Four days into my workless life, I head to the job centre early and ask to apply for Jobseekers Allowance. They tell me I can’t speak to someone, so I should use the computer instead. The computer tells me I’m eligible for Universal Credit, but not JSA. I apply for Universal Credit. At first, it tells me I am not eligible for Universal Credit before suggesting I apply for JSA, and call the following number… So I decided to go home and try again.
This time the virtual form worked. I filled out everything for Universal Credit and the ball appeared to be rolling. Pleased with this, I went about my workless daily life. I was out drinking with a friend the next day when I got the phone call: the job centre has penciled me in for 9.15am on Friday. On the surface, the process was fairly efficient. Rolling all benefits into one may have resolved the bureaucratic logjam after all. No, not quite!
On Friday, I go back with all my papers (IDs, bank statements, passport, tenancy etc.) for my 9.15am appointment. I’ve been assigned a work coach, but he’s nowhere to be found. Let’s call him Dick for the sake of anonymity. Dick is late, and, for whatever reason, there is no one else around. So I sit around until 10 when I finally get to talk to Dick about joblessness. But he can’t find one set of forms I filled out online. Apparently, the form went ‘missing’ in transit somewhere between the internet and the job centre.
The centre itself is a long corridor of desks, which you descend into by a short set of stairs, each little unit with its own phone and computer — and a camera watching over the work coach. The decor is bland, even the brightest fabrics of blue and red have been discoloured with age. The walls carry notices for recruitment drives and adverts proclaiming the virtues of the DWP: ‘Making work pay’. One notice is from the local council and it lists the attributes of a suitable candidate: 1) professional, 2) ambitious, 3) responsible and 4) human. I wonder what life must be like for an unemployed amphibian.
The job centre would be Kafkaesque if it were more intelligent. I’m told to call a new number, and after five minutes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I get to talk to a dour Scotswoman — who has all the warmth of a death march. I’m given an appointment for next Friday. I might get my money in 4–5 weeks. Or, I can ask for an advance… if I can make it past the endless recording of the Four Seasons. This is why the job centre has a camera at every desk, just in case one of the claimants decides to tear a chunk out of someone’s head!
The good news is that the payments will be backdated to when I first made my claim. Unlike most benefit claimants, I have savings and enough money in my account to make it through the next few weeks. As I’ve got two years of experience as a journalist, I’m also more likely to find work again. Even still, this new project isn’t really about me — it’s about the experiences of people living on benefits long-term.
Over the coming days and weeks, I aim to compile just some of the experiences of people getting by on so-called ‘hand-outs’. The system needs unemployment and poverty. This is the so-called ‘underclass’, those who live on virtually nothing. These are the people spat on by middle-class journalists and career politicians. I hope not to do them a disservice in what I write here on Medium.
This was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.