I’m currently working with a couple who typify the unintended consequences of recent changes to welfare benefits arising from the recession. Despite their best efforts, the recession has made it impossible to earn a living wage, and they have then been further victimised by the current system, that should be designed to protect the most vulnerable.
Mr and Mrs Jones live in a Housing Association 3 bedroom house. They have lived there for over 30 years, raising 5 children, and maintaining the property immaculately.
Mr Jones works as a self employed landscape gardener. While not making a huge amount from this work, he has nevertheless managed to support himself and his family for many years without recourse to public funds, but when the recession started to bite in 2008, gardening work became scarcer as people tried to find ways of cutting back, and he began to fall into debt.
He started to get depressed. However, he tried to fight this, and in an attempt to meet his ongoing commitments and to service his debts, he took a part time job delivering parcels for a national company. But, already depressed, he found the struggle to keep up with the schedule impossible to manage. He ended up working hours longer than he was paid to in order to meet the delivery targets.
After a few months of this, and still unable to meet his financial commitments, one morning he woke up and was simply unable to get out of bed. He felt terrified to even leave the house, and would have panic attacks at the very thought of going shopping.
He went off sick, and started to receive statutory sick pay. He also made a claim for housing benefit and council tax benefit. But this is where it became even more complicated.
Mrs Jones has a zero hours contract with a local commercial cleaning company. This means that she fills in for the sickness or absence of cleaning staff. Sometimes she works 6 hours a week, sometimes she works 20 hours a week. Some weeks she is not called on at all.
The consequence of her erratic income is to make claiming means tested benefits very haphazard. Each week Mr Jones has to notify the local authority how much she has earned, and benefits are then paid accordingly. Of course, there is always a delay in calculating and paying these benefits, which means that there is little guaranteed money coming into the house to pay essential bills. Mr Jones is having difficulty trying to pay the prescription charges for the antidepressant and other medication he has been prescribed to try to help him recover.
To add to Mr & Mrs Jones’ woes, because their children are all adult and have left home, they have two unused bedrooms, so are penalised further by the “bedroom tax”. For the first time in their lives, they are falling into arrears with their rent.
Their current predicament is unsustainable. But what should they do?
Mr Jones has lost 3 stone in weight because of his depression and anxiety. He considers that leaving the house to walk to the post box on the corner on his own without having a panic attack at the moment is a major achievement. If he went back to work, the stress of his delivery job would precipitate a major relapse. In his current state of mind, there is no way he should return to that job, but his job as a gardener is also unsustainable.
Should Mrs Jones continue doing her job? Her irregular income creates havoc with their finances, and it would surely be better for them as a couple if she stopped work altogether, so that they would at least be able to count on a regular income from benefits, inadequate though it is, especially with the additional penalty of the bedroom tax.
Should they attempt to move to smaller accommodation to reduce their rent and stop being penalised? The problem with that is that hundreds of others in social housing in the area are also trying to do the same thing, and as a consequence, one bedroom properties are in very short supply. And is it really just that a couple who have been exemplary tenants, and who have put their lives into maintaining their house as a much loved home, should have to leave it?
As a mental health worker, whose job it is to aid recovery from mental illness, I would have to advise Mr & Mrs Jones to stop working completely, and be reliant on benefits. That way, their income would be regular and stable, they would be entitled to help with prescription and dental treatment, and they might be able to at least pay essential bills, even if they would not be able to service their debts.
What a shame it is that the welfare system is not designed to facilitate those people who want to work, even if only part time, but instead makes it impossible for them to work. And of course, if Mr Jones remained without work, he would start to be subject to capability for work assessments, whether there was work for him or not. Would that harassment hasten his recovery? I think not.