Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Lord Freud, Theresa, and the evil of workfare: The ‘fragile artifice’ of morality

In a long essay in yesterday’s Guardian, John Gray notes that our leaders talk frequently about conquering the forces of evil – for example when Barak Obama vows to destroy ISIS’s ‘brand of evil’. But he believes that this rhetoric illuminates a failure to accept that cruelty and conflict are basic human traits.

John Gray’s essay – I urge you to read it here – refers us back to an ‘old-fashioned understanding’ that is ‘a central insight of western religion’, as well as Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians  that ‘evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal’.  He adds: ‘The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.’

His essay continues: ‘When large populations collude with repressive regimes it need not be from thoughtlessness or inertia. Liberal meliorists like to think that human life contains many things that are bad, some of which may never be entirely eliminated; but there is nothing that is intrinsically destructive or malevolent in human beings themselves – nothing in other words, that corresponds to a traditional idea of evil. But another view is possible and one that need make no call on theology. What has been described as evil in the past can be understood as a natural tendency to animosity and destruction, co-existing in human beings alongside tendencies to sympathy and cooperation.’

He refers to the study On Compromise and Rotten Compromises by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, which distinguishes between regimes that rest on cruelty and humiliation, ‘as many have done throughout history, and those that go further by excluding some human beings altogether from moral concern…. Describing the latter as radically evil, he (Margalit) argues that Nazi Germany falls into this category’.  Judged by Margalit’s formula, John Gray says that the Soviet Union was also implicated in ‘radical evil’.  He adds: ‘The Soviet state implemented a policy of exclusion from society of “former persons” – a group that included those who lived off unearned income, clergy of all religions and tsarist functionaries – who were denied civic rights, prohibited from seeking public office and restricted in their access to the rationing system. Many died of starvation or were consigned to camps where they perished from overwork, undernourishment and brutal treatment.’

I read the phrase ‘restricted in their access to the rationing system’ , noted the role of the work camps and thought of  the impact of current ‘welfare’ policies in the UK on the lives of  the people who visit the food banks in this area of London. Many of them have complex long-term health problems – often including mental health issues. Take the case of  Theresa (not her real name), a lovely and intelligent single person who came into the food bank recently. She ended up in England as a teenager. When she ran away from her home she was very young, pregnant and already the mother of  a small child. She took that child with her.  Her tough, traumatic history has left her struggling on many fronts. She’s now a grandmother and is finally on the waiting list for long-term counselling, following a fairly recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD can make an individual at risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

She had been struggling to survive on her current employment and support allowance (ESA) rate of £140.80 a fortnight, and her inability to find enough money to buy food after she’d paid her bedroom tax (included in her rent of £47 a fortnight), council tax and other bills (her gas and electric costs alone are £25 a week) had forced her to ask a Jobcentre Plus adviser for a food bank voucher. That voucher was welcome – and good of course as far as it went. The three days of emergency help is designed to see someone through a short-term crisis. But a crisis had been building over the course of Theresa’s life, and the crisis had already come to a head.  Theresa’s life is still a very hard one, and she will keep on struggling to survive on ESA while she waits for her recent application for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to be assessed. In the UK these assessments for people who need help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability have been mired in long delays. Theresa, like many of those awaiting PIP assessments,  has no idea how long this process will take.

‘Things started to get really bad two years ago with regard to food,’ says Theresa. ‘I’ve had to go completely without food at times. I sit in my flat without the gas on. I have no choice. I can’t afford to put the gas on during the day.’

Theresa managed to access some college courses two years ago – at which point she discovered she was dyslexic. To some extent this belated knowledge helped this bright and talented woman to start to make sense of some of the problems she had experienced in her early life. The peak of the crisis came when a while back someone – or ‘the system’ –  took the decision to place Theresa on the Work Programme. This involved Theresa offering her ‘free’ labour to two different businesses while she claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) . Putting her on the programme caused her ‘tremendous problems’ , she says.

About 14 years earlier she had been hospitalised for depression, but she had hidden the scale of her depression from her children. But she says the unpaid work placements – one in a retail outlet and the other in a cafe – exposed her to issues she found traumatic – including bullying. The manager of the shop ‘for some reason picked on me and he wanted me behind the till all day and he wouldn’t let me fill shelves. I was working there six days a week’.  She finished the work placements and took an overdose very quickly after that. ‘I phoned my sister after I had taken lots of tablets. She rang an ambulance and I went to A&E. I was then discharged and referred to a mental health clinic. They referred me for a mental health assessment and it was then that the BPD was diagnosed.’ She’s now on the waiting list for the specialist therapy she needs for her condition. The only recent positive developments in Theresa’s life as she waits for therapy is that an individual Jobcentre Plus adviser has taken an interest and has spoken to the local council to try to sort out a temporary reduction in her rent. That would make her rent arrears more manageable. She is also receiving support from mental health charity Mind.

The Work Programme describes itself as ‘designed to help people who are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed’ and it says it  ‘aims to support people into sustained employment’. The Work Programme is delivered by providers from the private and voluntary sector, and ‘once a claimant has joined the Work Programme they will be supported by their provider for up to two years’. In reality, just 48,000 people found long-term jobs under the programme in the almost three-year period between the start of the scheme in 2011 and early 2014. That only represents 3.2% of the 1.5 million people the Department for Work and Pensions said it had referred to the programme in total. The financial cost of the programme to the public sector for the three years to March 2014 has been £1.37 billion – but it doesn’t seem as if even the most fragile artifice of morality has been factored into a scheme which puts claimants  – many of whom are some of the most vulnerable people in society – to work for no money.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty is one of  many commentators to highlight the fact that the most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest by a perfect storm of cuts to a number of core disability benefits at once. This is at a time when ‘going by GDP data, this country has never been so wealthy. It certainly has the money to look after a group that you and I would recognise as being among our most vulnerable’. His view is that the comments by Lord Freud at a Conservative party conference fringe meeting on whether people with disabilities should work for just £2 an hour  are ‘just the smallest injury Freud has dealt disabled people’.  He says ‘contempt for disabled people runs right through coalition policy’.

