Saturday, 25 February 2012

Life on benefits

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while, and I've always put it off because I couldn't be arsed with the hassle and abuse I've feared that I'll get for writing it. But it seems like the right time to do it now. All I'll say is - if you're thinking of slagging me off on Twitter or in the comments section, go fuck yourself.  I'll take your terribly important job for a month and you can be on benefits if it's so damn easy.

I've been unemployed for six months now. In fact, I've been unemployed so long that my contribution-based JSA will run out in a week and I have to switch to income-based JSA. I've taken out what I put in to the system and am now officially A Burden. That's a crappy feeling in and of itself, and it's not helped by the 'scrounging youth' rhetoric so beloved by the Tories. I mean, I worked in a pub to support myself for five years - through college, university and after, while I tried (and failed) to get a proper job. I'd often find myself with only one full day off every three weeks. I'm not a shirker.

So, what are benefits like? Well, each week I get around £62 in Housing Benefits and £53 in JSA. Of my JSA, £13 immediately goes towards topping up my rent (£75p/w) - luckily, my rent includes utility bills and council tax. That leaves me with £40 a week left, or £160 a month (quick note - two thirds of all my benefits go to my landlord).

How do I spend this throbbing great amount? Well, it goes a bit like this:

  • I spend about £30 a month to travel to see either my partner or my family (I live around 300 miles away from each). 
  • I spend £40 on food. I have the luxury of having the time and ability to cook all my meals from scratch, and being vegan means I can ease by reasonably cheaply.
  • £30 goes on tobacco. I'm not going to defend this, it's probably a bad choice. But a saving of £7 a week and nothing to really do with it leaves me with little incentive to quit.
  • I also have to pay £10 for my mobile (my only means of communication with most people) and £5 for internet access in my house.
  • I pay my bank £10 a month because, being so utterly bloody skint, I'm at the bottom of an overdraft and have to pay interest on it. 

That's £125 gone, like that. Which means that each month, I have the grand sum of £35 to spend on myself. There's always a niggly something, like a birthday or having to replace essentials like toiletries which takes £5 of that, so at the end of the month, I get £30. £7.50 a week to spend on anything else I might want. Which leads me to the isolation.

You can't do anything. You can't make friends, and you lose the ones you had because you can't see them. If I want to go to a gig (£4 entry, 3 pints at £3 each), that's two weeks of disposable income gone. I literally can't do anything else that whole time. I mean, I'm lucky because when I'm with my partner he'll pay for me to go out and do things. But I hate that. I feel like a leech. When I'm away from him, I only leave the house to go to the supermarket and the job centre. This year, my little sister had to give me money so I could go for a few pints with her on her birthday.

Sure, there are things you can do for free, but it's still incredibly isolating. I've stopped getting involved in activist stuff down here because I don't know anyone, and when you're at the meetings you're focussed on the issue at hand. I tried, but if you can't socialise with people outside of meetings, they don't know who you are when you're there. Hard to believe, but I'm just the quiet girl in the corner. When I leave, no one will notice I'm gone, because no one noticed I even arrived. 

So what do you do instead? Well, if you're me you buy a few bottles of the cheapest cider the supermarket sell (£1.50) to entertain you in the evenings, and you don't leave the house, and you let the depression and anxiety kick in. As much as right-wingers would like me to, I don't search for jobs all day, every day. I spend a fair bit of time looking, but the more applications I send to jobs which I could do but I don't have the necessary (unpaid) experience for without hearing anything in return, the harder it gets.  I don't feel like I'm good enough for any job. I'm so used to not leaving the house or speaking to people or having to live up to anyone's standards, the thought of being made to do it five days a week terrifies me to the point of tears. I desperately search for jobs I can do though, fearing that the DWP will arbitrarily decide to stop my JSA or put me on Workfare.

The rest of the time I spend just occupying myself. I educate myself about issues I'm passionate about. I'm planning a conference. I read books, I play games, I watch DVDs. I do anything to keep myself from going into a pit of despair. I count the hours I have to kill until I get to go to my partner's next (133 hours, or 78 if I don't count when I'm asleep). I write, long rambly things like this and usually delete them before anyone else can see.

It always comes back to me though. I'm not good enough. No one wants me. I'll never be a proper person. Scrounger.

