Popular British newspapers tell the public that those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are a burden on taxpayers and simply too lazy to work. The typical jobseeker is portrayed as a tracksuit-wearing, buckfast-swigging, lazy high school dropout. The Jobcentre is viewed as inefficient and too tied up in bureaucracy to actually fulfil its purpose: getting people back into work. Instead of a temporary means of income in tough times, Jobcentre payouts have become a way of life for many.
A few years ago, I found myself on JSA of around £52* per week and my experience has tainted my view of the system irreparably. (*Around £52 per week was what I was calculated to be allowed in December 2010. At present, a person in an equivalent situation would be entitled to £56.80 per week. https://www.gov.uk/jobseekers-allowance/what-youll-get
By way of explanation, I will provide a brief overview of how the UK JSA system works. I called up the central number and explained that I was out of work and had no source of income. I then had to go to an interview at my local Jobcentre where I talked with an advisor about my situation and what steps I was going to take to find work. This is known as a ‘jobseeker’s agreement’. The money was paid into my bank account fortnightly but as a condition of this payment, I had to go to the Jobcentre every two weeks to show my efforts to find work. This is known as ‘signing on’. I was provided with a logbook to fill out with steps I was taking to find work. Usually they asked for six entries which could be as simple as: ‘signed up for job alerts on a recruitment website’.
The odd thing about the Jobcentre is the very last thing it seems to do is place people in jobs. ‘I don’t have time to do a job search with you today so see you next time’, was all one advisor could manage before I even had the chance to sit down. I was grateful though; I wanted to get in and get out and pretend that this was not my life.
On one occasion I was asked if I would like to be a cleaner. I replied, ‘No, not really’ and that was the end of that. What probably should have happened is the advisor should have said, ‘Well, too bad. Sometimes we have to do jobs we would rather not in order to be able to feed, clothe and house ourselves. You are fit enough to do the job, so if you refuse to do any of these jobs, you will not get jobseeker’s allowance.’ However, that did not happen and the cycle continued round and round: I would go the job centre fortnightly and have my log book stamped and a few days later the money was in my bank. I would look for jobs, fill out the log book with all the efforts I had made (which I think was checked once – this is meant to be the cornerstone of the effort to stop abuse of the system) to show I was trying to get a job, and repeat the cycle two weeks later.
I was under the illusion that the Jobcentre would have greater access to available jobs than I would on my own at a computer or with a newspaper. That turned out to be entirely false and in the end, I found myself a job. I am fairly confident I would have been signing on for much longer had I not chosen to abandon their system altogether.
I was chipping away at my own self-esteem, confidence and sense of worth on each visit to the job centre. I hated the way people looked at me, I felt judged – mostly by the people who worked there. I am not proud of this, but in the end I started to make a conscious effort to ‘dress down’ in order to appear less conspicuous. British people generally perceive this type of welfare as belonging to a specific class of person. As a university-educated middle-class person, I not only felt out of place in the Jobcentre, I felt accused of taking advantage of something I should not have.
Is it easy to stay on jobseekers indefinitely? It most certainly is, despite various initiatives intended to stamp out abuse of the system. The government tried to get people back into work by providing unpaid work experience, often in supermarkets, in return for JSA. This was challenged by some as being akin to slavery. I am not arguing that working for free is ideal (I intern unpaid at the moment for crucial experience and it is not easy to get by) but I cannot equate it to ‘exploitation’, a word used in the context of human trafficking and child labour.
However, the perception that all people on JSA are having a great time and mocking those with jobs could not be further from the truth. I was essentially getting free money for doing very little but I did not enjoy it. I could have chosen to stay on JSA but I would never have been able to save any money or improve my standard of living.
There are those who are happy to be on jobseekers for most of their adult life despite being fit to work and I do concede that it is annoying but I would not swap lives with them. I do not think it can be underestimated how important the confidence, self esteem and independence obtained from a satisfying day of work are to a person’s mental health. JSA is not the ‘easy street’ it is cracked up to be. I hope I am never unlucky enough to need it again.