is this a sudden infestation of mice? I have lived in this house 17 years and it has been rodent-free all this time. But, when you're down, nature can be relied on to give you a kicking. I am distraught. I have no money to live on and now I have mice. I phone the Council. It'll cost me £65 to have the problem dealt with. That's about £10 more than I'll be expected to live on for a week should I ever be granted Jobseeker's Allowance.
I empty shelves. I clean like a machine. I'm distraught. Dazed. Fearful. I don't like mice. Could be rats, says a friend. I retrieve china and glasses from way back in the cupboards, get rid of the bag of plastic bags (could be a nest), wash every bit of crockery. And, I source the problem -- a bag of flour. I lavishly sprinkle peppermint oil (rodents don't like it) all around the kitchen. It's April 1st but it's no joke.

The task spills into Saturday. When I get up I feel the dread as I tread downstairs to inspect the shelves. Clear of droppings.
I spend the weekend snivelling and cleaning. My daughter has been away for five days; she returns to a mess of a mother.

Tuesday, 5 April 2005.
Today I must sign. It's an act of faith and desperation. My claim for benefits has been rejected and I have received no money which I gather may be because I haven't submitted Form B16/17 explaining my previous self-employment status. I will hand it in to the Jobcentre today. With luck, that will trigger my claim going through.

Meanwhile, I have phoned for jobs. Read newspaper advertisements. Dispatched my CV hither. I want to work because I like being an autonomous person untrammelled by bureaucratic anonymous government departments that decree things like whether I qualify for this pittance.

I am dreading signing on, imagining myself in a scrum of desperate people. But the 'customer' ethos really kicks in here. It turns out the appointment time is actually the time that the claimant is seen. We sit on primal blue and red sofas. Rosey-hued muzak plays in the background. 'I can't make you love me,' laments the singer. We are African, West Indian, white and Asian. Only one bloke is cursing and he's a whippet of a man in polyester sports gear. A guy seated opposite -- he could be Columbian (there are many in Peckham) -- beats out on his thigh a jazzed-up bass line to the soppy music.
My name is called. I go to a desk, sit down. The interviewer, a pleasant woman, asks me what I'm doing about finding work, and seems satisfied with my answers. She tells me the routine: I must look for jobs and tell them at each interview about the progress I've made. That's it, really. She advises me about the process the system is going through to verify my claim, and says at this point I don't need to appeal the fact that my claim has been rejected.

I leave and go to the Persian shop next door and buy baklava. These honeyed pastries are my reward and £1.60 well spent. I'm beginning to feel not so bad. I am not down and out in Peckham, yet."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Passionate officers

The picture (see below) of the blue-faced chaps is skewwhiff because it flipped onto its side due to a miracle of technology. On my computer screen the image was upstanding. Many of us started off that way.

Yesterday I perused newspaper advertisements for jobs, and was struck by the number demanding passion from prospective employees. Passion, no less! What was once a word associated with Greek lovers is now associated with servicing clients, meeting objectives, massaging bottom lines. Give me a break.

Another thing staring the job seeker in the face is the high number of short-term contracts. Even then, passion is expected. But, who could possibly be passionate about a job destined to last nine months?

One more thing to catch my eye was the prevalence of the word – officer – in job titles. Some examples: Project Partnership Outreach Officer; Supporting People Officer; Government Affairs Officer, and Overview & Scrutiny Support Officer. Is it a reflection of our wartime footing?

Friday, February 09, 2007

So blue

In support of the principle that there’s always someone worse off than you, so, too, there is someone bluer than you.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Get back to work!

Two stories in the press last week grabbed my attention. One was the exhortation of lone parents to get back to work. The other was the escalating cost of childcare.
The government has a point. Too many single parents are stuck in the benefits system. They and their children suffer the malaise of the marginal. Shoes are made of man-made fibres, food is low on wholesomeness, and holidays are something that happens when school terms come to an end but they don’t mean you get to go anywhere. It is horrible to be poor and raising a family.
‘Only 56 per cent’ of our lone parents work, but in Finland 80 per cent work. (If you’ve ever been to a Finnish nursery, and I have, you’ll understand the attraction. Think warmth, timber architecture and professionalism.) The quality of nurseries is one thing; the cost another.
Here the weekly national average for a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £142; in inner London it’s almost £200. Just how is a lone parent to afford this expense along with all the other survival costs s/he must meet from a salary? Beats me.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The goat's cheese of management

It’s lunchtime in the house of two of my (married) friends:
‘We couldn’t manage without money from our parents.’
‘I’m the same. I’ve only kept going because my Dad left some money. I’ve been more or less living on it.’
‘It’s crazy.’
‘At our age. Why is this? We shouldn’t still need hand-outs. And, how are we going to help our kids when they’re older? That’s what worries me.’
‘It’s not like we don’t work hard. I do except when I’m too depressed about the lack of money and all that.’
‘I’m always working.’
‘You know when we did our taxes after deducting expenses we had £860 to live on for a year! Can you believe it?’
‘That’s as bad as signing on.’
‘Course we’re all artists: music, photography, writing. That doesn’t make you rich, not usually, but we should be making something.’

This was the conversation as four of us (all aged about 50) sat around a table enjoying fresh ravioli, salad, and a half bottle of French wine, followed by Spanish goat’s cheese practically melting on the plate as the sun shone like it wasn’t a Thursday in February.
And we wondered just how are we managing?