Things are changing though. I'm moving in with my partner next month, which means moving cities. That brings new challenges though. When I move in with him, I'll stop being 'a jobseeker'. This is good as it means I don't have to spend half an hour a week convincing some drone at the Jobcentre that I'm not   tabloid-worthy workshy dolescum and instead need the benefits that I'm supposedly 'showered' in. However, it will mean that my partner will receive Working Tax Credits (of around the same amount as JSA) to support me. As in, I will have no independent income, and instead have to ask him for money whenever I need to buy anything. So now on top of everything else (I'm a horrid, pathetic waste of space who hasn't done anything in the two years since I left university and will spend the rest of my life being useless), I now feel like a failure to feminism too! I worry about this. I worry he'll get sick of paying for everything for me. I worry he'll get sick of working to pay the bills while I'm a useless shit. I'm worried about being a burden. 

I also worry about the other people in the same financial situation as me. Comparatively, I'm lucky. I don't have kids to support, or have to worry about a massive unexpected bill coming from somewhere. If I were in the situation where I wanted (or needed) to leave my partner, I have family and friends who would help me do it. How are you supposed to get money to enable you to move away from an unhappy relationship if your partner controls all the money? 

I don't really know what I've been trying to say in this post, but it's basically that being on the dole is shit.    It makes you alone, friendless and feeling like crap. It makes you so wary of your precarious financial situation that even something awesome like moving in with the man you love just makes you worry about how you would cope if that wasn't the case. And then it makes you feel like a total shit for moaning when other people have it even worse. Asylum seekers, for example, get £35 a week, if that.

Actually, I think I can put it even more succinctly than that: Fuck anyone who thinks a person would voluntarily put themselves through this shit and is living the high life. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy*.

UPDATE: Please go read this wonderful and moving post by commenter Evsie on being a single father on JSA. 

(*I would wish it on Tories and other people who think that benefits is easy and everyone's a scrounger, but only for a month to show them how hard it really is.)


  1. I did 8 months on the dole last year. It's not a life, is it? It's barely an existence. And that 6 months move from 'contribution' to 'income' is purely arbitrary, it means nothing except making people feel even shittier.

  2. Yeah, it's exactly the same as the other one, except I get to feel even worse about it!

  3. The isolation is so hard to deal with. And the assumption that if you're on JSA you don't want to work. I went to the Job Centre with an entire spreadsheet of jobs I'd applied for ("just give me two names," said the weary woman I spoke to). The constant rejection, the doors being slammed in your face, the isolation, the 'dole scum' villification by the media; it's all very depressing. I felt worthless and invisible.

    Oh, and being helped out, by your partner or anyone else, doesn't make you a failure. Just someone who's down on her luck but has support - just as you'd support him if the tables turned.

    Being on the dole does indeed suck, and it amazes me that anyone could possibly think a person would actively choose it.

    On a personal note, I hope the move is the new beginning you need.

  4. Great post, I am on income support due to severe anxiety based depression and other things I suffer from, but that only means I get about £10 more a week to live on than you, I don't get LA or incapacity benefit, and I also have to pay £50 a month to top up my rent.
    When I was about your age and between jobs (before I became so ill I had to go on the sick) I did have to claim JSA though, so I know what you are going through. I also can't afford to do anything socially or buy myself clothing and nice toiletries etc. It annoys me so much when people make those on benefits live the life of Riley, they barely give us enough to live. The figures they give for the supposedly high amounts people are claiming must go to families with kids, which they need to pay for all the things their kids need.
    I hope you manage to find work in the new city you move to, and don't let it get you down, there are millions in the same boat as you, you aren't alone.

  5. I meant DLA by the way, sorry rubbish keyboard and I can't afford a new one.

  6. @Nancyrowina - I think your second comment just about sums it up!

  7. I spent four months of 2010 unemployed in the USA. I hated every second of it.

    First, the feeling of losing a job is soul destroying. Even through redundanncy, it feels like the people you worked for have said "we don't think you're good enough to be bere". I felt betrayed and defeated and worthless. I also had a mortgage to pay and a dwindling bank account.

    I think I could have sunk fairly deeply into depression. I certainly had a few days where I didn't feel like I was worth anything. To stop myself sinking, I went at the job application process like a machine. Check every library website every day. Apply for everything I was qualified to do and a lot of stuff I could kind of blag my way into being qualified to do. Work the job application process like a machine. That's just how I react to that kind of stress, I didn't want to slow down long enough to realize how fucked I was looking for a job in a downturning market when the biggest employer in my field in my area was the one who just laid me off.

    I was lucky. Unbelievably lucky. I had the resources to move if I needed to (which was in the end neither cheap or easy). I had an incredibly supportive partner. I found a job 4000 miles away from my home and the life I had built. I spent 3 months living apart from the woman I loved and had to rebuild a home and friends and a life from scratch. I was lucky.

