Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

Welcome to our new guest series, of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Meet Alan...

Alan is the quintessential benefit scrounger. When a work coach or jobcentre staff member tells you they can identify the scroungers and malingerers, it’s Alan they’re talking about. They’re confident in their assessment that this guy is never going to want to contribute to society. He’s just thinking about how to score and how to get money to score.

As soon as Alan walks into a jobcentre, all the staff know what he is, even if they’ve never seen him before. They see it in the way he walks, the way he stands, in his choice of clothes and haircut. They know he’s on drugs and is high right that moment.

A stock image of a JobCentre Plus sign

When the work coach interview starts, the confirmation continues. Alan has been sanctioned before. In fact, he’s on a three-month sanction right now. He doesn’t care, though, because the rental component of his benefits goes straight to his hostel landlord, so he needn’t worry about eviction. 

The work coach isn’t interested in how Alan will survive. How is he buying his food, paying his bills, or using the bus?

The options are limited. Perhaps Alan has savings, though that is unlikely; they’d have been spent on drugs by now. Perhaps friends or family or charity are bailing him out, though the work coach hopes not: they’d be undermining the sanction. 

Maybe Alan is borrowing from loan sharks, which will present acute problems later, but might at least reinforce the punitive intention of the sanction. A final option is that Alan is working on the side, taking cash in hand without declaring it to the DWP. The work coach would not be surprised, although she also believes that Alan has no work ethic.

Sanctions: designed to punish

Aerial view of Houses of Parliament

Whatever way Alan is surviving, the DWP’s approach suggests they don’t really want him to do it. The point of the sanction is to punish Alan into socially-conformable behaviour by leaving him no other option. The message from the top is that the way to get Alan off drugs and into work is to punish his behaviour until he sees sense. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be working that way doesn’t matter.

So when the work coach queries why Alan didn’t apply for a particular job, she’s not really interested. It will be a made-up reason, maybe borrowed from someone else who said it had worked. She sees no valid reason to turn down a job one is physically capable of doing. She knows, and Alan knows, that a further sanction will now be applied but Alan doesn’t seem to care, which just confirms the work coach in her judgment of him.

Now meet Ben

Then there’s Ben. He had successfully held a range of jobs, including running a second-hand store on a busy street. He is also good with his hands and worked as a car mechanic until a friend introduced him to a swimming pool company where he got a job as a filtration engineer.

It wasn’t easy and involved a lot of travel, but he loved that job, working all across the country in schools and for councils and for private buyers. He worked on the lido at Oxford and at the eight pools built for the 2012 Olympics. 

After that, the trouble started. Ben was made redundant. It’s not clear why it was Ben, given that he’d been with the company for five years. The ‘last in, first out’ principle should have protected him relative to the newbies taken on for the Olympic Games. But it was a Scottish company, and Ben wonders if they favoured Scottish people.

When Ben lost his job, his landlord served an immediate eviction notice, without even giving Ben a chance to look for work or claim for social security. 

There weren’t even any rent arrears, but Ben didn’t want to cause trouble for his house-mates, so he left by the date on the eviction notice. 

Ben had nowhere to go. After 40 years of work, he had no knowledge of the benefits system or what to do when homeless.

Once, walking back from visiting friends, he was gripped by a suicidal impulse. Swinging his leg over the fence to jump from the footbridge to the motorway, he survived only because the friend with him fought him back. Ben didn’t speak to that friend for two years. It was so hard to still be alive, that being grateful was impossible.

Forced into awful settings

After two months of sofa-surfing, Ben got a place in a hostel – not through the council or the Jobcentre, but through word-of-mouth from another resident. It was a nasty hostel – which is standard for the sector – and many, even most, of the residents at any one time were drug users.

Ben had used cannabis recreationally in the past, at weekends with friends. It hadn’t become a problem for him, any more than alcohol becomes a problem for most drinkers. But in the hostel, drug use – and heavier drugs than cannabis – was the only social activity available and the only way to make friends.

Ben didn’t have many friends and was deeply depressed. Making friends and surviving the sudden penury and misery was important. Drugs were the only answer being offered. In his situation, it was almost a rational choice. Certainly, it was an emotional one. And emotions are powerful beasts, heavily affected by our circumstances.

So Ben ended up with an addiction to crack cocaine and spice. This was unfortunate, because now that he had a registered address he was able to claim benefits and start to have an income and means to live again. It should – if the benefits had been reasonable and Ben’s living accommodation decent – have been the opportunity to get back on track. Instead, Ben was still depressed, in circumstances barely if at all above destitution – and with a new addiction.

Pushed into crisis

Drugs change people’s emotions and attitudes; that’s why people take them. If they didn’t create a high, a release from worry, or a sense of being above the world and its cares, then they wouldn’t be sought after or addictive.

So when Ben took cocaine or spice to relieve depression or keep in with his hostel mates, it also created a devil-may-care attitude, unconducive to following pointless, or downright unhelpful or dangerous jobcentre commands. Neither the high of the drugs nor the depression were likely to help Ben return to stable, full-time work. They certainly hindered any attempts to look for work.

Ben was sanctioned.

Stock image of a hospital 'emergency' sign

Some time later, Ben found himself in hospital. Broken by the use of drugs and attempts to find work, his body had collapsed under him. He’d been in a coma for seven days.

The shock helped Ben want to turn his life around. Crucially, he was also finally offered a council flat, where he still is now. This gave him the break he needed. It is near impossible to withstand the pull to drugs when you are living in a squalid hostel and the only mates around you are taking drugs. 

So Ben got lucky. He was also able to find a rehab clinic to attend every evening. He was still taking spice, and the staff knew it, but he was cutting down and had cut out the cocaine. He was taking steps to get his life back together.

