Monday, 21 July 2008
Punishing the poor
It's depressing to read the message boards and comment columns. So many people blame all the country's ills on "scroungers" and the unemployed. The current financial crisis has nothing to do with unemployment. As economists point out, current problems, such as the rising price of oil, are causing unemployment.
There are other causes too. Ending student grants forces poorer students into debt or work - often debt and work. Nearly half of students work during term-time, averaging just under 20 hours a week - and they work in vacations too. That's a huge pool of cheap labour ripe for exploitation - often working for mimimum wages (or less) at unsocial hours and too desperate for cash to complain about working conditions. Many schoolchildren are working too and, while they're under 18, they don't get the minimum wage.
When I was unemployed, I told myself I'd remember how it felt. It's hard to recapture the hopeless depression that takes over after just a few weeks or the tiredness caused by a trek from shop to shop, hunting for reductions on bread, rice and lentils. I recall the desperation of wanting to afford a tiny luxury - a postcard or a small Christmas decoration - and the pride I felt in not letting friends and family know that I could afford so little.
I can still remember the mixture of suspicion and contempt from one member of benefits staff, who thought me both too clever and too lazy. I was six months pregnant at the time and she managed to imply that pregnancy was another example of my fecklessness, telling me that my intention to breast-feed when the baby was born showed my lack of commitment to the world of work. I was summoned back for a detailed interview about my circumstances, which culminated in a long argument about my travel expenses. I got the expenses and benefits in the end, at the cost of a great deal of self-confidence. Only the knowledge that I needed money for the baby kept me going in the gap between temp. work and maternity pay.
The Labour Party used to stand up for the unemployed. I chanced on a web-library of Scottish Labour election leaflets - appropriate for this week with the Glasgow East by-election set for Thursday. I found the election address of Agnes Dollan, who was standing for Glasgow Springburn ward in a Glasgow City by-election of 1921. One of the key paragraphs is headed "Our Workless Brethren" and reads:
The condition of the unemployed in the city must be our first concern. Over 70,000 men and women are unable to obtain work, and their homes are shadowed by sorrow and poverty. Thousands could be employed in the building of houses, and on other schemes of civic welfare, if the State would give grants to finance these schemes. If the Government could afford £30,000,000 for warships, it can afford to finance work for the unemployed. The State must accept full responsibility for unemployment so that occupation or maintenance can be provided for the workless.
The election address goes on to guarantee that the unemployed of Glasgow will not be evicted and that the unemployed will be given the same moratorium on debt as was provided to bankers at the beginning of World War I.
Today, the New Labour government is talking about getting the unemployed into work, but the language is all about force, threats and punishment. The jobless will be ordered to work - first clearing litter and cleaning graffiti in community projects and then at unspecified full-time jobs. This will affect almost all the 4.6 million people who are unemployed and claiming benefits - only those with the most serious disabilities will be exempt. I suppose we'll get used to seeing gangs of the sick and dying peeling chewing-gum off city streets.
I don't know whose jobs will be given to the unemployed but I hope the government remembers its own minimum wage laws. Apparently the new rules will include an opportunity for private companies to profit.
It looks as though the new regime will be piloted in Glasgow - but there won't be an announcement until the by-election is over. I wonder what Agnes Dollan would have made of adviser, David Freud, "investment banker and government welfare adviser," who seems to be behind the new scheme.