    I don't want to think about how longterm unemployment would have affected me. I don't want to think about the stress and depression that would occur. I don't want to think about the possibility of my house being foreclosed upon. I have friends who were laid off at the same time as me who still haven't found work, and I see the psychological damage it's done to them. I see the psychological damage even a short period of unemployment did to me.

    The one thing I don't see are "scroungers". In my life, I've only met one person who was on unemployment benefits who wasn't seeking a job, and even there his situation was the result of a number of mental health issues. People don't want to live on a ration. For every one who does, there are a hundred who simply cannot find work anywhere.

    It's easy to attack the unemployed, because they don't have the resources to fight back. It's easier to call them scroungers or dole scum than to address the reason why so many are out of work. Contempt is easier than care or change.

  8. Ugh. I've drunk too much this evening to create a decent response, but would like to say that I Totally Get This. There shall be further, sober, rantings on this subject when I can type properly. So sorry that you're going through this right now.

  9. Thanks for your comment Ian. That's a really incredible story, and I'm glad you're sorted now. The thought of being unemployed in the USA is totally terrifying to me.

  10. I've got severely genetically, f-cked in the head disorder and I've been on benefits all my life. Wait until you've had a decade (or two... or three... or four...) of it, and with no prospect of ever being able to change your situation - then be staring penury, homelessness and death in the face and they drag you aff to the nuthouse to keep you alive for a few more months of sh-t. Then you'll know how to whine.

  11. @Socrates - I'm really sorry to hear that. As I said repeatedly in the post, I know lots of people are worse off than I am. However, that doesn't mean what I go through is a walk in the park, and I feel it's important that people see the day-to-day reality of an 'average' jobseeker as well as the most extreme cases, like yours. If people only see what they think are 'extreme' situations, they can brush them off as aberrations and still keep their 'scrounging 99%' worldview. We're all coping with a whole ton of shit, some much more so than others - but that doesn't magically make my shit turn to unicorn glitter. Better to stick together and fight the people who are fucking us all over, right? This crap shouldn't happen to *anyone*.

  12. I don't know why anyone would voluntarily live like this. Benefits is not an easy ride as you have proved with this post. I really hope things get better for you soon.

    All the best, Jussie

  13. I feel for ya and hope you manage to find something soon in the new place.
    I was on sickness benefit for over 12yrs due to different conditions including anxiety and depression.I had just enough to manage on then until I went for a an assessment with the dreaded ATOS.had the medical and "Computer says no" reply so I went on to appeal,whilst on appeal I was claiming Income Support at reduced rate of the princely sum of just under £80 a fortnight.Needless to say it was really hard living on under £40 a week,had to resort to going in skips behind supermarkets to get food,its ridiculous the amount of useable food they throw away (but that's another topic)
    After 8mths of this I finally got an appeal date and again "computer says no" I had to sign on JSA,although myself and my Dr don't think I'm fit for work I have to sign on and declare I'm do all I can to find work.
    Its so soul destroying everyday is the same old thing I to have lost contact with many friends as I've not been able to afford to socialise etc.Where I live is very high unemployment rate too,I have no qualifications or experience due to being on sickness benefit for so long,my prospects of getting a job are very slim.Its not helping with my depression I only come out of house once a fortnight to sign on,and maybe once in a blue moon look round charity shops or supermarket.
    Who ever thinks this is a lifestyle choice,I`d love to trade places not just for a week or 2 like they do on those silly TV programmes but for at least 6mths with nothing to look forward to,no future existing not living.
    Id love to be able to work,Id love to be able to go out of the house without panicking and earn a living and be part of the world instead of stuck in my little box day in day out.
    Sorry for such a waffly post :)

  14. @Jussie - thanks a lot :)

    @Paula - I'm really sorry to hear your story. ATOS are some of the absolute worst bastards in the world, not an ounce of empathy among the whole bloody lot of them. Your post isn't waffly, it's absolutely spot on, and more people need to understand this reality. (Also, freeganism FTW!)

  15. Brilliantly written blog. Those of us who've been there will know it only too well, and I hope for those who've never experienced it, this will help them understand the experience. More than anything else for me, unemployment was like being removed from life itself, and becoming a helpless, passive observer, as life happened to everyone else around you.

  16. @Stewart Yes! I completely agree, and know the feeling too well.

  17. Damnit.

    Just wrote a massive response to this, a perspective from a single parent on JSA... apparently it's too long to post. So despite the opening paragraph which I'm too lazy to edit, please see my reply here:

    Thank you for the post.


