When the Welfare Reform Act was introduced, Iain Duncan Smith was famously quoted as saying, “I could live on £53 a week if I had to“. A petition was set up to see if he would like to prove it but of course he could live on £53 a week ‘if he had to’. We all could, because in a situation where you have no choice, where you have little income and are reliant on the state to support you to some extent, or totally, then you just get on with it. Many families already do.
This is not about to become a tirade against people who rely on benefits, nor a lengthy defence. It is simply requesting a little more understanding of how bloody hard it can be to work your way out of that situation.
When I was growing up, both of my parents had low-income jobs. Dad got home from work in the late afternoon and immediately took the parenting baton from mum so she could go to her evening job at a shampoo factory. Our family was ‘dual income’ but we had bugger all to show for it. No holidays, just hand-me-downs and great smelling hair – thanks Alberto Balsam!
We did, however, have an appreciation of the importance of work because during the periods when my dad didn’t have a job (it was the 80s, redundancy was ‘a thing’) it massively impacted our household budget. This was to become permanent due to his ill-health and subsequent death – without the benefits system I have no idea how my family would have survived.
Now, when you are poor and a teenager, and wishing that your dad wasn’t dead, and that you had enough money to get the bus instead of walking to town, and that you didn’t have to wash your clothes in the sink because the washing machine is broken, and that your clothes didn’t smell because you try drying out a pair of jeans that haven’t been through a proper spin cycle, and that you didn’t have to keep asking the neighbours for bread and sugar, and all the other stuff that goes along with living on almost nothing and everybody knowing about it, you are in quite a precarious position. You really are only a couple of choices away from being reliant on benefits for the rest of your life.
But, if you can see through the grief and the shame and the sick and tired feeling that comes from relying on hand-outs, it might light a fire underneath you that makes you work like crazy to get out. Which is what I did.
And because of that I know how hard it is to leave home at eighteen with no safety net. To decide that you cannot afford to go to university despite the college telling you that you’d earn a place. To leave behind friends, family and siblings that need you and to spend 90% of your wages on rent and train fare which means you have to live off Marmite sandwiches.
I understand the difficulty in making friends when you’ve moved to a place where you don’t know anybody, of feeling out of place, lacking confidence, not having the right social skills and struggling to shut away the part of you that thinks you don’t belong.
I know what it’s like to rent a room in a house that seems fine then the landlord starts telling you that you are, “not permitted to bring boyfriends round” and invites his friends from work over who knock on your bedroom door and ask if you’re naked, so you don’t feel safe and end up jamming your bedroom door shut by putting a chair under the handle.
It is far, far easier to not do this stuff, to ‘stay put’ where you feel more comfortable and are among the people you grew up with.
But I’m so glad I didn’t go back because every minute of effort was worth it. Not just for the incredible achievements that I have made in my professional and personal life but also for the evening when I was introduced to the man that is now my husband. I cannot overstate the value and importance of having a partner who has truly ‘got your back’ when you don’t have the benefit of the family safety net that many of us think is a given.
So far, so heart-warming. See kids – getting ‘on your bike’ works! But my point is this. Finding the strength to invest that kind of effort and cope with the moments of loneliness, being broke, and generally feeling like you’re dragging the weight of the world uphill on a sledge is just about do-able when you’re young, single, healthy, positive to the point of naivety and have a couple of A-levels. But to find yourself in that position in your forties, with a family, or because your partner has died, or because you are ill, or if for whatever reason you came out of school without an armful of qualifications. How much harder is it then?
The Government wants people less reliant on benefits and more inclined to work and of course I agree. There is pride and fulfilment in going to work, bringing home a wage and feeling that you have made a contribution. It gives you confidence when you have your own money and feel in control of your circumstances. It feels incredible to achieve the goals we set for ourselves but what if something happens that takes those things away or knocks you so far back that you wonder how you’ll recover? Could you just ‘snap out of it’ then?
To our MPs I say yes, help people to make changes, find a way to bring more work into families and make more choices available to young people who aren’t starting out from a solid foundation. But do it with a little more understanding and perspective and don’t think that platitudes like those once offered by Iain Duncan Smith work when delivered by someone with a basic salary of close to £80,000 a year.
We could all live off £53 a week if we had to, but we sure as hell wouldn’t choose to.
The original version of this post is featured in my book, Reasons to be Cheerful, Part One. You can order a copy in paperback or as an eBook via Amazon.
Want to get your pupils or employees thinking about social mobility? I regularly deliver talks about my experiences in schools and as part of diversity programmes. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.