'I was so frozen by stress after having my benefits stopped'

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Karen Stromberg from the London Coalition Against Poverty describes the suffering caused by benefit sanctions and questions the political agenda encouraging them.

There is a popular assumption that the current government’s welfare agenda is based on lack of knowledge and understanding of how difficult life is for many poor people in Britain. But while there is breath-taking ignorance among the ruling classes regarding the level of suffering currently being endured, the actual agenda is much more pernicious; in the battle for scarce resources, the poor do not matter where wealth and privilege for the minority are at risk. The cost is the mental, physical and social wellbeing of those who have been left with no resources to assist them.

People are regularly left hungry, depressed and in despair by the vicious behaviour of Jobcentre Plus. If this place was called “The Centre for Patronising and Processing” and stamped your forehead at the door, it couldn’t have a more demoralising effect. A London Coalition Against Poverty member, who is in a vulnerable situation, recently had difficulty completing her job booklet accurately. She was ‘warned’ about this but was offered no help or support. Her benefit was subsequently stopped for two weeks. What do you do when this is your sole income and you have no other resources to draw on? She felt so desperate, she considered begging just to try and get something to eat and alternated between rage and hopelessness for the entire fortnight. Poverty does that to you.

In my own case, I was so frozen by stress after having my benefits stopped for several weeks that I couldn’t face opening my post or answering any of the many phone calls demanding payment, as I knew I was powerless to do anything about it and would just end up shouting at the cold, arrogant jobsworth on the other end of the phone. One conversation with the benefits office ended with me shouting: “maybe me and my children should just sit in a corner and starve, then you can keep your money and be happy”. Naturally, at this point, I was told that the phone call could be terminated as I was shouting.

In the midst of this, you are expected to deal with threatening creditors, care for children (alone, in my case), carry out extensive job searches, apply for countless jobs with no success and attend a variety of benefits appointments where you are treated like an insignificant scrounger, often by those whose social and communication skills leave a great deal to be desired. You can never be late or forget an appointment, despite the fact that these change regularly and you are so stressed you barely know what day of the week it is. Most of all, you must impress your “advisor” with your job search commitment so they will sign the piece of paper for your £67.50 in order for you to eke out your pitiful existence for another week.

Poverty dehumanises. It leaves people with the sense that they don’t matter. Which brings us back to the Tory agenda. Does David Cameron spend days searching for school shoes that fit, that won’t embarrass his kids but that he can actually afford? Does he lie awake at night wondering how to get three more meals out of the scraps left in the fridge? Does he dread Christmas, birthdays or school holidays, knowing the inevitable disappointment and added stress these will bring, and the knowledge that this is not how it’s supposed to be but there doesn’t seem to be any way out? No, no and no again.

It’s jarring to always respond to your bright-eyed teens with “What part of ‘no money’ don’t you understand?” when the consumerist agenda is all-pervasive and when not being the odd one out seems so important. ‘Walking your own road’ and ‘not caving-in to pressure’ are fine principles to live by (which I do) but it is fiendishly difficult to encourage your offspring to ignore reality, aim high and want the best for their future, when their present keeps them trapped in an impossible cycle of need and low expectations.

The government agenda is not just about ignorance, it’s much worse: greed, self-preservation and a motivation to kick those who are too tired, worn-out and demoralised to fight back. So while men like David Cameron at the top of this heap continue to cocoon themselves, and those like them, in their nests, the phrase “all in it together” isn’t just an insult. It’s a match to the fuse.

Have you been sanctioned and want to share your story? Contact Corporate Watch on or 02074260005.

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