A while back I wrote a post called The Benefits Trap, with the idea of showing people how difficult it can be to get off benefits and back into work. It seemed to be well received; people seemed to appreciate what I was saying. And then someone commented on another post I'd written that showed an example of someone trying to get off benefits. They seemed angry with me, accusing me of promoting being on benefits, and telling me "everything you own has been paid for by me..."
Leaving aside the fact this person was incorrect in most of what they were saying (they were clearly unaware, for example, that until my breakdown I was in a reasonably well-paid job, and that I do in fact have a job now as well), what was said bothered me because it seems that these things are what a lot of people think.
They see me: single mother, lives in a council flat, walking around with a buggy in the middle of the day (I only work 3 days a week), and they think: benefits scrounger. Lives the high life with a flatscreen telly while I work my fingers to the bone to pay for it.
The fact of the matter is: yes, I do claim benefits. My childcare bill swallows my monthly income whole, and if I want any chance of surviving, I need to accept help from the state. That doesn't mean I'm happy about it, or that I'm not doing what I can to get myself into a position where I don't need to do it for the rest of my life.
There is also an issue here that's not often discussed when the media bangs on about feckless single parents living off the government. How easy do you think it is for a single parent to find a job? How easily did you find your job? I was very lucky in that when I returned to work, my boss allowed me to tell him which days and hours I would work. How many employers do you think are like that?
If you don't have a child, and you want a job, you can look in the local paper, send your CV out, whatever. You can arrange an interview for whenever is convenient, and wander off on your merry way to impress them with your mad skillz in whatever it is you are interviewing for.
Imagine being a single parent looking for work. You need to find a part-time job that pays more than minimum wage. It needs to be (for argument's sake) only from 9-3 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because you've already spoken to the nursery, and those are the only days they have available. You can't work weekends, because nurseries don't open on weekends and you don't have family locally with whom you could leave your child every single weekend for a whole day while you go to work. When you've found this Holy Grail of jobs that fits in with your childcare arrangements, you have to think about what you'll do when your child is ill. It's a well-known fact that when a child starts nursery, whatever age they are, they will catch every bug and cold and ear infection under the sun. In my first month back at work, I spent more time at home with a poorly S than I did at my desk. How do you think a new employer will view that situation? Do you think you will last out your probation period if you're never at work because your child has caught yet another bug?
And does any of this mean you are stupid, incapable of work? Does it mean your degree, your professional qualifications, your on-job training, your years of knowledge and experience are somehow null and void? Does being a single parent automatically mean you are only capable of menial, low-paid jobs? No. Does it mean that's all that's on offer to you? Usually, yes.
Gingerbread currently have a campaign running called Make it Work for Single Parents. Their goal is to get 250,000 more single parents into work before 2020, and they have been campaigning for changes that will allow that to happen.
Contrary to the picture the media portrays, and to what a lot of people seem to think, the majority of single parents are not sitting at home in their grubby dressing gowns, smoking fags and watching Jeremy Kyle.
The majority of single parents are scouring the jobs pages of the local paper, looking for that mythical job that will help them get back into working life again.
The majority of single parents hate to be seen as spongers living off other people's taxes.
The majority of single parents want to claim benefits as a hand up, not a hand out.