  18. @Evsie - Thank you so much for this post. I've tried to leave a comment on yours but don't know if it works :/

    Mind if I link to it in the main post? Everyone should read it.

    1. more than happy for you to link to it, thank you.

    2. Oh, seems like I had some ridiculous settings on for comments. Sorry about that... I should really pay more attention to my not-a-proper-blog!

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Hello from America.

    Not going to give you any pep talk. Just want to tell you that posts like yours do a service.

    When I was unemployed in the 1980s (hello, I'm old), I wound up at the public library and started reading accounts of others who went through it. They did a lot of good. I could see it wasn't just me who went through all those emotions.

    So you've done that for someone else now. Hope that makes you feel somewhat better.

    (Deleted the original post due to a typo fixed here. Damn typos.)

  21. @Mike Cane - Thanks so much :) As I said above, I can't imagine being unemployed in the USA. Stories I hear make me undyingly grateful to the founders of our welfare state and make me hate the Tories even more for trying to dismantle it. I'm assuming you're all sorted now, and I'm really glad to hear that. (Also, Blogger comments are The Worst. Oh, for an 'edit' function!)

  22. Like many of the commentators on this blog post I have been affected by severe mental health And physical health problems for around 12 years and have relied on State Benefits in order to exist. I am 'lucky' in the sense that I am so well-versed in 'benefits-speak' that I can offer a fount of knowledge to people I know who face difficulties in the world of work. Similarly to you, I would not choose a life on benefits but such is life. I've been on sickness benefit for so long I now jokingly refer to my money as 'wages'. The joke seems to be on me. As it happens, I am not in the position where I can take up meaningful employment, and I know all too well how soul destroying this state of affairs is. I am not a 'shirker' or a malcontent. If I were to put a price on the value of my labour it would fall into the £15 per hour region. But I live in Hull, where the only jobs going are in Hairdressers or Call-Centres. Or Academia. Or underwater basket-weaving. I'm resigned to a future of life on the 'sick' unless my numbers come up on the Lotto. Sad but painfully true.

  23. @Little Ernie Wise - I'm really sorry to hear that. I sincerely hope things improve for you soon.

  24. I am in a similar situation myself, so I totally understand what you are going through.

    Sending you respect and strength.

  25. Hats off to you, Nat, you are so much more self disciplined than I was at your age when I was on the dole (mid 80s). I got into a real depressive rut and spent my giro on cheap booze for a few days then struggled to eat for the next ten. The only compensation I had was that there were a lot of other unemployed people about at the same time (thanks Maggie, you b*tch) so there was some sort of community to share the boredom with. We were all skint and on the dole so there was no judgement from my peers and no pressure to spend money to keep up with the others.
    I'm glad you have a supportive partner and hope the move goes well. Who knows, the change of scenery might help give you a lift. Try to stay positive and don't forget the valuable contribution you make to the rest of us with your great blog posts and tweets.
    This sh*t will pass! I am now happily married with two lovely kids and managed to deal with a redundancy two years ago much better. Thanks for this post, hopefully some people who think all benefits claimants are scroungers will get some idea of the reality.

  26. @John Rennie Thanks for your comment. I knew a lot of people who used to be like the kind of people you talk about when I was a teenager - including the ex I was with for five years. I think it's partly this that makes me be so rigid about what I can and can't do - I really resented having to pay for him when I had no money myself. I'd even skip lunch at college if he was out of tobacco and needed some buying. I'd hate my partner to see me the way I saw my ex. The other factor is knowing that if I bugger off and have a massive blowout I won't be able to see my partner or my family because I won't be able to afford the travel (even though they'd pay - but this goes back to what I say about being a burden!). I'm glad to hear you're so happy now, I know This Too Will Pass, but sometimes it's hard to see an end!

  27. "Fuck anyone who thinks a person would voluntarily put themselves through this shit and is living the high life. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy*."

    A more true statement it is hard to ever read. I was only on the dole for 2.5 months last year but every time I went near a job centre, well it was not a happy experience despite the fact you're supposed to get "13 weeks to do your own thing".

    It scares me whitless that most of the people who sit in Parliament and decide on such things (on our behalf!) have NEVER known what it's like. And until they do (and lets face it, most of them never will) they will never what it's really like.

    I've been there and I will never judge those who want to work but, for whatever reason, can't get a job. Alas our politicians are never likely to do the same.

  28. Hi!

    Thanks for being so searingly honest in this post, there are lots of fuckwits out there who think benefits are for leeches who don't want to work. Benefits barely cover the bare essentials and everything in your post here, I could relate to. THe feelings of worthlessness, never leaving the fucking house, not being able to socialise, isolation, spending hours alone. And especially the anxiety and depression.

