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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
Dole Scum
by Liam O'Rourke
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According to a study carried out last year by PriceWaterHouse Coopers, more than one hundred thousand people are claiming disability living allowance (DLA) in Northern Ireland. More are receiving job seekers allowance (JSA) as well as housing benefit. A good proportion of them will be doing so in the long term. The same study noted that the vast majority of job applicants in so-called "target areas of social need" are not people who are currently unemployed, but people already working elsewhere. The different government initiatives do not seem to convince many people on social security benefits to reintegrate the labour market. The fact is that a significant proportion of the population of Northern Ireland is deliberately trying to get as much money from the state as possible. Authorities blame them for the current social security deficit. Who are those people ? Why do they do it ? The Vaccum decided to send Liam O Rourke to meet some of those "dossers" and investigate the problem. Those people are all from the greater Belfast area, have different ages and come from different backgrounds. But they all have at least one thing in common: they see the state as their main source of income.
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Rab meets us in his two bedrooms terraced house, rented thanks to Housing Benefits. Dressed up in a track suit with a baseball cap, rings on his finger and a silver chain round his neck, the 25 years old explains to the Vacuum how to get most of the brew. He got injured a few years ago, and even though it hasn't affected him for ages, he still pretend it does. The DLA has sent him a letter saying that they were considering stopping payments. He appealed the authorities' decision, so a doctor has to come to check him. Rab goes to great length to look miserable. He swallows anti depressant -to look realistically unwell, he explains. His sister Bronagh is with us. She will tell the doctor that Rab is unable to cope with life on his own and constantly needs support. They put a plastic sheet on his bed -they are going to tell the doctor that he wets his bed. None of this true of course. Rab tells us that he has been living for most of his life on DLA, JSA and Housing Benefits. If he looses his DLA, his income would significantly be affected. JSA is a relatively straightforward affair: you just need to sign on, convince Social Security that you are genuinely looking for work, and occasionally attend a job interview. To complete his income, Rab works a few days per month in bars or on building sites. Along with Housing Benefits, Rab has an income of approximately £800 per month. Rab is quite happy with his current situation. He thinks life on the DLA is dead on, there are few worries. With the exception of the few days where he is working, he can get out of bed whenever it suits him, and do whatever appeals to him every day: watching TV, standing drinking with his mates on the street corner, going to the local leisure centre. No stress.
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Dole Scum
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Tina has much in common with Rab: she is also living on JSA, DLA and Housing Benefits. Recently, the Housing Executive had supplied her with a two bedroom apartment. The place was not furnished, and because she is living on social security benefits, the authorities gave her a couple of hundreds of pounds to buy furniture and equipment like a washing machine. Tina has decided to move in with her boyfriend nearby, while at the same time be officially resident in the Housing Executive apartment. She is subletting it out for £300 per month. She is renting it to a cousin of hers. Her boyfriend is also trying to get his own apartment from the Housing Executive. Once successful, he has already decided that he would sublet it. It is easy money, Tina says. Financially, it is more interesting for them to be on various benefits than it is to work. Tina is currently investigating what the various charities have to offer. She says that more and more, charities end up doing the tasks the state is supposed to look after. She predicts that in thirty years time, charities may well have to look after the unemployed.
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Paddy Joe is a middle-aged alcoholic. He used to work for Belfast City Council until he lost his job because of his drink problem. He gets DLA as long as he goes to Shaftsbury Square clinic. Once he is healed, he looses DLA, so he has no incentives to stop drinking. He said his wife kicked him out because of his drinking. The Simon Community take care of him. They got him his own private apartment. It is a brilliant place. It would probably be £400 rent per month. But he doesn't pay a penny, as he is on DLA and JSA. He doesn't even have to look after it -a cleaner comes every day ! He tells us that he has no intention to look for work. If he gets a job, he would have to pay between a third and half his wage to the Simon Community, so it isn't very interesting. He has his own little television, and the brew gives him enough money to buy a bottle of Vodka and two or three bottles of Buckfast every day. He doesn't eat much. Too much heavy drinking has killed his natural appetite. Paddy Joe tells us that he hopes that within the next 10 months, the housing executive will supply him with a small flat. Those housing co-operatives have built nice flats, he says. For an alcoholic who left school at 16, Paddy Joe can be very surprising. He knows all the clauses and subclauses of the social legislation and of the different benefit systems, and knows every penny he is entitled to receive. His knowledge of the subject is probably better than that of most law graduates and social workers.
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Johnny is a different story. He would sincerely like to work, but he is too old. He says that being close to fifty years of age, it is very difficult to find work. After a certain age, it becomes increasingly difficult to reintegrate the labour market. He thinks of maybe applying for a grant to start up his own business. The alternative he says is low paid jobs. He wants to work, but turned down a number of jobs he was offered by the authorities. The reason is that with a job paid £5.10 per hour, with taxation, he would end up with less money than he would have if he is on the brew. He says that this would make his life more difficult than it already is. He prefers to be unemployed than to be a working poor. Johnny has four children. He does not want them to be long term unemployed. He encourages them to study and hopes that they will go on to higher education. Does he believe that education is the solution to unemployment ? He replies that if everybody had a degree, there would still be unemployment, as it is necessary for the economy that there is an industrial army of reserve. He says that too many have a complacent attitude towards unemployment. People grow up with their friends and families trying to get as much money as possible from the state, so they think it is normal to live on like that. Not that suppressing benefits is the solution. Johnny worked for a few years in the USA, and points out that cutting social benefits did not make things better over there, it actually made things worse. Besides, he says, if all claimants disappeared tomorrow, many jobs would be lost: all the social workers, claims advisers and so on would themselves become unemployed!
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Dole Scum
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There was an explosion at Neil's workplace. One person was slightly injured and Neil happened to be about fifty yards from the explosion. A few weeks later, Neil went on the rip and did not turn at work for a few days. As he had no valid excuses, Neil said that he had been traumatised by the incident, and was drinking heavily. His employers weren't convinced and he got suspended. Neil then devised a strategy to get as much money as possible from the DLA. He went to great lengths: he managed to get the Sunday World to do an article on him ! With such evidence he got enough money from the DLA for his girlfriend to open a flower shop. What is surprising is that Neil was the only one at his workplace to have exploited this event, as such incidents are golden occasions to claim compensation money. When a bomb went off near Caffrey's Bar, the authorities received more compensation claims than there were actually people in the bar when the explosion happened!
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The alternatives to life on the dole are often very grim. Going on bogus Job Schemes, Work Track or Training Schemes, paid between £3.60 and £4.20 an hour is hardly appealing. And who wants stressful jobs paid just a little over the minimum wage in the likes of call centres ? Sometimes the alternatives are so bad that it is preferable to stay on the brew. This is something those criticising social benefits claimants for not wanting to work should think about. There is a certain hypocrisy when the authorities encourage "DHSS touts" to denounce false claimants, when at the same time they do not encourage "Low Wages touts" informing on businesses paying salaries below the minimum wage. Or "rogue business people" employing people illegally. They should realise that there is a correlation between the perspective of working for low wages, poor working conditions and the refusal to take up employment. Is a culture of "working poor" better than a culture of long term unemployment ? Instead of blaming benefits claimants for social security deficit, authorities should look at tax evasion by the business community Why are all those "respectable people" not stigmatised like the false claimants are ? Is there one law for the rich and another one for the poor ?
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Note: All the above people and their stories are real, but their names have been changed.
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Dole Scum
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