Benefitted?

A couple of years ago, I had a period of time where I found myself unemployed. My freelancing work had dried up and I was running out of what little money I had left.

I was struggling to cobble my rent together and lived off one meal a day of baked beans on toast for weeks. Banks and credit card companies were calling me harassing me for money I didn’t have. Nothing seemed to be on the horizon for me. I had no choice but to sign on.
Sure, signing on relieved me slightly, but I was receiving less than £80 a week in benefits so things were still very tight and this didn’t even cover my rent. But it helped me get by.

I hear the word “scrounger” a lot linked to benefits.
It’s true. Even with my JSA, I still had very little money.
I scrounged a lot.
Under the sofa, behind the bed…
I once paid for a pint of milk with 1p and 2p coins I’d collected in a jar.

I was 1 penny short.
The shop keeper let me off.

My Job Seeker’s Allowance gave me enough for two bus fares a week to travel to job interviews and helped me muddle through a very stressful time. I was without work for nearly 4 months.

Despite 9 GCSES, 3 A Levels, a degree and nearly 5 years of life in the working world, I couldn’t get a job. Many shops wouldn’t hire me due to my lack of retail experience. Other places felt I was over qualified and wouldn’t stick it out too long. But most were not impressed with the ever growing gap on my CV. The same question kept getting asked. Why – if I was so qualified – wasn’t I in work?

It was something I just couldn’t answer. I can only imagine how much harder someone without my qualifications and experience would find it to answer these questions. Of the limited interviews I got, I was turned down for 7 retail jobs, 5 waitressing jobs, 2 stock rooms jobs, 4 call centre jobs and a cleaning job in a nightclub.
Eventually I got a bar tending job which paid minimum wage.

The whole ordeal left me severely crippled by debt and I went to bed hungry for a few months while I got back on my feet. The minimum wage job paid slightly more than my benefits so with the help of the occasional generous tip, I slowly climbed out of my financial hole.

Depression had long set in by this point and so it took me a while to build up the courage to apply for freelance jobs as a TV researcher again. Eventually someone gave me a big break and I was back on my career path again.
I cried when I got the call offering me that job.
It took me over a year to fully recover financially and psychologically from that time.

People often assume those on benefits are lazy. But I know how hard being on benefits is. Living on very little money and trying to stretch it as far as you can is hard work. The depression and fear of rejection makes getting out of bed every morning even harder. Going into the job centre every week and justifying to someone why you’re still in the same situation is exhausting. And I only had to do it for 4 months. Even surviving on minimum wage was difficult.
But I was just relieved to be back in a job.
It seemed that employers didn’t like employing the unemployed.
It’s a stigma that was hard to shake.
I nearly lost my home, my livelihood and my mind.

I struggled and if it weren’t for my family and friends I might not have made it out. But to be honest my pride made me hide a lot of what was going on away from those around me who cared.
I spiralled into a pit of depression I thought I’d never escape.

After watching The Big Benefits Row tonight I wanted to write down my story.
It was only a brief spell compared to others and I luckily got my life back.

But hearing Edwina Currie repeatedly chant “Get a job then.” at an unemployed audience member tonight made my blood boil. Everything came flooding back. Emotions I’d buried deep down.
From personal experience I can tell you Edwina – it’s not that easy.
I think what makes me feel so strongly, is that the majority of job seekers are like me; proud, wanting to work and frustrated by their situation.
Once you’re in that position people instantly judge you.

And having TV shows further demonising those who need an extra hand is not going to help kick the stigma and get those out of work back into a job.

The benefits system is there to help carry people through tough times.
In my opinion, it wasn’t a benefit. It was a neccessity for survival.
And like any system, there’s always going to be a small few who’ll abuse it.
Like tax evasion, self-service tills at the supermarket and illegal downloading.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
We’ll never eradicate the world of cheats and liars.

The benefits system is in place to help those who suddenly find themselves sinking.
And thank god it was there to catch me when I fell.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Benefitted?

  1. Well written Lexi, a lot of people have had similar experiences but we seldom hear about it.

  2. Fay

    Lexi, I relate to this. You’re right that for a lot of people it comes down to pride. A few years back I had a couple of months in the JSA wilderness too and I remember feeling so demoralised, worthless and embarrassed. I feel strangely relieved to read how other people have been in the same boat at some point – even the people I think of as being incredibly accomplished and experienced (like yourself!) It really can happen to anyone. When you discover different benefits stories from the people around you you realise for so many people it was vital and certainly not exploited in any way.

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