Tuesday 2 April 2013

Overheard in the Waiting Room

This morning, I took a pair of gruesomely infected toes to the doctor's. During the long wait, I politely eavesdropped on a conversation between three friends who had bumped into each other (that is, they had met by accident; they weren't seeking medical help having violently collided). I would guess that they were around retirement age, or maybe a little younger, two women and a man; ordinary folks. They competed as to whose winter coat had lasted longest, discussed Strictly Come Dancing and expressed some nostalgia for The News of the World before it went trashy.

Then they had a conversation, which went something like this:

A: Of course, all these cuts have just come in, haven't they? A lot of people are going to be struggling.
B: Oh yes. It's not fair that the poorest people should have to pay when it's the bankers who got us into this mess.
C: I know. It's only going to cause the country trouble in the long run, making people so badly off.
A: But there are some people swinging the lead.
B: That's for sure. You hear a lot about disability fraud.
C: Yeah and everybody knows somebody, don't they? Someone who's working the system.
A: But there's a lot of propaganda about that, I think.
B: Of course, the government want you to think they're all the same.
C: You can't believe anything you hear, that's for sure - especially not from this lot!

It went round like this, several times, sometimes with specific anecdotes or particular stories they had seen on the television and in newspapers. At one point, there was a very nuanced discussion of workfare (although they didn't use that term), which talked about the difficulties someone might have if they had depression, would benefit from work and might sign up for one of these schemes, only to get in trouble when they struggled to get out of bed in the morning and were late for their placement. Because people with depression can have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, however hard working and enthusiastic they are.

But time and again the same sentiments were repeated:

  1. Some people are on the scrounge for sure. 
  2. Some people are really suffering.
  3. You can't believe anything your hear.

This disbelief was extended across the board. At one point the conversation shifted from a discussion of just how difficult it was going to be for some people - just how little money people would be left to live on - to the "scare-mongering" about how difficult it was all going to be.

And this is the trouble we have; the position that ordinarily apolitical people who are not directly affected by the cuts have been placed in. They don't trust what they hear - least of all from politicians. They care about the fact that people are being left with little to live on, and the removal of crisis safety-nets like the Social Fund and Legal Aid for civil cases. But, weighing the balance of everything they've been told, they feel that there's a fair amount of cheating going on and that needs to be stopped.

Most people I speak to, outside of disabled, poor or otherwise politically active types, feel the same. They support Welfare Reform in principle (and why not? Few people feel there's no room for improvement), they are anxious about how this effects vulnerable people in practice (People like you). But they don't know what the answers are and they feel that everyone who has a voice in the public sphere is probably lying to them.

I don't know what the answers are, but I wonder if this conversation is about to change. Although there's more to come, a lot of the cuts which came into place on Monday have been a long time coming, and the real life consequences have been - while reasonably speculated about - as yet uncertain. Now it's happening. The poorest people are poorer than they've been for many years. There are many more of them.

And maybe there's some optimism to be taken from the fact that people are confused. A few years ago, when the scrounger rhetoric had just got underway, I think the friends' conversation would be less balanced. The deserving poor would have been spoken about as rare exceptions, as opposed to "many".

See Also: John Harris: We have to talk about why some people agree with benefit cuts.

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