I have a form to fill out.
If you haven’t ever been unemployed or otherwise receiving social welfare payments, you may not know this: there are a LOT of forms. Forms within forms. Forms about things you never knew you could fill out forms for.
This morning, I have a fairly straightforward form to fill out. It requires another couple of documents. As they do. One of these documents is a very simple letter from my social welfare office confirming some basic details. Normally I’d pop down the the office on my bike to sort this out, but this morning it was pouring rain. Lashing, you might say. The kind of day where you check the weather forecast and the first thing you see is NATIONAL WARNING and GALE WARNING in capital letters on the top of your weather site. Where you pop out the door to check your post and you’re soaked in the few seconds it takes to get the metre or so from your front door to the mailbox.
What I’m trying to say here is that it’s a day for staying indoors. Especially if, like me, you don’t have a car, and are not actually an amphibian or a duck cunningly masquerading as a human.
So I find my social welfare office’s contact info. There’s a postal address, a phone number, and a fax machine. In the absence of an email address- always preferable to navigating automated phone systems, don’t you agree?- or a time machine to a land where people still have fax machines, I decided to give them a call.
Almost an hour and twenty or so attempts later, I’ve given up for the moment. The phone rings out every time. Every so often, I’ll get an engaged tone or an automated message saying that the call hasn’t gone through. Most of the time, though, it’s just an ring tone for several minutes until it rings out to nothing. No voicemail. No way to know if I’ve gotten through to their real number, even, or if I’m accidentally calling a phone box somewhere up a mountain or under the sea.
This is the second time this has happened recently. The last time I gave up after two hours.
This is an annoyance. It’s a bit of a pain, but these things happen, right? We all know that public services are massively understaffed and overworked these days. I won’t deny that I’m frustrated at my wasted time this morning, but I’ll live, and I’ll get my forms all sorted out in the next few days. It’s not the end of the world.
I’m an abled person without caring commitments or dependants who lives within reasonable walking distance of the office, and I can also more or less write my own schedule. Most of the work I do is fairly flexible.
What if I was working an internship where I wasn’t able to write my schedule? Or if it wasn’t in the area? What if I had mobility impairments or was too ill to go for a half-hour walk each way? If I had people to care for who I couldn’t leave alone? If those people had illnesses or mobility impairments that meant that they couldn’t go the half-hour walk with me to the office? What if, instead of this form being something I would like to sort out soon, it was something I needed urgently?
The services that social welfare provides aren’t luxuries. I know a lot of people who rely on social welfare. Some of us are out of work in an economy that simply doesn’t have work for us (no, there wasn’t a sudden increase in lazyass scrounging layabouts back in late 2008). Some of us are on those back-to-work schemes that seem to be steadily replacing paid employment here. Some are unable to work due to illness or disability. Some are carers who work their butts off and live on a pittance. Most of us contribute to our communities in the ways that we can. And we need our social welfare payments and entitlements. To eat. To pay our rent. To go to the doctor when we’re ill. And yes, occasionally to replace the old pair of shoes. Shit happens. Sometimes you gotta fix your bike or get a winter coat.
I understand that social welfare offices are understaffed. I understand that people working in those offices have a tough, thankless job. I get that a lot of them are great people who do the best they can for their clients- I’ve met a lot of those people, and always made sure they knew I appreciated their help. I’ve also heard a hell of a lot of stories about people who had awful, abusive experiences trying to get the social welfare they needed to survive. It’s a mixed bag.
But if you’re going to provide services for a diverse group of people for whom those services are an absolute necessity? You need to make those services accessible. Not having a staffed phone line? Or a voicemail? Or a simple email address? It’s just another indication of how the most vulnerable in our society- people a hell of a lot more vulnerable than the likes of me- are considered worthless. Just a drain.