In the first of a three-part series, Ballasalla’s John Callister aims to explode the myths of ‘benefit scroungers’ having an easy time at the taxpayers’ expense.
Here he presents his hard-hitting personal account of the reality of struggling to find work while surviving on the state jobseeker’s allowance.
People who have been unemployed for more than six months all tell the same harrowing story of trying to live on such a small sum as the state jobseeker’s allowance.
The constant rejection from companies that you apply to for a job is so very disheartening. Many don’t even reply by email, so even a rejection letter can seem like good news - at least they have acknowledged that you exist.
You simply can’t afford to do most of the things that you previously did: a few roses on Valentine’s Day? Christmas presents? That holiday you were thinking of? The gym, or the golf club membership at £250 a year and £20 a round? Not a chance. Even your subscription to Sky sports and Sky movies have to go.
If you’re lucky enough to have any savings, they will evaporate in the first six months to a year. Eventually you will run out of money and have to bite the bullet and sign on.
You become isolated from friends, family and former colleagues, who all assume you must be doing okay as they haven’t seen you for ages – maybe you’re working some odd hours, or in another town. You really don’t want to whinge so you keep quiet, slowly fading out of the view of the people you were once friends with.
Then the dole officers start on you: ‘What have you been doing to find a job?’, they ask. You reply: ‘Well, I’ve written to all the companies that do the work that I am trained and qualified for, the jobs I know I can do and have experience in.’
The interviewer ignores this comment and asks, ‘What about all the other jobs out there? Have you applied for that cleaning job working four hours a night, from midnight, every weekend, for minimum wage?’ You’re puzzled as to why they expect you to take such a job, disregarding your training and qualifications in your chosen trade.
But then you work out the wages, less stamps, tax and transport, to find that you’d be 10% or 20% worse off than if you stayed on the dole. In fact, you realise that you’d have to make a choice between paying your rent and eating.
This isn’t because the dole payment is too high – it’s barely possible to live on it in the first place. It’s because wages are so low and so many jobs are part time, or variable so you don’t know how much you will earn from week to week.
It’s possible to apply for a ‘top-up’ to make a poor wage up to a liveable standard, but the paperwork can take months and may not be anywhere near as much as you might imagine. Besides, isn’t that just a government subsidy, allowing profitable companies to pay their workers less than a living wage?
Don’t think that I’m trying to make an excuse for not taking ‘any’ job. When you are that poor, the difference between £74 a week on the dole and £100 a week for a 16 hour-a-week job at minimum wage, less tax and stamps and travel expenses, makes many part time jobs so poorly paid that you would need two of them to replace the amount you get on the dole.
Even if you can get these two jobs they could be in different towns, or they might need you at the same times. In some jobs you won’t know what shift you’ll have until the day before, making it impossible to have another.
You’re told that you’re jobseeker’s allowance will be stopped if you don’t apply for these pseudo jobs. What the authorities think will happen then is an open question. I have asked them: ‘What, seriously, do you expect people to do, once you stop their money?’ They have no real answer. The officers aren’t being spiteful, but they have to follow their internal rules. If you haven’t actively met their requirements they have no alternative but to disallow your claim.
So you begin to apply for cleaning, car valeting and burger-flipping jobs, as well as the job that you used to do. And you still get no replies, not even the courtesy of a letter or email.
At this point you have no money and your rent isn’t paid. You have to immediately make a new claim, which can take anywhere from a few days to six weeks to process, during which time you have no money. When you explain this to the person behind the glass, they answer that there is nothing they can do.
This is often the point at which someone loses their temper and shouts at the officer, who calls the police. They string together a few charges, like using offensive language in public, threatening behaviour, or even drunk in public, although there is no way you can even afford a can of beer.
How a court case, a £100 fine and your name in the paper can be conducive to your finding employment is totally beyond understanding, but it happens.
In the meantime you are still applying for jobs and still not getting any replies. Your workplace skills are being eroded as they become outdated, so you actually become less and less of a good prospect for a job. When you realise that you aren’t even good enough to be a cleaner of the offices you once worked in, or to pick mushrooms, you begin to lose faith in your own abilities and become even more reclusive.
After a while you discover that you’re applying for jobs at firms that you applied to six months ago, and didn’t get a reply then, either.
There are not many things that will sap your will to live like this constant level of rejection or simply being ignored. You shun the outside world as most conversations begin with ‘Hi, Jim/Jane, What are you up to these days?’, and you find it embarrassing. You get fed up with answering that you have been on the dole for months, unable to find work, so you don’t go out of your home unless you absolutely have to.
The second part of this series will appear in next week’s Isle of Man Examiner - in shops from Tuesday morning.