The 28th February 2014 was possibly one of the most disheartening days of my life.
At the end of that month and beginning of March this year, I went on jobseekers allowance for the first time. Without hyperbole, that initial day to apply for JSA and sign on was one of the most soul-destroying days I’ve ever known.
Walking through those doors, I was greeted by two bouncers (a sad indictment on our society that people working there need this type of support), before being made to wait my turn and prove that I was actively looking for work.
Unfortunately my employer dispensed of my services and I was entitled to just one weeks worth of notice. Two weeks passed and I was lucky enough to get three interviews lined up straight away and all within my field of expertise (digital copywriting). However, I was turned down for all of them and the money in my bank was drying up…quickly.
I’d been out of work for two months in early 2012 but had refused to sign on; the thought of doing so filled me with dread. Unlike that time, however, I now had rent, bills, insurance and repayments on a car to pay for- it was my only option.
But why was I ashamed? That’s exactly what JSA is there for! To help out those people that genuinely need it. Since leaving university I’ve been self employed and held two permanent positions. I pay national insurance and income tax, the very deductibles that contribute to the government’s welfare support.
Yet it was still something I really didn’t want to do. And why was I so against signing on back in 2012? I would have been more than entitled to it then, too.
The 3 main things I learnt on JSA
The problem is how it’s perceived
Admittedly, my perception of JSA was negative from the beginning. In my mind (and looking back now, it was incredibly short-sighted and naive of me), only scroungers and benefit cheats claim JSA. The one positive to come from this whole experience is that my outlook of it has completely changed; there are genuinely people claiming that don’t want to be on it, but need it and are more than entitled to it.
So where has the stereotype come from?
Ultimately, it has come from the media. At some point you must have come across a news article in one of the papers that, when painting a picture of someone, reads something like this:
“26-year-old Mr X, who claims jobseekers allowance…”
Before you would read anymore, hand on heart, what are you thinking? It’s negative. And the media reinforces this stereotype. Why do they even need to write it?
Of course, the media will include it in stories about benefit cheats. In the UK in 2012/13 £3.5 billion was paid out to people who claimed either JSA or other benefits when they shouldn’t have been entitled to them. It’s a real problem in this country.
Unfortunately, if you’re on JSA you’re tarred with the same brush in some people’s minds. You could have single-handedly paid enough tax to compensate for Jimmy Carr in the last five years, but some will still think “scrounger” when they hear “I’m on JSA.”
(I would like to stress at this point that my friends and family were not like this! They were unbelievably supportive throughout this whole experience).
It’s too easy for cheats to play the system
Quite how anyone would not want to work is beyond me. Two days of endless applying and sat in the living room was tedious. Yet there are people out there who choose to do this.
As Ian, my ‘job coach’ at the centre in Altrincham, told me: “People get stuck in a comfort zone. They may initially agree to look after a friend or relative’s children whilst they’re off, and something like that then becomes a barrier to employment; their excuse.”
What shocked me is just how easy it is for these people to manipulate the system. To claim JSA, you have to attend the jobcentre once a fortnight (weekly if you’re under 25). You then have to present an online diary or workbook of things like:
– What jobs you’ve applied for
– Which websites you’ve been looking at
– Any work you’ve done to your CV
When you initially sign up, a list of actions like these are drawn up and you agree to do them. So for example, you may agree to look at three particular job websites each day.
However, as long as you put down “I went on this website, found nothing” or “I sent my CV off speculatively to a media company in Oldham” that’s good enough in their book. It gets ticked off, you go on your way and your money goes into the bank.
That, I’m afraid, is just far too easy for people that want to play the system. You should have to bring email confirmations of applications with you, or contact details for a person you’ve spoke to at a company for checks to be made.
No support once you’ve found a job
Fortunately, after four weeks out of work and a total of six interviews, I was offered a job. The relief was immense. The delight was enormous. I’ve been at my new place just over a week and I’m already thoroughly enjoying it!
Once you’ve found work, you need to report it to the jobcentre straight away. This is definitely a good thing, but why stop the income support at that moment?
I had to wait a week before my first day in the job. After starting, my first pay day was/is still a fortnight away. And even then it’s only half a month’s worth of money.
Just because I’ve found a job, my bills are still there! Only this time I’m not sat in the house saving the money I don’t have. I’m commuting 40 miles a day and need fuel to get to work.
Simple it may be, but why doesn’t the jobcentre ascertain with your employer when your first pay day is expected to be and agree to keep paying you until your first cheque comes in? At a later stage, they could then ask for it back? At the moment, for those first few weeks once you start a job, you’re being punished for being in work!
Being on JSA is definitely an experience that I’ll never forget and one that I do not wish to repeat in a hurry.
But I feel that the way it’s perceived needs to change. To help with that, it needs to be harder for those that cheat the system. And to help those hard workers that genuinely need JSA, more things need to be put in place to support the ones that don’t actually want to be on it.
Have you ever been on JSA? What are your views?