Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Big Bad Benefit Bashing Bandwagon

Indulge me; I do like a bit of alliteration...

British television's flavour of the month seems to be poverty porn - we've seen a multitude of programming dedicated to the so-called "benefits culture", purporting to present a factual analysis of life in the UK's welfare state but in reality feeding the spiraling right-wing propaganda that demonises the poor and maligns the vulnerable. 

I couldn't bring myself to watch very much of it. At most, I managed a cursory glance to establish the level of rage it would induce. For the most part, I apprehensively scanned over social media to watch the reaction of the general public to the smorgasbord of poor people circus acts that was paraded in front of them. Regrettably, the internet didn't disappoint and a plethora of "get a job", "lazy scroungers" blah blah blah, commentary poured forth.

I'm not going to rant about precisely why these programmes are both ludicrous and obscene. Many others* have already done a far more eloquent job than I could in recent weeks. I would like to organise my personal feelings on why this whole topic bothers me so much.

On one point - and one alone - I believe David Cameron and I share common ground. There IS something very wrong with the mentality of modern Britain. However, where he lays this at the feet of those at the bottom of the social food chain, the feckless and lazy, I believe we all have a part to play. This is not simply a problem of work ethic, of wanting "something for nothing". There is a massive clash of ideals in today's Britain and we are seeing more of the consequences of that each day. 

I remember sitting in an A level Sociology lecture, discussing issues of "Class" and learning how various social theorists distinguished one class from another. The notion of 'gratification' came up, and it was neatly imparted that the Working Class value instant gratification above delayed gratification; that short term gain is more appealing than working hard now for something that takes longer to come to fruition. The latter is the preserve of the Middle and Upper Classes, which of course explains social mobility - or the lack thereof - and why the poor stay poor and the rich get richer. It didn't make sense to me then, and even less so now. I was reminded of this recently, however, whilst on my soap box about the credit industry and personal debt. 

This is where I place much of the blame (for want of a better word) for the alleged crisis we face today. 

Ok, so that's a somewhat simplistic overview. I don't just hold the credit industry responsible. Rather, it represents the worst of the disposable, materialistic, instant-gratification based society we have become. We want the shiniest things NOW. We don't want to spend months or years saving up first. Why should we?? We can buy the damn thing immediately, and worry about paying for it some other time. You don't even have to be well off to do this - in fact, you don't even need a great track record for managing to pay for all the things you bought NOW (but neglected to pay for LATER). With an abundance of "poor credit lending options" there's the option to pay a premium and STILL have the shiniest of the shiny things. Because commodities matter. Advertising tells us incessantly that gadgets and gizmos are no longer the playthings of the wealthy, but more vital tools for the everyman and woman. 

Who, right now, is reading this blog on a smartphone or a home computer? Do many of you have your flatscreen tv on in the background too? Are you sitting comfortably on your 0% interest sofa? These things are NECESSARY, if you believe the advertisers - and it's pretty hard to ignore them (unless you're my mum and choose not to own a television at all!). 

We have very quickly constructed a society in which things matter more than people. And that is massively incongruous with the reemerging Victorian rhetoric of the deserving and the undeserving poor, to which it runs parallel. 

Briefly, the current economic climate is not the fault of low wage earners or those out of work altogether, despite what the mass media and the Tories would have you believe. The poor and vulnerable make a neat scapegoat precisely because they lack the means or power to speak up against the propaganda which ostracises them. Yes, benefit cheats and career claimants exist - in a negligible minority. Where there is a system, someone will play it. Fraudsters and confidence tricksters have always existed, and I suspect will always exist. They are not limited to a particular socio-economic class or faction of society. 

If we must beat our chests and shout about those who play the benefits system, let us also apply the same to the large corporations and wealthy individuals who fiddle the tax system; to the members of parliament who exploit loopholes in expenses legislation; to the workplaces who subtly discriminate against minority employees. In fact, let's take this down to the micro-level and vent spleen at everyone who ever ducked a library fine for a late book; who boarded a bus or train without a ticket; who squished their salad down inside the medium-sized plastic tub in Sainsburys to avoid paying for a large. 

Where there is a system, someone will play it. This is not new. It's not right either, but let's not allow ourselves to be duped into believing that there exists sufficient manipulation of the welfare state to explain away every financial difficulty the UK faces today. It's simply not true. More than 99% of those claiming benefits - and let's again remind ourselves that many of those people ARE working - have no nefarious agenda. They are just people trying to get from one end of the month to the other with bills paid, a roof over their heads and food on the table. 

Whenever I read a comment about a benefit claimant with a flat screen television or the latest model smartphone, I want to bang my head into the wall. Which discourse do we favour then? The one which tells us we all NEED shiny gadgets and makes them readily available to anyone and everyone, regardless of employment status or the contents of your bank account? Or the one which reduces those on incomes too low to meet the ever rising cost of living to a less than human state, and views them as mere leeches on the fine, upstanding "hard working" earners? The two cannot exist together, and until we accept that and begin to deconstruct them, we will never move beyond the selfish and resentful circle in which we are collectively currently trapped. 

*Further reading:
Ragged-Skirted Philanthropist: http://raggedskirt.blogspot.co.uk/
Buddhuu: http://www.buddhuu.com/

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