This is the first in our ‘All inclusive’ series from writer Cookie Kibbles @cookie_kibbles. (There truly couldn’t be a better pen name). Her column tackles the myths surrounding benefit claimants and how zero hours contracts are not the flexible answer
I often get told that, “I don’t look like I claim benefits”, which makes me feel uncomfortable, as it shows the deeply-ingrained perception of those ‘on benefits’. It’s someone dishevelled, perhaps. A no-hoper. The stereotype portrayed on TV in a series like Benefits Street or Shameless where the protagonist is a gnarled old guy with a fag hanging limply from the corner of his mouth.
With the majority of housing benefit claimants actually in work, you can see how jarring this stereotype is. I am a mother on benefits.
My family is one of the millions of working families in the UK claiming means-tested benefits. We are not well off and we live and work in London (for my partner’s work). We are stretched beyond our means and have to claim top-up housing benefit, which brings with it as many problems as it does solutions. Try walking into an estate agent and telling them that while you work full time, you have to claim housing benefits, too. I have actually been laughed at or simply had someone shout, “NO” (with no other discussion) to my face before being shown the door.
There’s the hoops you have to jump though. The demoralising claimant forms to fill in, the evidence you need to submit, which seems to change from week-to-week. The printing of reams of bank statements for a council employee to pour over; the feeling of complete helplessness as your life is assessed by a stranger behind a desk. A stranger who doesn’t know what has truly led to you sitting there, clutching evidence of your previous life choices.
I sometimes feel like a scrounger, a number and not a person: you are constantly told to get a better job or find more hours. You can end up juggling two or three jobs just to make up full time hours, but at minimum wage, this still isn’t enough in many areas to live without help. Still, you are told that you are lazy by the media, family members and those who simply don’t know you or your back story.
When I was first made aware of the Flex Appeal campaign – Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka’s campaign to push for flexible working for everyone – it didn’t speak to me. As far as I was aware, the focus was on people with professional jobs in huge, multinational companies and professions that they had trained hard to be in. I nodded along to backlash as someone said: “Look at all these London media luvvies whining about where they sit to work. Bless.”
For me, it seemed to miss out a whole section of society: the people at the bottom of the pile who are tirelessly grafting to simply keep their heads above water. The people who work in factories, the care workers or the woman who works evenings in your local Spar. Those who work in jobs where there is no option for flexible working. People like me.
We don’t have careers; we have jobs.
We are the people who work on zero hour contracts with no guarantee of hours from one week to the next. How do you even attempt to cobble together childcare in that situation? There is no progression, no ladder to climb, no way out and no way forward.
Zero hours are touted by some as the ultimate in flexible working, a laughable notion to many people who are in a zero hour contract job. Yes, in an ideal world being able to choose hours to suit you would be fantastic, but the truth of the matter is, you are at the mercy of your employer for the hours you are offered.
I have a background in health and social care. When looking to go back to working in this sector I have been told numerous times by job center staff and housing benefit to steer clear of zero hours, which invariably leaves nothing to apply for.
So, I want this to change and for that to happen, people have to start seeing the wider picture, not just the stereotypes. Stereotypes from all corners of the internet and all walks of life.
There has been some backlash recently on Instagram and beyond about how it tends to display middle class privilege in all its glory. I have harboured a (possibly unjust) anger towards seemingly well-off Instamums when they talked about work choices, maternity leave and flexible working issues. There seemed to be so many women speaking with authority that had grown-up with support, choices and lived a life far from those who are surviving, not living. I felt as if I couldn’t relate to them.
I couldn’t relate to Anna. We argued, we met, we discussed this disconnect on and off for the last 18 months and finally came to a realisation that banging heads together wasn’t the answer, either. I’m not her biggest fan out there (and I’m sure I’m not top of her What’s App contacts either) – but one thing we truly agree on, is that it doesn’t have to be personal. The issue of how we work isn’t about her, me, the guy off the tele on benefits – it’s about us.
A glossy, polished Instagram page is no indicator of reality and a more comfortable lifestyle doesn’t automatically mean ignorance. She has a platform and I have a voice. This is our exchange as two women who want things to be different – for everyone.
I am the person who took on a zero hour contract job but had to leave it because I was getting six hours work a week but having to be available for 36 hours, spending money on 30 hours a week on childcare that I had signed a contract to pay for.
I am the person who would have to find someone to magically look after my child at 5am if I had to do an early shift. I am the person who is constantly doing the maths to see if a job is actually worth taking after I have paid out for childcare. I am one of the parents who doesn’t have any extended family to help and also has sole caring responsibilities for an elderly parent.
I am the person, who like so many others, chose the murky world of online tarot reading to try and earn some money, despite not being psychic. It was unethical of me to do it. I know that. I know that it is only the souls at their lowest ebb who turn to those lines; I know that I was effectively concurring to dupe people like myself, making a faceless company a fortune out of people who are desperate to hear a snippet of hope, while I was getting paid pennies.
When every penny counts, there’s limited room for morals.
With the payment for this column and a turn of luck, I have now switched to the far more wholesome world of double glazing – rest assured, I will only be cold calling you if you are already an existing customer.
But what Anna took from my anger was that it was borne from a place of frustration. Together we have created my strapline: ‘attempting to represent the under-represented’. I want to let people know that they are not alone. I want to let people know that there is no shame in having to claim benefits while you are in work, that you don’t have to feel like you are at the bottom of the heap.
I want a time when we all have a choice in life. I want to stop other people feeling as low as I did when I am scouring the Internet for work in home call center jobs.
I want to have the choice to work flexibly. (We will be speaking more about predictive flexibility in my next column as a way to combat the zero hours hell hole.)
More than anything, I want things to change as much as Anna does. We want to turn anger and frustration into armour and ammunition. We want to switch fighting against each other towards fighting a system that is rigged against so many of us. So many of us who aren’t always as they seem.
Work it out
If you are currently struggling with your current work set-up, please check out Flex Appeal and Pregnant Then Screwed’s joint venture, Work It Out. This is an anonymous platform where you can kick-start a discussion and unite with others in a similar situation. There are pro bono experts on the forum, ready to give advice. If you want a more open social media forum, please check out the Let’s Talk About Flex Facebook page. If you have any topic you would like me to cover, please contact me @cookie_kibbles. My job is to make sure there are no gaping holes in the Flex Appeal fabric.
Written by: Anna Whitehouse.