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 Britain’s 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 Glasgow’s regenerated city center—8 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 Hilfiger’s finest—local
loan sharks—congregate outside the burnt out and burgled discount
toiletries store, malevolently waiting for what’s 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 children’s
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 children’s backs. It didn’t last
week and it won’t 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 they’re 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 you’re 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. We’re onto you.” and “Benefits cheats.
When will your number be up?”).  

The
Department’s 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 don’t
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
don’t make ends meet.” 

Britain’s
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
hasn’t been at school for two weeks, because his mother can’t
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 doesn’t now: “Why do I smoke hash and do
pills? Why not? There’s 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 enough—having 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 child’s school
trip—but not modest enough for a Labour government whose much
crowed “compassion” holds sufficiently less water than
11-year-old John’s shoes. 

Back
at the now closed post office, a crowd of alcoholics has gathered
while police sirens sound in the near distance.