    You sound like a strong woman and I really hope that things turn around for you. I moved from cornwall to manchester to live with my partner, so I can relate to that too. Still being out of work and having no contacts or friends to speak of there. I felt dependent on him financially, although we didn't go down the working tax credits route, I still had to beg (felt like begging)for money, I'm not going to lie, I had more of a problem with it than him, we rowed a lot, I wandered if I would ever become independent again.
    But slowly things changed, I got into voluntary work in my chosen field and after about 6 months was offered a few hours paid work each week. Better than nothing and I am gaining valuable experience and networking. I ve gone back to college in the evenings and have made lots of new contacts and am working on building friendships.

    Things will change for you, just keep the faith.

    Thanks for sharing

    p.s which city are you moving to?

  29. Thank you for sharing your experience. I too am a university graduate and I've interned (unpaid) for 9 months and signed on for around a year. After 6 months they put me on this back to work scheme which was utterly depressing and the other people there were not conducive to a positive outlook. I'm currently working as a casual part timer at a job that pays just a bit under the JSA. I'm living with my parents and so my income is basically a bit of pocket money and there isn't really much to save with how little I earn.

    We are part of a large number of people in this same horrible situation and I wish the government were listening to us. I feel like its my fault all the time after each interview I'm turned down from. I have a history with depression and its so hard to fight it. But I try with some success.

    I hope things get better for you when you move in with your partner. A change of scenery might do you some good.

  30. thanks for this post Nat. you rock.
    I was on JSA for 4 months after redundancy before i got a temp job at UWE. It was awful. Soul destroying. Told to apply for jobs in Plymouth. I was amazed as well that because i was a few months shy of 25 i was entitled to less benefits because 'my parents still support me' (news to all of us!). Now my partner is in the same boat. You can't do anything. You can't go out. You can't buy stuff. I spent my days watching box sets, looking for jobs and (weirdly) obsessively making bread. Crying because it wasn't fair.

    The ignorance around benefits and unemployment astounds me.

    We'll miss you in Bristol but please stay in touch and i'll see you at intersect!

  31. I was on the dole for 8 months in 2007 and without a doubt it was the worst time of my life. £45 a week. If I hadn't had the friends I did and had been living in the situation I was-with two other people also unemployed or under employed I would have broken down.
    The 'people on benefits are scum' culture of this country makes me angrier than anything else ever. Good luck and hope the move goes well for you. DO NOT KICK YOURSELF OVER BEING DEPENDENT ON YOUR PARTNER. It's not you who is at fault, it is the system.

  32. Greetings from across the pond.
    This may be the first time I've commented here, but your post really hit home.
    I've been where you are. I know that feeling of worthlessness, and the feeling that you'll never measure up as a professional.
    After a year of unemployed, I finally found a job doing what my degree says I'm qualified to do. It took a whole year after that to feel like I was worth the paycheck and that I wasn't a waste of cubical space.
    Don't be too hard on yourself, and if something comes along, don't be afraid to try. It's scary as hell, but I'm glad I did.

  33. One thing that might help you to get employed is to do voluntary work in the employment sector you are interested in. One of my friends has been helping with Home start whilst doing an OU Health and social care course, and has now secured a full time employed post in that local authority, doing a job she loves. Another is volunteering in a charity shop: not the most exciting thing for your CV but it shows commitment and enterprise.

    I am lucky that after 3 years on benefits, I am just doing a return to practice course in Nursing and Health visiting. Not paid, but the course fee is paid and I have received just enough expenses to cover travel costs, books and minimal child care. I had to get permission from the JOBCENTRE to do it and my finances were scrutinised but the hard work hopefully will be worth it.Just need to get the essays in now and apply for jobs!

    I hope things have improved by now for you as I see this is an old post!

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I have been offered a job now (miracles happen!) but before this I'd been doing voluntary work that I kind of set up myself - I've just put on a feminist conference that I organised myself. It took six months of work, but the Jobcentre couldn't say anything about it because I'd have been able to class it as a 'hobby' and now I am able to put it on my CV as my employment since December, even though I didn't get paid, because I learned so many skills doing it and had to utilise a lot of the skills I already had. Also, employers wouldn't know I didn't take any money from it!

      But yes, this is a moot point, since I was just about to update my CV on the Monday after the conference and dive head-in to looking for jobs again when I got an acceptance email from a job I'd applied for four months ago!

      I'm glad to hear that you've been able to get funding for your Return To Practice course and hope it all goes well for you :)