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Taking A Baseball Bat To The Poor
The line starts early on Monday mornings, winding and snaking its way from the barred heavy wooden doors, past the municipal cleansing department depot and the local park, before turning into the nondescript shopping arcade.
This is Glasgow 2001 and the weekly social security benefits ritual is repeated the length and breadth of Britains forgotten sink estates and inner city slums. It is a world away from the smart designer stores and coffee shops that have sprung up just 8 miles away in Glasgows regenerated city center8 miles, which might as well be 8,000. Harassed mothers curse the slowly ticking seconds that follow the weekend of waiting for this moment and the promise that it holds out.
A small group of men dressed in Tommy Hilfigers finestlocal loan sharkscongregate outside the burnt out and burgled discount toiletries store, malevolently waiting for whats theirs. Those not in hock to the heavies find short-term solace and long term financial anguish in the arms of legitimate, but no less predatory, financial companies.
Shops, like Cash Converters, provide consumers with a quick and convenient way to sell used or unwanted goods for instant cash. Each Cash Converters store offers a range of popular financial products and services including check cashing facilities, short-term loans, and an exclusive re-purchase option called Buyback. It is hard to know who is worse: the local hoodlums with their cheap jewellery and knives or the respectable businesses with their casual financial violence. Either way, the weekly benefits wait is in their mutual interests as most of the money cashed this morning will be heading their way.
When the doors eventually open, there is a tangible sense of energy and occasion, which tells its own story. For many here, this is and will be the highlight of the week. The thrill is short lived. Agnes is a case in point. Of the 78.90 pounds which she receives, almost 65 pounds has already been earmarked for electricity and gas, for the mail order catalogue from which she buys her childrens clothes, and to repay the money borrowed from a neighbor. This leaves her and her two children with around 13 pounds for the remainder of the week. This must buy food, cover bus fares to school, and put new clothes on the childrens backs. It didnt last week and it wont this week either. I asked Agnes if she was ever tempted to take a part- time job to supplement her meagre benefits entitlement. Well, I know people that take on small cleaning jobs and things like that, but theyre taking an awful risk.
Indeed they are. This month sees a major re-structuring of the British welfare system; The most comprehensive shake up of the welfare system for a generation, says Works and Pensions Secretary, Alistair Darling. Tough new measures to crack down on benefit fraud will also come into play. For the first time, private banks and insurance and utility companies will be checked when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that fraud is being committed. The Social Security Fraud Act 2001 already paved the way for increased Department for Work and Pensions powers to obtain information from listed organiza- tions about their customers, in order to combat benefit system fraud, which the agency estimates at two billion pounds a year.
The icing on this particular cake is the introduction of a two strikes and youre out policy that allows persistent offenders to be cut out of the benefits equation and excised from the unemployment figures for up to 13 weeks. In cases where a couple with dependants attempts to circumvent the sanction by swapping the claim to the innocent party, provisions to reduce the amount of income- related benefits paid to the partner, or any dependant of the offender, will apply for the duration of the sanction. A high profile anti-fraud advertising campaign is also underway with controversial billboard posters and 40 second television spots imploring the public to call a fraud hotline with the details of friends and neighbors they suspect of fraud.
The posters are unashamedly scaremongering (Benefits cheats. Watch your back. Were onto you. and Benefits cheats. When will your number be up?).
The Departments literature admits that prosecution of employers is not always the most effective way of tackling the problem of employers who knowingly collude in or promote fraud. Prosecution of claimants is an altogether simpler matter, given that they dont typically have the wherewithal to mount a legal challenge.
No money means no costly legal battles. The daily privations of life on benefit are insurmountable enough without entertaining the foolhardy notion of appeals once benefits have been removed. The statistics are alarming: one in three Scottish children live in poverty. One in four households are on the breadline.
One woman told me, If I could afford to work without claiming social money I would. I know people who work and claim but still dont make ends meet.
Britains Labour government has been applauded for introducing a national minimum wage, but one in three British children still lives in poverty.
In a further sop to the tabloid press and the proxy moral majority, Tony Blair has also refused to back down on controversial plans to dock child benefits from the parents of children with poor school attendance records, such as the parents of 11-year-old John, who hasnt been at school for two weeks, because his mother cant afford to buy him a new pair of shoes; or 14-year-old Maggie, who refuses to go to school because of the casual violence and drug dealing in the playground.
The New Deal program, which was initiated to put the young and long-term unemployed back to work, has proved to be a means of cheap labor for unscrupulous employers who enjoy a healthy subsidy for every person they take on. Young people between 18 and 24 who refuse positions they consider unsuitable lose their benefits. There are an estimated 624,000 young Britons that have disappeared from official records this way.
This is what happened to Jason, whose pallid complexion suggests experiences beyond his 21 years. Since losing benefits he has been sleeping on friends sofas, but he knows that can only go on for so long. His mother wants nothing to do with him, after finding out that he has been taking drugs. Jason did have a job once, working as a care assistant in a nursing home for the elderly, but they let him go after he missed a shift due to illness. If he ever had any ambitions he doesnt now: Why do I smoke hash and do pills? Why not? Theres nothing for me. I can block things out, forget about everything. It makes me feel better.
The unemployed are hopeless in every sense of the word, but not in the way that punitive legislation and scaremongering ad campaigns suggest. The absence of hope and feelings of failure have given way to fatalism among the people who populate these dreary identical streets of damp filled rooms and leaking roofs. This is life at the bottom where the future often seems more of an implied threat than a reason for hope. Their dreams are modest enoughhaving enough food to last the week, enough money to buy a crying child a pair of school shoes, not having to borrow money to pay for a childs school tripbut not modest enough for a Labour government whose much crowed compassion holds sufficiently less water than 11-year-old Johns shoes.
Back at the now closed post office, a crowd of alcoholics has gathered while police sirens sound in the near distance. Z