But the Jobcentre still didn’t help. They saw him as a drug-addict; a scrounger; no different from Alan. It was horrendous. He was trying to get off drugs by attending rehab each evening, by no longer taking cocaine and reducing his use of spice, and capitalising on the opportunity he was given by getting a council flat.

But the Jobcentre wasn’t helping. Instead, Ben says: 

“It was like they were stood on me shoulders keeping me under water, like they’re trying to drown me.”​

————  Ben  ————

Ben: They're trying to force me into hard positions

His illness – his depression, his despair, his drug addiction that he was trying to get rid of – meant nothing to the Jobcentre other than as proof that he was a scrounger to be pushed and punished, constantly.

On one occasion he was told to apply for a job that involved working a till. Ben was trying to beat his drug addiction, but he hadn’t beaten it yet and he knew he wasn’t perfect or beyond temptation. To stand at a till, eight hours a day, five days a week, desperate for money to buy drugs, was a temptation that he was not confident he could consistently withstand.

He said this to the Jobcentre work coach. His recognition of his own weaknesses and his desire to overcome them was seen as irresponsibility. He was sanctioned.

Ben’s own thoughts and feelings didn’t matter. He says: “Well, at this moment in time, I’m taking drugs every day. I’m going to dip that till. I know I’m gonna dip that till because that’s where my head is.

“And I didn’t want to do that because it’s summat I’ve never done. But knowing where I am, I don’t want to be put in a situation where it’s gonna cause more anxiety for me because I’m stressed out looking at all this money daily. They’re trying to force me into these positions and sanction me. It was really, really hard.”

Ben’s life in his council flat was really lonely, so to fill his days, he would sit in a park. In a park, he would not take spice openly; he would wait until people weren’t around, and this desire to conceal his habit naturally reduced his consumption. Sitting in a park was also Ben’s most social interaction. Sometimes just seeing people walk by was a comforting reminder that there were other people in the world.

Ben: finding limited help

Stock image: letter tiles spelling 'support'

Ben was able to get help from a local charity, with his benefit claims and to his debt (no-one had told him either that he needed to pay council tax while staying in the hostel, nor how to do so, nor that he could claim council tax support). He started volunteering with the charity, and progressed into paid work at another charity.

When the manager at that charity left, he acted as interim manager. But when he applied for the permanent position, he was told he wasn’t dynamic enough. (This is a man who went on ‘Naked Attraction’!) He’s up for a laugh and joke, and is a fun and gregarious person who is a pleasure to be around. His 40-year work history has given him a solid range of skills, including in management and running shops. He applied three more times for similar positions with that chain, whilst continuing to work as interim manager. But each time he was rejected.

The fourth rejection hit him really hard. He was doing the job, yet kept being refused the permanent position. It was deeply disheartening, and undermined his self-confidence in his ability to put his past behind him. He had to take sick leave for a few months.

He hoped to find a different job, but didn’t get one, so had to return to the store that didn’t want him. When he did get a job with a different company, he was let go after the probationary period for not being good enough with computers.

Ben is now in debt again, because of losing his job. The jobcentre are currently being kind, because he isn’t on drugs (they don’t know about his history) and they can see that he is looking for work. He could seek early retirement, but he wants to work.

He wants the structure, the independence, the extra money. He doesn’t want to depend on state hand-outs or have to seek food parcels to survive, but he is in a perilous situation, physically and financially. If winter comes before he is offered a job, it is hard to see how he will get by.

Ben & Alan: similar paths, similar solutions

Ben and Alan are similar people. But where Alan might be termed a member of the ‘underclass’ for lacking a work ethic and choosing to stay on drugs, Ben’s situation was a response to the circumstances imposed by outside forces – a change in the economy; his boss’s decision to make him redundant; his landlord’s decision to kick him out; the Government’s failure to catch people when society drops them or to ensure a liveable income during jobsearch.

Alan is the kind of person who makes the middle-class scared of the council estate and deprived inner-city wards.

They worry about his behaviour and attitude, and whether they’re at risk of attack and to what extent he is gaming the system. Ben, on the other hand, is not at bottom distinguishable from the working class. He shares their work ethic and commitment to providing for oneself, and takes responsibility – even at the cost of benefit sanctions – for keeping himself away from drugs. Alan should be punished; Ben should be helped.

The problem is that Ben and Alan are the same people. One person is who you see from the outside: the ‘scrounger’. The other is the person on the inside, trying to survive in horrendously challenging circumstances. One is the superficial person who the government insists needs to be punished. The other is the real person, helped by support but held down by sanction.

The lives and truths we don't see

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

The complexities of our lives cannot be broken down into stereotypes. Those of us who have never been in the sort of situation that Alan/Ben experienced will always struggle, to the point of impossibility, to understand the emotions and the survival decisions required. Those of us who have come out of such situations risk false confidence in our own contribution to the escape, and a concomitant false scorn for those still in it.

But what I find most interesting is that ultimately, whatever you think of Alan/Ben, the question about how to respond to is still answered in the same way.

Punishment did not push Alan/Ben into ‘right’ behaviour; it pushed him further down into desperation. What he needed, however much his situation was his own fault or the fault of others and structural factors, was support.

He needed an exit from the environment he was living in; a stable life with stable and sufficient finances; and a community around him to give him joy, purpose and a reason to keep living. It was this support that enabled Alan/Ben to start and maintain efforts to stop taking drugs,. It is the loss of this support, in the loss of his job and the risk of homelessness if he cannot pay his rent, that could push him back into drug-seeking.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help. Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help.

Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

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