Okay, so there’s this new series on a certain TV channel called Benefits Street…
The main characters all live in houses on what appears to be a run down street and they all claim benefits and are unemployed.
I’m totally split in my opinion of the show…
One half of me thinks that the production company has hand picked the worst examples just to turn the country against people that claim benefits.
I’m not going to name the characters or go into details but there are people with poor hygiene, bad etiquette and rough speech going to get their payments then shoplifting alcohol from hardworking shop owners and laughing about it, There are people claiming benefits as single people but are in a relationship who have had their benefits stopped but are complaining that it’s not their fault and the benefits agency is in the wrong, the children are grubby looking and eating crap and the house is a tip… 2 adults are at home all day and the house is a bloody tip… They are rough and brash and if you were walking down the road with them, their calls of “oi wanker” to their friends would make you cringe…
Then the other half of me remembers how my life used to be and what sort of friends I had and I remember the feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness and depression and confinement.
I remember the ‘fuck ’em’ attitude I had towards the world.
In my last few year in care, when I was living in a bedsit at 16/17, I was asleep and the guy from the room next to me snuck into my room, I woke up immediately, I was used to being on alert when I was asleep… he had a hammer in his hand, it was wrapped in a blood stained tea towel and he was trying to hide it. I was terrified so I let him hide it and then he realised I was awake. To cut a very long story short, he forced me to sleep in his bed and lie to the police that we’d been there all night, I had felt safe there until that night. So I clung onto other teens in my position. We’d all sleep over each other’s bedsits, we’d shoplift for food and clothes, we’d spend any cash we got on drugs and alcohol. I didn’t care about what drugs they were, who cared? They blotted out the bullshit of life and made me feel like I was living someone else’s life. I really didn’t care less if they’d kill me, life was seriously shit and I couldn’t handle it without drugs, men and a sharp object to harm myself and anyone else who took the piss. We’d fight, we’d steal, we’d commit criminal damage, we really didn’t care.
I used to sit on the tube watching other 16/17 year old’s with their parents with bags of new stuff, laughing and hugging, on their way home to somewhere safe, they could sleep without fear and I’d seriously feel hatred… no-one was there for me so ‘fuck ’em’… they’d get home and probably realise their purse was missing, the money spent on drugs they’d never have to take to blot out the life they’d never have to live… fuck ’em.
When social services had finished with me at 18, they handed me the keys to a flat 10 miles from where I had been living and a bundle of benefits forms, a leaving care grant of about £500 and a community care grant form (that I had no idea about) and that was it…
I was a scared, pregnant 18 year old girl, standing in a cold empty flat with no support and no idea what I had to do next.
I filled in the forms and messed that right up, I managed somehow to scrape some furniture together and of course I met the locals… I stopped the drugs and tried to sort my life out but knew that the local junkies would get you anything you wanted for a much lower price than the shops… all you needed to say was ” I need a new kettle” and half hour later they’d be on the doorstep with a £50 kettle asking for £20. You could easily haggle it down to a tenner and course you never asked where it was from but of course everyone knew.
People were always getting evicted or going into prison so furniture was easy to get hold of cheap or it’d be dumped at the back of the block for the kids to set alight to later for a bit of entertainment.
I had an on-off relationship with my eldest son’s dad and by 19 I was a single teenage mum of 2 little boys… A right gobby bitch, smoking, drinking, swearing, stealing, fighting, looking for trouble at the same time as trying to stay out of it and the local police knew my details on sight. That was life, it was normal, it had been normal for years… it was what people expected from an angry careleaver, it’s what they expected from a teenage mum and most of us knew no other way.
Then something happened to change my life forever. I woke up and saw things differently, I saw what I was and what I could be. I learnt to value myself and to value those around me. I learnt about ambition, education, about love, about accepting and letting go of the past, embracing the present and jumping headfirst and grasping onto the future.
I learnt to love myself and value my own life and in turn value other people. I learnt compassion and empathy and tolerance.
I did parenting courses, I went to college and gained childcare qualifications, I spent my days trying to be a better mum and a better person. I made better choices, I started working and being productive, I found a boyfriend, he joined the army. Our army friends had no idea of our pasts so it was easy to change, no-one could point the finger and say “That was her that did ****”.
I changed because I was lucky… I am still in touch with my friends that weren’t so lucky, and I’d love nothing more than to change their lives, but it’s so so hard… they’re not getting away from ‘Benefits Street’ any time soon.
I’m not that much better off now, I live in social housing, only just above the poverty line and I can barely afford the bills, I’m unable to afford to replace our broken cooker or carpets and we have no real luxuries.
But now we pay our own way, we never break the law or take drugs, we’re a world away from Benefits Street but I’m under no illusion… it only takes a small action, a marriage split, getting laid off… we’ll be back on Benefits Street and I’m well aware of the struggle to survive…
So when I watch Benefits Street, I watch it with open eyes, I see the state of the woman’s house and see she has no support, she has no reason to keep a tidy house, it’s going to look just as bad with the toys away. The guy drinking is trying to blot out the bullshit of a life with nothing, and it is a life with nothing.
I ask those of you who have nice jobs and live in nice houses in nice areas, would you trade lives with those on Benefits Street? I am assuming the answer is a resounding “HELL NO!” So free money and free housing isn’t a great life.
Have any of you tried to live on £70 a week? £15 on gas, £15 on electricity, £5 tv license, leaving £35 to divide between water rates, food, phone top-up, bus fares, clothes, and everything else a person needs to get by. Now you can see there’s no money to make a home look nice, can you see that the house will never look tidy? Tired old carpets and walls?
And hardly enough to fund a drug or alcohol addiction is there?
And before someone even thinks about that issue of all the benefits claimants owning big TVs etc… Ever heard of Bright House? It’s one of those shops that no matter how bad your credit, you can get a nice modern tv, and better still, you can have it and pay just a few pounds a week… But for a few years! You’ll pay 3 times the rrp for the privilege. A bit like those provident loans where you can borrow £400 to get through Xmas or buy a new sofa but you’ll be paying back £700.
The poorer you are, the more you’re exploited.
You have to be so careful when you’re judging another person’s situation… there is a much bigger picture and no-one is truly happy to live on benefits.
Entry level jobs are hard to get…
You can’t walk onto a building site nowadays an pick up a broom and become a labourer… You need a cscs card before you can get on site. And to get a cscs card you need to be literate, pass an exam and have a few quid for the card… £50 will get you the card alone… Out of your £70 weekly benefit.
The big corporate businesses like British Telecom have sold out our job seekers. Instead of those jobs being available to our unemployed, BT and other companies use call centres in countries like India because it’s cheaper than paying British people a living wage.
And we are constantly being told how single mothers are a drain on the system… But our government is happy to help with child care and pay childminders to look after children so they can force single mums back to work, but are unhappy to pay the mums that same amount to take care of their own children for just a few years?! It makes no sense.
But our government and our media will continue to demonise those on benefits… not the 50% that are pensioners… Nor the disabled (though they are beginning to be targeted) but the 4% of claimants that are unemployed. This is like a modern day witch hunt. Only the media is a much more powerful tool for the hunters….
And remember… Child benefit, DLA, state pensions, housing benefit, child tax credits, working tax credit… These are ALL benefits and those who live in glass houses…