Courses, schemes, and who is valued: a letter from social welfare.

Yesterday morning I got a letter from social welfare.

I’ve been signing on for a little while. This summer, I had to give up my teaching job. I kept on losing my voice for days or weeks on end- something my doctor informatively called “recurrent laryngitis”, which I gather translates as “I kept losing my voice”. I’m not sure why it happened. The waiting lists for tests are months-long, and a few weeks of not speaking cleared things up. But I’m still not willing to go back to teaching and risk being unable to speak again. Time to move on to something new.

I’ve been more or less unemployed since then, aside from a column here and there. These things happen. Yes, it’s been a tough few months. But I have some ideas for where I’d like to go next. I think it’ll be okay.

Let’s get back to that letter yesterday morning. It was about a new apprenticeship program that’s being run to get people into IT jobs. I was invited to an information session and aptitude test this morning.

Let’s get something clear: I strongly support people on the live register having access to subsidised education and training. I think it’s essential. And from what I saw this morning, this apprenticeship program seems like a great idea.

But let’s get to this morning, shall we? Continue reading “Courses, schemes, and who is valued: a letter from social welfare.”

Courses, schemes, and who is valued: a letter from social welfare.

An Apple A Day Keeps The Linkspam Away

Ever think there was something a wee bit dodgy about rich white Westerners heading over to African countries, taking some inspirational photos with kids and milking that delicious charitable reputation for all its worth? Africa Is A Country would like to introduce you to The Bullshit Files: Christina Aguilera Feeds Rwanda. A teaser- but do read the rest:

Africa: helping white people who’re a wee bit down-in-the-dumps feel better about themselves since 1884.

It’s like a whole continent of cheap therapy for Westerners.

Fatima Mernissi is an incredible Moroccan feminist whose writing was one of my first introductions to feminisms that were about far, far more than simply white Western women. In Size Six: The Western Women’s Harem, Mernissi- who can tell you a thing or two about harems, having grown up in one- talks about her experiences trying to buy a skirt in the US:

I suddenly felt not only very ugly, but also quite useless in that store, where, if you had big hips, you were simply out of the picture. You drifted into the fringes of nothingness. By putting the spotlight on the prepubescent female, the Western man veils the older, more mature woman, wrapping her in shrouds of ugliness. This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman’s skin.

…Even though access to education and professional opportunities seem wide open, the rules of the game are very different according to gender. Women enter the power game with so much of their energy deflected to their physical appearance that one hesitates to say the playing field is level. ‘A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one,’ says Wolf.

…‘I thank you, Allah, for sparing me the tyranny of the size six harem,’ I repeatedly said to myself while seated on the Paris-Casablanca flight, on my way back home at last. ‘I am so happy that the conservative male elite does not know about it. Imagine the fundamentalists switching from the veil to forcing women to fit in size six!’

How can you stage a credible political demonstration and shout in the streets that your human rights have been violated when you cannot find the right skirt?

Speaking of weight and worth, over at Buzzfeed, here’s Louis Peitzman on how while coming out as gay wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, being visibly fat is a whole other thing. It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat:

As an openly gay writer, one of the questions I’m asked most often is, “Were you bullied growing up?” And the answer is yes, but it’s never the answer they’re looking for. In many ways I was lucky to have come of age in a liberal enclave where my sexuality was accepted if not embraced. Oh, sure, I’ve had the word “faggot” hurled at me — and the sad truth is, I’d be shocked if a gay man hadn’t — but it was always secondary. The real source of my bullying was the extra weight I’ve carried since childhood. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been called a “faggot” to my face, but I couldn’t tell you how often someone has made a dig about my weight.

Outside of anonymous internet comments, the gay slurs have stopped almost entirely. Remarks about my weight, however, are a depressing constant.

Over at A Girl Called Jack, Jack Monroe responds to Edwina Currie’s accusation that most food bank users are just ‘rational opportunists’ looking to save a few quid for big screen TVs:

Food banks are often the only port of call for some of the hardest to reach members of society, people who wouldn’t ordinarily ask for help, or for whom the thought of visiting their local council office to query why their housing benefit has been delayed or suspended is another thing on a to do list wracked with anxiety, instead stuffing the letter into the pile of final demands and bailiff threats.

In response to this, many food banks act as signposting organisations, with agencies on hand to offer help for the issues that led them to the door in the first place. There is practical help, such as courses for job skills, cooking classes, and recipe cards handed out for low cost nutritious meals. There are also child and family support, domestic abuse specialists, and benefit and debt advisers.

Also on welfare, cuts, and their consequences, here’s Maman Poulet in Taking The Hit And Being Clobbered, talking to a woman in Ireland with significant physical disabilities about the effects that cuts to social welfare have had on her life:

  • A 25% cut in home help hours.  Refusal to transfer home help hours into Personal Assistance hours which would have meant the PA’s could have helped her go out into her community. (Home helps can only assist with personal care within the home, sometimes the person who helps Claire cannot cook or does not know how to cook – Claire buys food which is more expensive to cover those times to ensure that she will eat. She also mentioned this being more of an issue when her home help hours were cut and getting up out of bed, washed and laundry done competed with time spent preparing food.) Claire’s home helps are called carers – Claire doesn’t like the word much. She would prefer assistants as she thinks having a carer means she should be grateful for it and just let herself be cared for and have no say in things.
  • A cut to Electricity and Telephone allowances (Claire has to have a landline for her emergency response unit – a pendant operated call system if she needs help – her line rental is no longer free.)  Her electricity Bill is up due to the cuts in allowances and also the big increases levied by the power company in recent years.
  • A cut to the number of fuel allowance payments each year from 32 to 26 weeks.  Claire noted that she feels the cold more due to her health and also the fact that she is at home more that people who are able to work she has additional costs.
  • …and a whole lot more.

Need some cheering up after all that? I sure did. Here, broadsheet have some comics for you. Enjoy!


An Apple A Day Keeps The Linkspam Away

Calling Social Welfare

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.

A badly-drawn picture of a duck wearing glasses, a hat and a tie.
This Is Not A Selfie

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.

For me.

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.

Calling Social Welfare