Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Trying to work but living below subsistence level

I’m currently working with a couple who typify the unintended consequences of recent changes to welfare benefits arising from the recession. Despite their best efforts, the recession has made it impossible to earn a living wage, and they have then been further victimised by the current system, that should be designed to protect the most vulnerable.

Mr and Mrs Jones live in a Housing Association 3 bedroom house. They have lived there for over 30 years, raising 5 children, and maintaining the property immaculately.

Mr Jones works as a self employed landscape gardener. While not making a huge amount from this work, he has nevertheless managed to support himself and his family for many years without recourse to public funds, but when the recession started to bite in 2008, gardening work became scarcer as people tried to find ways of cutting back, and he began to fall into debt.

He started to get depressed. However, he tried to fight this, and in an attempt to meet his ongoing commitments and to service his debts, he took a part time job delivering parcels for a national company. But, already depressed, he found the struggle to keep up with the schedule impossible to manage. He ended up working hours longer than he was paid to in order to meet the delivery targets.

After a few months of this, and still unable to meet his financial commitments, one morning he woke up and was simply unable to get out of bed. He felt terrified to even leave the house, and would have panic attacks at the very thought of going shopping.

He went off sick, and started to receive statutory sick pay. He also made a claim for housing benefit and council tax benefit. But this is where it became even more complicated.

Mrs Jones has a zero hours contract with a local commercial cleaning company. This means that she fills in for the sickness or absence of cleaning staff. Sometimes she works 6 hours a week, sometimes she works 20 hours a week. Some weeks she is not called on at all.

The consequence of her erratic income is to make claiming means tested benefits very haphazard. Each week Mr Jones has  to notify the local authority how much she has earned, and benefits are then paid accordingly. Of course, there is always a delay in calculating and paying these benefits, which means that there is little guaranteed money coming into the house to pay essential bills. Mr Jones is having difficulty trying to pay the prescription charges for the antidepressant and other medication he has been prescribed to try to help him recover.

To add to Mr & Mrs Jones’ woes, because their children are all adult and have left home, they have two unused bedrooms, so are penalised further by the “bedroom tax”. For the first time in their lives, they are falling into arrears with their rent.

Their current predicament is unsustainable. But what should they do?

 Mr Jones has lost 3 stone in weight because of his depression and anxiety. He considers that leaving the house to walk to the post box on the corner on his own without having a panic attack at the moment is a major achievement. If he went back to work, the stress of his delivery job would precipitate a major relapse. In his current state of mind, there is no way he should return to that job, but his job as a gardener is also unsustainable.

Should Mrs Jones continue doing her job? Her irregular income creates havoc with their finances, and it would surely be better for them as a couple if she stopped work altogether, so that they would at least be able to count on a regular income from benefits, inadequate though it is, especially with the additional penalty of the bedroom tax.

Should they attempt to move to smaller accommodation to reduce their rent and stop being penalised? The problem with that is that hundreds of others in social housing in the area are also trying to do the same thing, and as a consequence, one bedroom properties are in very short supply. And is it really just that a couple who have been exemplary tenants, and who have put their lives into maintaining their house as a much loved home, should have to leave it?

As a mental health worker, whose job it is to aid recovery from mental illness, I would have to advise Mr & Mrs Jones to stop working completely, and be reliant on benefits. That way, their income would be regular and stable, they would be entitled to help with prescription and dental treatment, and they might be able to at least pay essential bills, even if they would not be able to service their debts.

What a shame it is that the welfare system is not designed to facilitate those people who want to work, even if only part time, but instead makes it impossible for them to work. And of course, if Mr Jones remained without work, he would start to be subject to capability for work assessments, whether there was work for him or not. Would that harassment hasten his recovery? I think not.


  1. But our politicians say such a chatoic welfare system is to 'get people into work'! And zero hour contracts = flexible labour market! Feeling really angry at the injustice of it all!!!!

  2. Have been faced with an almost identical dilemna today and had to advise a couple to give up work to rely on benefits to aid her mental health. The current system sucks.

  3. I think the lady should keep working even if the couple is actually losing money. That way, there is still a chance of finding an opportunity, such as full-time hours when some other cleaner quits or being invited by some rich family who liked her work very much to just work directly for them or for some friends of theirs. One never knows.

  4. @ Monica,she could also,by that logic,start playing the lottery on the off chance they win the jackpot?!
    There is only so much money one can lose before it becomes unsustainable. The people owed money will keep banging on the door,they risk losing their home due to rent arrears as housing wont wait forever,which also means no other social housing provider would touch them,it isn't a big step for them to have to decide between paying for gas/electric or buying food especially with winter not far off.
    Even though i think if people want to work,they should be given every opportunity to do so,there is a point at which it is no longer viable and this is one of many of those instances. Zero hour contracts only benefit employers and government unemployment statistics.

  5. I'm sorry, but this is the mentality of a loser. I'm not asking why she's not actually creating her own business, although if the business is just being a cleaning lady and perhaps actually getting to the point where she herself can hire other cleaners to work for her clients, that may be possible. I am not saying either that she should count on an event as unlikely as winning the lottery. However, by putting herself where the work is, eventually getting work is not as unrealistic as you make it sound. It may seem that way when work is needed, like, yesterday, but eventually, work is found by those who are looking for it and seen by potential employers. In the long term, even if she loses her housing now, choosing to work, to look for work and to be seen by those who might possibly give her work is still the right choice. Getting known is particularly important for cleaning and domestic jobs. If some upper class lady is ever going to notice her and give her a relatively good job, which is not totally unrealistic in this line of work, it will be because she's been doing a good job for some friends or something. It won't be because she's staying home or knocking at her door as a random stranger looking for work. Opportunities could be as simple as being able to chat casually with someone who is hiring and being offered a position (people tend to hire acquaintances more than total strangers and she would already be someone who was seen working well and being pleasant and polite). One never knows. But whatever such opportunities exist, they do not go to the people who stay home.

