I’m not Daniel Blake. I’ve never been too sick to work, never had to claim Jobseekers Allowance, never had to do battle with the relentless bureaucracy of the welfare system, never been accused of being or assumed to be workshy or a scrounger, never been reduced to zero income, never had a final reminder through the post for a utilities bill, never had to sell my furniture in order to survive, never had to apply for jobs I knew I couldn’t take simply in order to avoid benefit sanctions.
I’m not Katie either. I’ve never had to choose between feeding my children and feeding myself, I’ve never had to think of creative ways of heating my home with bubble wrap insulation and tea lights, I’ve never been driven to shoplift or prostitute myself in order to buy shoes for my kids, I’ve never been evicted or had to live in a homeless shelter or rehoused hundreds of miles from family and friends.
But I can see how it happens. I can see, and apparently those in power cannot, that a benefits sanction can mean that the Katies and Daniels of our land have no money, nothing at all, for weeks on end. They cannot, it seems, imagine that there may be nowhere else to go if your benefits are frozen or delayed, no emergency pot of money, no frivolous spending to be reined in, no family members to help out.
In the aftermath of the 2015 general election (and lord, how long ago that seems now), I wrote this, in relation to the Conservative manifesto pledges on welfare:
Hard work is an excellent thing. But to extrapolate from success and financial security being a reward for hard work, to poverty and failure being a punishment for idleness is unfair. No one achieves success and financial security without an element of luck. No one gets there without state help – for themselves or for their workforce and their business. Luck can suddenly desert any of us, and the line between security and penury is not as clear-cut as we may think. The narrative of homelessness doesn’t start in the gutter, it may start with someone in work, owning their own home, doing OK. Something goes wrong – they lose their job, fall behind on the mortgage and the bills, their family breaks up, their health begins to suffer. And that striver becomes a skiver, dependent on benefits in order to get by, or falling through the gaps altogether into a life on the streets. It’s not impossible, not for any of us.
Toby Young found himself unable to empathise, unable to envisage how ordinary, decent people could find themselves in that nightmare, sceptical precisely because the people portrayed on film are ordinary decent people, and not profligate wastrels, blowing their benefits on dope and flat screen TVs. He acknowledges that he is no expert on the welfare system, but that does not deter him from asserting that Loach has overstated his case, that what is shown as happening to Daniel and Katie wouldn’t really happen.
We’re asked to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied.
No, we’re not. We’re asked to believe that the system treats those upstanding citizens who need its help as if they are trying to get something for nothing, as if they are trying to cheat hardworking taxpayers out of their money by skiving when they could perfectly well work. We’re asked to believe not that every person claiming incapacity benefit is a Daniel Blake but that there are Daniel Blakes out there, trapped in the Rules, who have always paid their way, who struggle with the welfare system because they’ve no idea how to play it, and assume that it will be simple and fair.
Young says that
The two protagonists are a far cry from the scroungers on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, who I accept aren’t representative of all welfare recipients. … Katie, too, is a far cry from White Dee, the irresponsible character in Benefits Street.
So having acknowledged that Benefits Street is a highly selective representation of welfare recipients, he goes on to judge the verisimilitude of Loach’s characters by their resemblance to its inhabitants. The location for the programme was James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham which Channel 4 describes as “one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets”. In other words the street was chosen because it was an extreme, a concentration of benefit-dependency (or, less pejoratively, benefit entitlement).
In contrast the makers of I, Daniel Blake researched many, many cases, talked to many, many people, to inform the narrative and flesh out the two main characters. People like Jack Monroe, who sees herself as ‘the lucky one’ who found a way out of the rabbit hole, albeit not unscathed by those experiences. And the film deliberately avoided some of the more extreme stories of suffering they heard in the course of their research, fearing that they would not be believed. And still the Toby Youngs and Camilla Longs and IDSs of this world complain that it ‘doesn’t ring true’.
I can’t claim first-hand experience of poverty or hunger, although my life has been far closer to Dan or Katie’s than it has to Toby’s or Camilla’s. I have been in debt, I have lain awake worrying about whether the next mortgage payment will take us over our overdraft limit, and I have done the sums to work out how long we could manage on a reduced income before we would have to sell the house. Things worked out, but they might not have done. I could have been Daniel Blake or Katie Morgan, I could still be, if everything goes pear-shaped, and the chances are you could have been, you could still be.
We have to challenge the rhetoric. Those of us who are strivers, hardworking taxpayers, must protest if we’re invoked to support attacks on those who allegedly choose a life on benefits. We don’t have to let them do this in our name.
And we have to protest, loudly and clearly, when the implementation of these welfare cuts makes people suffer, locks them into a miserable existence, a half-life, with no way out. Could they just ‘do the right thing’ and choose to be a striver rather than a skiver? Not if they have to make daily choices between heating and eating. Not if their health precludes most available jobs, not if the job they could get is impossible to reach on public transport, not if childcare is too expensive, not if they don’t have the skills or the qualifications, not if the training places or apprenticeships aren’t available…
If we care at all, if our hearts are not rock hard, if we have any capacity for empathy, if we are human, we cannot be complacent in our status as hardworking taxpayers when people are dying. Read this, and weep. Read this, and get angry.