The government wants to save taxpayers’ money by coercing thousands of people off incapacity benefit and into work. But is this drive to get us all into work a dangerous proposition for society?
The effort to create a rise in our standard of living has come at a huge cost. The cost is the pressure on our time which prevents us paying attention to our emotional needs and those of others. Many people on incapacity benefit have mental health problems. Many more are struggling to keep it together by using drugs – alcohol and tobacco, marijuana, antidepressants or worse. Thousands of schoolchildren are being “calmed down” with Ritalin.
This strange modern world of technology leads us to live half our lives in cyberspace, deluding ourselves that we are in contact with human beings while we are in a deep relationship with a machine. Even the culture of work which once answered people’s need for companionship, solidarity and emotional support has increasingly been replaced by a culture of staring at computer screens or working alone.
We all need time for rest, healing and reflection. We all need time from other people to listen to us while we deal with our hurts and confusions. We need to laugh and joke and get things in proportion. We have less and less of this in our over-busy lives and without it we become unhappy, our behaviour becomes less rational and we are less able to solve problems. Depression can make us unable to function, so it seems likely to me that the government’s idea that there are thousands of wimpy malingerers who would be cured by a hard day’s graft is just not true.
I think our lifestyle creates many casualties. After all, it is not easy to get on to incapacity benefit. There first has to be a serious breakdown of our capacity to work. Then there is the filling in the forms – a major challenge to our sanity in itself.
A second issue is highlighted by those disabled people who find conventional employment difficult to manage. They include retired people, artists, poets and writers, full-time parents, young adults not in full-time education, carers and people who have simply decided to offer their labour on a voluntary basis – including many people on incapacity benefit. Together, these people do more than 50 per cent of all child care in this country, they hold together communities, care for adults who are ill, bereaved or in crisis, join committees and become trustees, make and tend gardens and participate in local politics and pressure groups. They generally carry out a multitude of activities based on rational human needs rather than the drive to accumulate wealth. They are people who give time to others but their value is being eroded.
The wealth of our nation has always been created by a combination of paid and unpaid labour. Upsetting this balance seems to create a new form of emotional deprivation in the midst of material and intellectual overload. Let us not threaten the most vulnerable with economic deprivation as well. People who are entitled to incapacity benefit are also entitled to housing benefit. It is often the fear of losing housing benefit and the consequent loss of one’s home, rather than the loss of incapacity benefit or income support, that creates the “perverse incentive” to not take the risk of coming off benefits when you do not know whether your capacity to work – or the job itself – will last.
My solution is simple: let disabled people, including those with mental health problems or learning difficulties, do whatever work they can find and manage without losing their paltry benefits, especially housing benefit. The benefits bill will remain unchanged, but more people will be paying taxes to offset the outlay. Everybody will gain and there will be no “perverse incentive” to refuse work for fear of loss of security.
Micheline Mason is a writer and founder of the Alliance for Inclusive Education