There is evidently something wrong with me.
I seem to have a chronic inability to be angry about people claiming benefits. I know I’m supposed to be furious. I’m meant to be incensed that people can have 10 kids and not work. I’m meant to be incandescent that a family where no one has a job brings in near to my previous salary in benefits.
But nothing happens. I’ve tried reading the Mail, the Sun and the Express, I really have, but somehow it fails to make me cross at all. (Well, the people claiming benefits don’t.)
Multiple pictures of people who were fraudulently claiming incapacity benefit running marathons, going down waterslides and auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent have summarily failed to convince me that there’s an epidemic of fraud. It’s not like I’m especially perceptive, or too rich to care or in quite the same boat, being currently a comfortably-off claimer of JSA.
Though I would say that I am extremely disinclined to jealousy, which might have a lot to do with it. In adulthood I’ve been jealous of someone approximately once – I hated it, found it futile and unhelpful and haven’t been back there since. It’s OK, I make up for that by being a git in all sorts of other ways.
This much-tweeted Independent piece brings home the powerful effect of media misrepresentation of benefits. It’s so easy to believe that because something’s reported, it’s common – whether it be benefit fraud, child murder or paedophiles jumping out from behind bushes. Of course, the reason that it’s news is that it’s an exception, but like so many things, the knee-jerk reaction is likely to win over the counter-intuitive truth. And when jealousy comes rears up its ugly head, doubly so.
Perhaps the best example of this is the insistence that ‘People have kids so they can get benefits’. Yes, previous to the imminent cap on benefits, more kids = more benefits. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to work out that that doesn’t equal more wealth. Because somewhere the ‘kids for benefits’ ranters miss the point that kids cost money. Quite a lot of money. Quite a lot more money than you might get for each one in benefits. My main thought when I see this sort of article is ‘That’s really not much money at all for a household of eight’ and that it can’t be at all fun to live that way. No one’s thinking ‘Let’s pop another one out, then all eleven of us can go on a Caribbean cruise’.
One of the most reprehensible tricks in the media book, to my mind, is the ‘benefits outrage’ piece. Evidently these sell papers, as it’s not unusual to see them on the front page. The basic outline is this: person on benefits, usually a single mum or absent father of several, ‘boasts’ of how much benefit they rake in, ‘moans’ about having too small a house and so forth, or it’s a rant at the foreign family who gets a ‘luxury house’ in ‘millionaires row’, as if it’s their fault that it’s the property chosen by the council, and that obviously they ought to be in mildewed prefab in Zone 6.
I don’t imagine that journalists approach these people saying ‘Please can we interview you about how you’re living the high life on benefits so that we can vilify you on our front page?’ I suspect they come with heads tilted sympathetically, asking whether they can talk to them about how hard it is to be a single parent/jobless and on benefits. And then they ask leading questions, quote out of context and downright misquote. After all, these people aren’t likely to go running to the Press Complaints Commission and even if they do, the most they can hope for is a tiny apology tucked away somewhere, but probably not even that.
You can see how easy it could be to change ‘My kids eat out once a week at McDonalds, it’s the only treat I can afford’ to ‘“My kids always eat at McDonalds” she boasts’; or how ‘I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, but I feel like giving up now’ somehow becomes ‘”I can’t be bothered to apply for jobs” he moans’ somewhere between the interviewee’s mouth and the printed page.
Fish in a barrel, as far as an unscrupulous journalist is concerned. It’s possible, I concede, that some of these people are lazy good-for-nothings so eager to appear in the media that they’ll open themselves up to national vilification by boasting of their lack of work and luxury lifestyle. But I also think it’s rather more likely that it’s journalists participating in the fine art of ‘making shit up’.
Papers also love cases of ‘fakers’ caught out on holiday or doing sports, while claiming disability benefits. So now we’re seeing people with intermittent illness being ‘shopped’ to the DWP by neighbours who didn’t take the time to consider that some people live with conditions that may only occasionally require a wheelchair, or mean that can manage without a stick on a good day. But the ‘Benefit Avenging’ high kicks in, and all empathy’s out the window – it’s in the papers, so obviously it happens all the time.
With so many imaginary illnesses, we must need the heroic ATOS, with their miraculous healing powers. They’re so effective that they repeatedly visit people who’ve won appeals, or those with chronic, degenerative or fatal conditions just to make sure that they derive the full benefit (no pun intended) from their magical abilities. Hang on, I thought they were supposed to save the government money?
Then there’s the stats about all those people who’d ‘rather lose benefits than get a job’ triumphantly crowed about in a number of papers. Look, there’s your proof – lots of people are so lazy, they’d rather lose their benefits than work. No mention of the fact that some of these people might be ill, that their mandatory placement could present any number of practical barriers, that the support offered by the authorities for childcare might have been insufficient or they may have other caring responsibilities that are not taken into account. I read recently about what is on offer for childcare, and as far as I can tell it equates to just under three days’ childcare per week round where I live, so leaving a Londoner out of pocket by over £120 a week for working unpaid, unless they have family support at hand. No data, of course, on the reasons for turning down these placements, just the assumption that it must be because they are monumentally lazy.
As well as selling papers, this is all very convenient for the government, of course – it gets the public behind welfare cuts (as long as they’re not the ones affected) and thinking less of those higher up the chain who bear far less of the burden of taxation than those on far lower incomes. The DWP’s latest adverts about closing in on benefit fraud yet again suggest that this is such a massive problem that it clearly deserves a lot of the DWP’s time and attention. But I hazard to put forward that maybe it ought to be giving more of that attention to work, pensions, benefits and supporting people who need it rather than running down convenient imaginary fraudsters.