  6. How long do you suggest she keeps working and losing money then? Long enough to put her anxious, depressed husband in hospital or make him suicidal with worry? 'Eventually' may be too long for this couple - they have to eat in the meantime.
    Your 'mentality of a loser' comment says it all. Not everyone has the mental strength to be an entrepreneur or to tough it out as their income declines. It's much easier to do what you suggest if you have savings or a financially supportive family but how are you supposed to survive if you don't? Don't 'losers' deserve a safety net too, or would you see them all on the streets?

  7. I'm speaking from experience. I come from a family of Eastern European immigrants and my parents kicked me out of their home when I was 20. I remember looking forward to the day's only meal consisting of spaghetti or boiled potatoes with butter. Earning a living seemed an impossible dream, yet it had to be done. I did not even qualify for social assistance in my new country (Canada) because my father had sponsored me, which means that he was supposed to support me. That did not prevent him from leaving me with little to no help. At the time, a sponsorship agreement lasted 10 years and I would have been 28 when it ended, not that I would have wanted to wait that long (the current rules would have ended the sponsorship at 25). Yet, eventually, I became employed and even earned a degree. The nearly impossible is possible when you want it enough or when the circumstances are dire enough. I'm not even getting into how the husband could perhaps force himself, or be forced, to pull himself by the bootstraps instead of being protected from possibly becoming even more depressed. You may say that he can't help it, although I'm not sure he wouldn't function better if someone stood about him with a whip or if he had to literally save his life. But his wife has no excuse. She's healthy and can try harder.

  8. Have you ever suffered from mental ill health Monica? Do you not think the husband wishes he could go back to work?didn't have to worry about the debt?didn't have to worry about losing is house?
    your comment about homelessness actually beggars belief!you do realise that they wouldn't qualify for any help with being rehoused?theyd be on the streets with nothing? Not a situation to be able to hold a job down.
    people cannot hold out for something happening "eventually" when the situation,from the sounds of it,is already at breaking point.
    Do you not think the wife has probably considered getting another job?one with a regular income? Have you seen how many people apply for every job advertised?

    in not even going to entertain your view about the whip.

  9. Since you mentioned it, I actually think that in the long run, it would be better if their benefits were cut right away, perhaps not 100% or not without feeding them once in a while. If benefits became all but unavailable, they would no longer see benefits as their main income. They would focus on getting their own income. Believe me, I was not happy either when I was starving, and sometimes I was literally wondering where my next meal was going to come from, which made me anxious as depressed. But if I made it, they can, too. They don't have to adapt to the local customs and learn the language like I had to. While the suffering may be worse in the short term when benefits are not available, in the long term, benefits just prevent people from striving to do better. If the husband is so ill, he should get institutionalized or live in homeless shelters. Maybe he would eventually pull himself by the bootstraps.

  10. As always, you make very thought provoking comments, Monica. But you are not living in England, and cannot comment directly on English Social Policy and its effects on people with limited intellectual resources. These people have done their very best. When their very best was not enough, you seem to be suggesting that starving and living on the streets for a bit would concentrate their minds sufficiently for them to "pull themselves together" and get one of the infinite number of jobs there must surely be. There was a time when rich but thick people could get a slotted into a job in banking. That's probably still the case, but that option is not available for the lower class and poor.

  11. Whilst no they don't have to learn a new language or adapt to local customs,that doesn't mean they should live on the streets with no income at all. The uk system doesn't pay benefits to people with no fixed address,employers don't employ people with no fixed address and the homeless hostels are full.
    if the pair were,god forbid,to end up homeless,it wouldn't *be* a short term thing,it would be a long term one,that's sadly how it works in the uk. Once someone is in poverty,its almost impossible to get back out.
    its not about wanting to go on benefits,its about basic survival,keeping a roof over their heads and being able to afford food. I don't really know how much you think the average person gets in benefits but its only just enough to live off.

    you have some warped views on how to help a lot of people with depression. I hope you never have to experience any mental health issue to the extent some do,though maybe then you would realise its not as easy as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

  12. But wait a minute, the man is taking antidepressants and he's still very depressed? Could it be that, just as I obviously tend to believe, medication doesn't really help very much and could even be harmful? Or do you think that he'll get better and then he will be able to work? If so, how long will it take?

    1. It's well known depression is an illness influenced and treated by a number of factors; in many cases antidepressants, on their own, don't work.

  13. It could well be that the antidepressants wont work,or it could be that he needs to try a different type. No one can possibly give a definitive answer to that. Add to that his current financial situation which would have a negative impact on anyone,its unlikely to be soon.
    basically,how long is a piece of string? That's how well you can predict "recovery".

  14. I find Monica's comments terrifying and entirely unsympathetic.

    Also, I find the comment about 'feeding them once in a while' appalling - they're human beings for f**k's sake, have some respect.

    As someone who has suffered from depression trust me when I say I wish I could just 'force' myself out of it. Somehow I can't imagine being homeless and starving would help me do that..

  15. Could it be part of the problem be how their predicament is portrayed? For example rather than saying they're penalised for have spare rooms it could be that they've been lucky enough to have susidised housing for 30 years? I found that when I was suffering depression that my outlook on problems determined my mood. As soon as I realised this I felt like I could had control of my life again.

  16. Surely if she 'gave up' work, she could not claim benefits anyway???

    1. She was not the benefit claimant. But her irregular income messed up her husband's benefits as the claimant.