In the past few weeks, many have been foaming at the mouth with rage over benefits scroungers, with the government going as far as suggesting that the welfare state lead to the Philpott tragedy. But in truth, the scroungers playing the system and the skivers having children to claim more money don't really seem to exist.
According to the Department of Work and Pensions, only 0.8% of benefit spending is overpaid due to fraud, costing us £1.2 billion a year. That's nothing compared to the £11 billion of benefits that go unclaimed every year. There are actually only 130 families with 10 children claiming at least one out of work benefit; only 8% of benefit claimants have three or more children. And in the past two years, 93% of new people claiming housing benefit have been working.
So who are the people on benefits, really? The answer actually seems to be most of us. 64% of families, and about 30million individual people - half the total population of the UK. The attack on benefits has portrayed people claiming benefits as a kind of underclass, separating them from ordinary people in low paid jobs, ordinary people looking for work, ordinary families. But really, the people on benefits are our friends, colleagues and neighbours, our families, ourselves.
A few people are starting to wake up, look around them and and realise that people on benefits are actually ordinary people right there in their communities. "We saw that people who we value, who we believe God values and God loves, we saw them being insulted day in and day out in the media," said Paul Morrison from the Methodist Church.
The people on benefits are women living in hostels with their children after fleeing violent partners, people looking for work, families working in low paid jobs and claiming income support to help feed their children, people who've just left prison and want to start a new life, people who have been made unemployed by the economic crisis or government cuts to public sector jobs, disabled people and their carers, and young people who have been made homeless, claiming benefits so they can stay in education.
Unite's new campaign, Our Welfare Works, has helped the truth to come out. There's Michelle, a disabled woman who lives with her 15 year old daughter, who will be pushed into 'choosing between paying the rent and eating' by the Bedroom Tax. There are the Counihans, a family with a bus driver dad whose salary isn't enough to provide for his disabled wife and their five children, who were hit with a housing benefit overpayment demand of £70,000. The family had to move miles away from their children's school, and their mother was refused a life changing hip replacement operation by the local hosipital because of her 'social circumstances'. There's a cleaner who will lose her Motability car when her son gets transferred to the Personal Independence Payment, meaning that she will have to give up her job so that her son can go to school.
With these stories, we move away from the almost mythical status of benefit claimants as scroungers, undeserving, wicked, murderers. We see them for what we really are - not 'them', but us. We need to realize that the attack on benefits isn't an attack on a lazy, undeserving underclass, or an attack on a group of vulnerable people with tragic lives who we have to feel sorry for. Both of these approaches paint benefit claimants as a 'them', an alien group other than ourselves.
In fact, the attack on benefits is an attack on all of us, because they are us - our granddad receiving the winter fuel payment, our parents receiving child tax credit, our colleague receiving housing benefit, us, claiming income support to help pay for the food. Because if these cuts carry on, most of our children will be growing up in poverty within two years. It is also an attack on all of us, because it could be us. Us who loses our job or has to flee from an abusive relationship, us who has an accident and can't work, and finds ourselves homeless or in debt or going hungry because the safety net isn't there anymore - because it was removed with our complicity.
Anyone who has ever been in a situation which they cannot deal with, a situation that's shocking and unbelievable, can understand. A situation like losing your job or business, like being evicted from your home, like having to run away from home. It's shocking. You've lost control. If there's a safety net there, you can survive, get back on your feet, and make a better life. If not... well, disaster takes many different forms. Ask a homeless person, or a mum with kids fleeing domestic violence who couldn't stay in a refuge because of the housing benefit cap.
Just how widespread poverty really is, and just how disastrous the consequences of removing benefits really are, is a painful truth to realise. But it's much more painful to live through. And it gives us our most powerful weapon in the 'welfare war' that has broken out: telling the truth. The lies about people on benefits being a scrounger underclass removed from the rest of society are thin and shallow, a myth hiding millions of true stories of poverty, hard work, caring for others, and survival.
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