Writer and campaigner Johnny Void sees workfare as nothing more than a scheme for employers wishing to scrounge free workers. He asked recently: ‘Is it any wonder that unpaid work is fast becoming the new segregation for many disabled workers?’ Mike Sivier at Vox Political has also written extensively about workfare, including the decision by the High Court to declare as illegal Iain Duncan Smith’s retroactive 2013 law to refuse docked payments to jobseekers who had refused to take part in the workfare scheme. Canadian disabilities studies specialist and disability activist Samuel Miller has been reporting voluntarily to the UN’s human rights office in Geneva on what he describes as the welfare crisis for the UK’s sick and disabled. He has also written to UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay asking for an urgent investigation into the UK’s approach to benefit sanctioning.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the basic human trait of cruelty has already  been embraced and given a secure home within the UK system of government in relation to its treatment of anyone rash enough to be poor and vulnerable in the sixth richest country in the world.

 

 

Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit  ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina Lomax says it is "immoral" that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
Gina Loxam says it is “immoral” that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
When is a debt not a debt? When it’s £732 that the government says is now owed by Gina Loxam in Working Tax Credit (WTC).

Gina, a single woman of 58 from the north-west of England, had been on WTC – a means tested payment for those in low-paid work – including self-employed people. It’s paid by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Unfortunately Gina, who lost her beloved pet shop business in the recession, became very ill with depression. Following an assessment by ATOS, she was placed on employment and support allowance (ESA) in the work-related activity group. Because she was receiving WTC, this amount was deducted from her ESA to ensure she only got £100 per week.

She did her WTC return only to discover she was no longer entitled to it after 28 weeks off sick. She has now been told that she owes HMRC £732. ESA will not back date their reduced underpayments to cover this, saying she should have informed WTC directly when she went onto ESA. Gina says of this demand from the HMRC: “I was in no fit state to even feed myself let alone notify loads of different departments of my current status. I am now left with a debt of £732 for money I never received off the ESA. This is morally wrong and theft. Apparently this is happening to a lot of people on WTC who went onto ESA. Why are these departments not liaising and ensuring the claimants are aware of the rules? This is another way of sanctioning the vunerable.”

Gina wants the ESA to backdate her full benefit to the date the WTC ceased so that she can pay the WTC back from the reimbursed ESA underpayments. She adds: “I also want to raise awareness of how immoral this whole situation is. I am not asking for anything I was not entitled too. If I have to pay this back, it means I would have been only receiving £47 for three months instead of £100. It boils down to theft of benefits.”

She says of people who are ill and in her situation: “It’s ridiculous to have a debt you don’t really owe because you were underpaid ESA. How many people have been affected by this? It’s another form of sanction. I have worked all my life and to be in this position is abhorrent. I’ve written a letter to the HMRC telling them I can’t pay.”

Gina wrote to her local MP, Conservative David Morris, for help. He replied: “There is no scope for discretion within the law relating to Social Security, and that is something which we must all accept as fact, regardless of whether or not we agree with it. It has long been intrinsic within Social Security Legislation that the onus of responsibility to provide accurate information, details and documentation both at the outset of a claim, and at all stages thereafter, rests with the claimant. This would include therefore, reporting change of circumstances. The regulations say that it is your duty to report any change in your circumstances which you might be reasonably expected to know could affect your right to, the amount of, or the payment of, your benefits.
This is Regulation 32(1A) and (1B) of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987. It is not the responsibility of any individual or Government Department to notify someone either that they are eligible to claim a particular benefit, or to take action on an assumption of a change of circumstances. If you fail to disclose a material fact which affects your entitlement, (whether unintentional or otherwise) then an overpayment will be deemed to have occurred. Such overpayments are then generally recoverable.”

She wrote back to Mr Morris telling him that she did not receive an overpayment. “The Government can’t have it both ways. I was underpaid my ESA. If I had been getting the full benefit for WTC and ESA I would have been overpaid. But this is not an overpayment as I did not get my full ESA entitlement! I don’t even want the money paid back to me but to go direct to HMRC clearing my ‘debt’. An inter department transfer.”. She continued: “The whole situation is theft and a sanction. I am sure you would not be happy if you were expected to lose seven weeks of your salary due to an honest mistake.”

Gina wants to know how many people have been affected by this issue. She added: “It’s just immoral. It’s a secret sanction. They’re not telling people what they need to do, yet they are very quick to penalize people for not doing it. I was bouncing back (from depression), but I’m not now. I’m worrying about money I’ve lost that I should have had. I’m not going to pay this. I refuse.”

She points out that when she applied for ESA she had to note on the claim form which benefits she was claiming and that she listed WTC. “So they would have had that information, they knew I was on it. Why wasn’t that automatically flagged on the system once I’d been on ESA for more than 28 weeks? The DWP should automatically send out a letter after 28 weeks to those on WTC informing them that they are now going to get full ESA and they will either inform WTC or you have to. Simple.”

Thanks to Gina for flagging up this issue. Please get in touch if you have had similar problems with WTC and ESA.