The upside of benefits

A new report from the TUC has shown that the British public largely supports the welfare system once it realises where benefit money actually goes. Natalie Revie speaks to four people whose lives are examples of the positive effects it can have

The modern day welfare state, established in the years following the second world war, was considered a shining light of progress and civilisation. These days it suffers from a lot of negative press, thanks to media and politicians who focus on a tiny minority of people seen to be abusing the system.

But, a report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) last week showed that people are more willing to support the benefits system once they know the facts about who is gaining from it.

Commissioned by the TUC and carried out by YouGov, the poll showed that on average, people thought 27% of benefits were being claimed fraudulently, when the actual figure is 0.7%. Most respondents also imagined that around 41% of the entire welfare budget went on unemployment spending, when the real figure is less than 3%.

“People are more willing to support the benefits system once they know the facts about who is gaining from it”

In addition, the TUC said, contrary to public opinion, 73% of those claiming jobseeker’s allowance were in work within one year and that 60% of proposed cuts will fall on working households on low incomes.

“People vastly over-estimate the generosity of benefits, do not know who receives them, and have largely swallowed the dependency myth that fuels so much hostility to welfare claimants,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

But the TUC said that when provided with the actual statistics, most of the public change their stance. Over half of respondents showed ‘overall support’ for the cuts until they realised who they affected, at which point support turned to a majority showing ‘outright opposition’.

With women’s equality campaign group the Fawcett Society stating that benefits and service cuts are hitting women hardest, Positive News spoke to four women who say they have been able to transform their lives because of the benefits system.

Molly, 32, was a young mum with big ambitions a decade ago. After receiving benefit support, she is now working as a lawyer and owns her own home

“With the help of housing benefit and child tax credits, I was able to go to university and then on to law school”

“I had my first child when I was 18 and only qualified for minimum wage jobs, but I had always wanted to go to university and train to become a lawyer. With the help of housing benefit and child tax credits, I was able to go to university and then on to law school. Without that help I would have been in a permanent state of exhaustion – surviving, not living, and my child’s outlook on the world would have been very different.

“I am now a qualified solicitor with my own home and happy to know my taxes are giving people a little bit of help to get back on their feet.

“When you have kids it’s particularly difficult to lift yourself above the poverty line because of childcare costs. We should have a social floor we don’t want any of our fellow human beings to fall through. We have a responsibility to look after each other.”

Virginie, 31, was unemployed and living in unstable housing a little over a year ago, but now runs her own business thanks to jobcentre support and grants

“I have a degree in photography, but when I turned 30, I found myself unemployed and without a home, so I signed on for jobseeker’s allowance. I had a wonderful advisor at the jobcentre, who let me know about what help might be available and I was able to get a grant to cover the cost of some photographic equipment and some training.

“I worked incredibly hard – nothing is handed to you on a plate at the jobcentre – it was a full time job researching and putting together a plan to start my own business. And then I saw an opportunity and applied for a grant to start my own shop, which is now a successful enterprise comprising a photography business and a vintage clothing business.

”I’m proud of what I’ve created. More than anything, I made it happen for myself, but I am grateful for the support and structure I received.

“A lot of people are in dire need of help and I know a lot of hard-working people that couldn’t make it to the end of the month without tax credits or housing benefit, because not everyone earns big money.”

Debbie, 49, was a struggling single mum who self-built her own home using a government grant

“Because my housing is more affordable, I’ve been able to work in lower income jobs that give back to society”

“I was a single mum on the housing list with a six-year-old daughter when I joined a housing association self-build project in Brighton. Using government funding, matched by our own labour, we built our own homes over a period of two years in order to secure long term safe housing for our families. Now, 15 years on, the community is testament to what government funding can do. All the families are still living here and thriving, thanks to lifetime tenancies at low rents secured by the council.

“The children who have grown up on the housing project have flourished thanks to the security and safety that having a stable housing situation brings. And, because my housing is more affordable, I’ve been able to work in lower income jobs that give back to society, which is common in our group. Members have worked in community education, drug prevention, teaching parenting skills, at a museum, and I currently work at a charity.”

Jessica, 45, was a single mother of five-year-old twins in the late 90s. She now works as a teaching assistant and her twins are on their way to university

“I had a low paid job as a dinner lady at a local school and this, combined with working tax credits, meant we were able to survive. Without the tax credits system, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a part-time job which paid enough to live on and would have claimed income support for a while, not worked and found myself in a rut, because there is more stigma attached to claiming this benefit.

“When the girls were older I was able to re-train and now work with teenagers and young people as an English Higher Level teaching assistant. I have also been a constant presence in my daughters’ lives, which I believe has helped them to become secure and happy young women and achieve their potential academically. They are about to go to university, with one studying law and the other nursing.

“I think too many people are buying into the erroneous idea that anything to do with public services and supporting citizens is somehow second class.”

Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees