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Stories that challenge: Alan and Ben

I currently have a series of blog posts being hosted by Church Action on Poverty. The first one tells the stories of Alan and Ben, two drug addicts dealing with the challenges of unemployment, poverty, and the JobCentre.

You can read their stories here, and a snippet below.

Meet Alan...

Alan is the quintessential benefit scrounger. When a work coach or jobcentre staff member tells you they can identify the scroungers and malingerers, it’s Alan they’re talking about. They’re confident in their assessment that this guy is never going to want to contribute to society. He’s just thinking about how to score and how to get money to score.

As soon as Alan walks into a jobcentre, all the staff know what he is, even if they’ve never seen him before. They see it in the way he walks, the way he stands, in his choice of clothes and haircut. They know he’s on drugs and is high right that moment.

When the work coach interview starts, the confirmation continues. Alan has been sanctioned before. In fact, he’s on a three-month sanction right now. He doesn’t care, though, because the rental component of his benefits goes straight to his hostel landlord, so he needn’t worry about eviction.

The work coach isn’t interested in how Alan will survive. How is he buying his food, paying his bills, or using the bus?

The options are limited. Perhaps Alan has savings, though that is unlikely; they’d have been spent on drugs by now. Perhaps friends or family or charity are bailing him out, though the work coach hopes not: they’d be undermining the sanction. Maybe Alan is borrowing from loan sharks, which will present acute problems later, but might at least reinforce the punitive intention of the sanction. A final option is that Alan is working on the side, taking cash in hand without declaring it to the DWP. The work coach would not be surprised, although she also believes that Alan has no work ethic.

Whatever way Alan is surviving, the DWP’s approach suggests they don’t really want him to do it. The point of the sanction is to punish Alan into socially-conformable behaviour by leaving him no other option. The message from the top is that the way to get Alan off drugs and into work is to punish his behaviour until he sees sense. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be working that way doesn’t matter.

So when the work coach queries why Alan didn’t apply for a particular job, she’s not really interested. It will be a made-up reason, maybe borrowed from someone else who said it had worked. She sees no valid reason to turn down a job one is physically capable of doing. She knows, and Alan knows, that a further sanction will now be applied but Alan doesn’t seem to care, which just confirms the work coach in her judgment of him.

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