The stereotypical image of the individual who finds themselves out of work, unable to find a job and living on benefits, is someone who ‘does nothing.’ A search of Google Images of the term ‘on benefits’ yields an array of depressingly trite yet familiar shots of large families; people in front of the TV; ‘Benefits Street’ residents on sofas in the street; Vicki Pollard; and headlines from newspapers on this topic all perpetuating this myth. Fortunately, the project: ‘The Roles We Play’(a collaborative multimedia project between the NGO ATD Fourth World, Eva Sajovic and the project participants) is challenging the misconception that being unemployed means an empty, pointless life outside of society. Featuring self-written texts by the individuals in the accompanying book, this progressive and enlightening exhibition highlights the very real and significant contributions made by those living in poverty in their communities. Of great importance (and the subject of the remainder of this post) are the perfectly captured thoughts of Moraene, Patricia, Kathy, Alison, Seamus, James, Paul, Gwen, Amanda and Thomas on how they feel the roles they play in their communities are viewed by those outside and how that compares with the reality of their situation. These thoughts have been pulled together into common themes of: the prejudice exhibited towards those in poverty and on benefits; the lack of opportunity to be acknowledged for the roles played; the importance of having a voice and of being heard; the ‘everyday’ nature of the roles carried out; examples of the roles fulfilled; the clear evidence of transferable skills being used; and the importance of you, the person outside, in this mix.
P for Prejudice
We know that those in poverty and on benefits are routinely described through the use of derogatory terms in casual speech and in the media. Alison makes reference to ‘the media bashing’ of people in poverty mentioning the word: ‘scrounger’ specifically. She is right to identify this trend. Research carried out by Turn2Us a charity concerned with supporting those requiring access to benefits and grants, has identified that it is a observable phenomenon. In data analysed in the report Benefit Stigma in Britain it is suggested that 2008 witnessed a significant change in the rhetoric around those claiming benefits with the emergence of terms such as ‘scrounger’ with specific connotations of ‘lack of reciprocity and effort on the part of benefits claimants’.
And so with this as a backdrop, those finding themselves poor and in need of benefit support experience this negativity focused around an assumption that being out of work means they make no effort and ‘do nothing’. Moraene highlights the injustice of this accusation describing how:
‘most of us are really involved with our neighbours, our families, our community at some level or another. We’re involved in a lot of things.’
This is echoed by Patricia who explains: ‘we may be living in poverty but we still do things; we still help each other.’
Yet in spite of this obvious engagement, helping and being involved, participants like Kathy feel ‘wrongly misrepresented based on misconceptions.’ She refers to the stigmatisation of the poor and ‘the cold face of indifference’ shown them by the general public. Other participants highlight the judgements they feel are passed on the poor on benefits. People like Angela who feels that judgement keenly imagining questions being posed as to why she has no job and can’t ‘do better.’ In response to this kind of attitude, Moraene quite rightly raises the issue that as much as some might feel they are well-placed to judge someone like a single mother on benefits, they:
‘..don’t know who she babysits for; they don’t know the neighbours she does the shopping for. They don’t know that she goes to her child’s nursery and helps out with the reading class. They don’t know what her life is..’
Moraene asks only that she and others like her not be judged.. if you don’t know us.’
So prejudice is noted by those who are poor and they strive to have their very real contribution acknowledged and respected.
O for Opportunity
Sadly, there is little opportunity for this to be the case. Kathy points out that:
’There’s no value put on unpaid work, unpaid contributions to society. The only thing that seems to be valuable to society at the moment is paid work.’
More accurately, ‘unpaid contributions’ are not seen as a replacement for paid work for those on benefits unless it is undertaken as a sanction. An official body insisting that those on benefits undertake ‘unpaid work’ for benefits implies those claimants do not already do this. However, participants in this project tell us otherwise. Shouldn’t fairness dictate that the work carried out already, voluntarily and without the threat of sanction should, if anything, be more highly valued than the alternative proposed? Yet, patently this is not the case. This then is the lack of opportunity referred to by the benefit claimants: being denied the chance to be fully acknowledged for the roles they play in their societies.
