Supporting vulnerable people back into society requires time, patience and commitment, not punitive measures

20th Aug 2013

The bedroom tax and benefits changes are affecting people on the frontline of poverty in the North East.

Abigail Scott Paul reveals how benefits changes are affecting people on the front line of poverty in the North East.

In the introduction of his book Population 10 Billion Danny Dorling discusses the importance of story-telling:

 "Human beings progress by telling stories. One event can result in a variety of stories being told about it. Sometimes those stories differ greatly. Which stories are picked up and repeated and which are dropped and forgotten often determines how we progress… And how the future will turn out depends partly, possibly largely, on which stories we collectively choose to believe."

Over the last two weeks, I have been listening to the stories of what life is like for some of the most vulnerable people in the North East while working with The Cyrenians.  I have had the opportunity to speak to front-line workers, voluntary sector organisations, benefit claimants and service users alike.

These are the stories I’ve heard:

  • Some people who are not able to meet the extra payments demanded by the ‘bedroom tax’ are being moved into B+B accommodation which is often more expensive than the saving that would be made by the under-occupancy charge. Others are being asked to share properties with people they don’t know. There are simply not enough one-bedroom properties to go around.
  • The move to single monthly payments under Universal Credit worries claimants. Benefit claimants experiencing addictions, in recovery or with mental health issues are particularly worried about managing their finances in such a dramatically different way.  Support workers are predicting a rise in rent arrears, crime and homelessness.
  • Miscommunication and human error – on the part of the claimant and Job Centre Plus staff – are leading to benefits being withdrawn under the new sanctions regime. The system is punitive and leaves vulnerable people with no money for weeks at a time.  
  • Demand for free food has trebled in three years. In some streets of Newcastle people are resorting to ‘ripping’ – ripping rubbish bags to scavenge for food, clothes and things to sell.

The media, blogs and social media platforms are full of similar stories. Of course, there are alternative stories too: stories of scroungers, welfare cheats and layabouts. As Dorling points out, we make our choice about which story to believe. 

In the meantime, life seems to be getting that bit worse for a lot of people in the North East. And at the moment, we can only rely on testimony as evidence because there is a data lag, and it’s not clear whether telling these stories is getting us anywhere.

One positive story that I can tell is how a preventative and individualised approach is successful in supporting people back into tenancies and jobs. Patience, time and commitment are required when working with people who’ve experienced a lifetime of social exclusion – the antithesis to the stricter more punitive welfare regime that we seem to be developing. Is anyone listening to this story?