V for Voices
Seamus: ‘We’ve all got a voice’
These interviews are evidence in themselves of the need for people living in poverty to have a voice and to tell their stories of how they perform pivotal roles in their communities. From the things they say, these individuals are clearly growing in their understanding of the value of storytelling. They know there is power in a story: power to inform and influence and as Alison points out: ‘shatter misconceptions’. There is the power to place the person at the heart and allow that person to feel ‘valued’ (James) and foster understanding between groups of individuals. It can allow a redefining of identity and a bolstering of confidence and consciousness so for Kathy, people might ‘not be afraid’. There is the power to develop as a person: ‘to ..grow and evolve’ according to James or ‘stand together’ (Kathy).
If enough voices are heard, the story around those in poverty and on benefits can change to better reflect and hopefully acknowledge the reality.
E for Everyday not Extraordinary
Gwen: People know they can come to me whenever they want because I’m not going to turn them away…Even if I had other things going on, I’d drop everything just to help them…’
There is a sense that for the individual involved, the tasks they perform would ordinarily go unsung. It is only because of this project that they are highlighting and identifying them. It feels as though they are things which are undertaken without ceremony; are entirely everyday; just a thing they do. Alison helping her neighbour with the shopping or Patricia taking her friend to hospital. Gwen is always willing to support anyone who comes to her and James provides training for youngsters. These are undertaken as naturally for these people as breathing. They are everyday acts not extraordinary for the individual carrying them out but nonetheless constitute roles which are essential to the workings of a solid community.
What is extraordinary is the fact that these interviewees do not draw attention to their roles but fulfil them because they feel their input is needed. Others with more confidence and motivated by reward may have sold their experience much more actively but are not necessarily more deserving of praise or acknowledgement.
R for some of the Roles played
Friend Community Development Project Worker
Kids’ Club Worker Human Rights Activist
Community Activist Carer
Poverty Defender Anti-Poverty Campaigner
T for Talents and Skills
Employability skills are high on the national agenda right now for all. From the unemployed through to new graduates and the career changers. Our group of people demonstrate a number of transferable skills but only Paul actively identifies these as such. The fact that the subjects of this project take a full and active role in their communities provides them with plenty of evidence for CVs but the capacity to unpack skills from the tasks performed automatically is, ironically, a skill in itself and one which is missing for some. The skills may be clear to those who look for them but for those who have not been adequately guided to see, acknowledge and market them, they are elusive. Added to this is the fact that people in poverty are so low in self-esteem that they are unable to recognise the skills that they have. Self-promotion is alien to them, not just because of a lack of skills to manage this, but also because they have been repeatedly and systematically told by society that they have nothing to offer. For this lack of self-promotion, their roles are allowed to remain invisible.
Y for You
These people living on benefits in poverty play important and significant roles in their communities. However, rather than being acknowledged for this, they are unfairly stigmatised as being lazy and not contributing. To change this, the speakers here know you are needed. You need to be the one who refuses to blindly adhere to a stereotypical view of people just like Laura, Moraene, Gwen, James and all of the other worthy contributors here. You need to be the one to change the narrative.
Laura:‘In today’s society, where we are having hard times, it’s very important for society to come together and try to help one another understand and have a better insight into each other’s lives, lifestyles, choices, to get a better future for the next generation which is our children and so that they can have better futures, lives, families.’
This is a group of modest, hard-working, socially engaged and community-minded individuals who happen to be ‘unemployed’ and so need to claim benefits. They have many identifiable and transferable skills but have been undervalued for so long that they don’t know how to highlight them. So show them. They are told they will be sanctioned if they fail to undertake unpaid work while the unpaid work they do – entirely voluntarily and altruistically- goes unnoticed. So notice it and acknowledge it. These are people who do something, many things for their communities; not people who ‘do nothing’. Far from it.