It may sound like common sense to some, or even many, to expect someone to do work in exchange for benefits. But this force, as is true with any applied force, has its consequences - both intended and unintended.
A fellow human being who has witnessed these results first hand recently published a paper titled There Had to Be a Better Way Than This (available on Dropbox) which includes a powerful collection of personal stories describing the real world effects of the idea of "workfare" in the UK.
For those unfamiliar with workfare, it forces people to work and seek work (who are able to work), in exchange for government benefits. No scrounging allowed is the idea. No leeching from without giving back. That's the idea at least.
So what happens in practice?
I feel the following personal accounts need to be shared, and so I include a selection of some of them here in hopes it will contribute to them and more like them being further shared far and wide. The following is what happens when we require means-testing for our safety nets. The following is what happens when we require people to sell their labor for free, in order to obtain benefits.
The following is the true face of the work requirement.
Though entirely involving the welfare system in the UK, these stories faithfully represent the direct results of any system that requires a bureaucracy to perform means-testing for the reception of benefits. I will let the author's own introduction to these stories speak for itself before relaying them:
I’ve seen the change in attitude towards society’s disempowered in the last 30 years. The media attacks upon the poor whilst the rich grow richer, and the reduction in freedom and dignity among the disabled; especially among the learning disabled who are in no position to be able to understand the gradual yet escalating reductions in their standard of living. Let’s face it, those who study the issue will never understand a society which has chosen to treat people in such an abhorrent manner.
It is perhaps the time I’ve spent assisting people with legal problems which has been the greatest influence on my opinions. I have, due to difficulties in legalities and ethics, chosen not to relate stories known privately by me in this paper. I do believe the stories I have related from newspapers and other published sources are both demonstrative of the current situation, and are merely to use a colloquialism, “The tip of the iceberg.” In declaring my position I should normally set it aside in my analysis; that is unlikely to happen. I freely admit, this paper will argue for a solution I believe will end what I see as a series of tragedies.
It might be difficult to read through these stories, but it should be remembered that each one is a person in a vulnerable position needing the assistance of the country, who was let down.
Each one is a human being with people who love them who are also affected by their mistreatment.
Each one represents a huge number of untold stories of people suffering in a similar way.
Each and every one of these stories, and the stories untold, matters.
(Emphasis where added is my own and British spellings have been replaced with American...)
David had already served his country as a soldier. Many ex-soldiers find that the army asks them to retire well before the national retirement age, or makes them redundant due to cuts. He missed an appointment in May. this left him without money for 18 days. His electricity meter had nothing on it, and he only had £3.44 in his bank account. The insulin he needed for his diabetes could not be kept in the chilled state necessary for it to be effective; his fridge wasn’t working without electricity. That was the situation when he was found dead in his flat on 20 July 2014; his stomach completely empty. The DWP are quoted as saying in response to this tragedy involving someone who had given service to this nation and received contempt in response, “It’s only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able.” There is no evidence he was doing anything but that. His dead body was found surrounded by Curriculum Vitae and the letters he was writing for jobs.
Christelle a 32 year old French lady, had a five month old son, Kayjah. She was a graduate of London Metropolitan University where she studied Philosophy. Foreign claimants need to provide a five year proof that they have either been in work or looking for work and Christelle had a period of around eight months in 2003 where she worked in a cafe but could trace no-one to provide the necessary evidence of this. Her benefits were sanctioned and then stopped; then not being on benefits her child benefit was stopped. Then not being in receipt of anything, her housing benefit was stopped and the local authority demanded she repay £200 in overpaid benefits. Seeing no other way out, she leapt with her five month old son from a third floor balcony killing them both and her unborn child.
Kevin suffered from severe mental illness and schizophrenia. He was sanctioned and his Job Seekers Allowance was stopped. He became a recluse, and was found dead in his flat having starved aged 40.
Aged just 23 Stuart was hounded and suffered repeated sanctions until he took his own life.
Carl Joseph Foster-Brown
The wholly unjustified decisions regarding sanctions by the DWP led directly to Carl’s decision to take his own life aged 58; the comments on his You Tube tribute video describe him as a big man having a heart of gold.
Suffered from epilepsy which was severe and life threatening. It was decided he was fit for work, and he chose to appeal. It was five weeks after his death aged 29
that it was accepted he wasn’t fit for work and he was notified he had won his appeal. Speaking in the House of Commons about his death and the contact he received from Colin’s family, Michael Meacher MP said, “Nothing is going to bring Colin Traynor back to life, but I believe that the Government owe it to his memory, and that of hundreds of others who have lost their lives in similar circumstances, to make fundamental changes to the work capability assessment procedures which are taking such a terrible administrative toll in fear, intimidation, distress and death.” Upon comments by Mark Hoban Minister of State for the DWP that Colin had not adequately communicated his distress to the DWP, Mr Meacher said further, “Irrespective of whether the distress, of which the parents were aware, was made known to the authorities, the crucial point in this case is: how can a 29-year-old who had been subject to grand mal seizures since he was 14 months old, and for whom Remploy had desperately tried for three years to get a job and could not do so, have been regarded as employable?” Mark Hoban avoided this question on more than one occasion saying parliament was not the right place to discuss the details of the case upon the basis of which the session had been called.
Linda had her first double heart & lung transplant in 1985, at the age of 21; after which she bravely returned to work. Unfortunately, the transplant was rejected, and complications in a subsequent operation in 1989 left her an invalid and unable to work. She remained recognized as being unfit for work by all of the medical experts involved in her case; chronically disabled. “She would be listless, falling asleep, feeling faint... she had no stamina,” in the words of her husband; a man who continues to work as a refrigeration engineer and pay into the same system which exists to provide a safety net for those in need. In 2012, new guidance from the DWP meant that it was decided that Linda had to prove she was still unfit to work and her ESA was withdrawn. She was forced to undertake an Atos assessment even though she was barely able to attend the appointment on 3 January 2013. She typed her appeal letter in a hospital bed on 13 February 2013. She was still in a hospital bed on 16 April 2013 when the DWP wrote to her to tell her the decision stood and she would no longer receive ESA as by the agreed standards of the Atos assessment she was fit for work. On April 24 she died aged 49, again the words of her husband Peter, “Feeling useless like a scrounger.” The DWP showed their sensitivity through a spokesman who said, “A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all supporting medical evidence.” As her husband Peter said, “She paid her tax and national insurance, then she is treated like this. it is disgusting.”
David again had severe heart problems, though not suprisingly he was very worried that these would be immaterial to the assessment process used by Atos and the DWP. The night before his medical was due, he died of a heart attack his condition exacerbated by stress aged 56. His son Paul, 38, said, “He could hardly walk any distance without needing help from his angina spray. I don’t know why they could not ask the consultants who had told him his heart was too weak to have an elbow operation he needed. They would have made it clear how ill he was.”
Forty Eight year old Terry knew he wasn’t well enough to attend his WCA, but knew also of the threat to stop his benefits if he didn’t attend. He attended, but the strain was such that an ambulance needed to be called during the examination. Terry died the next day. Having told the Atos assessor that an immediate ambulance was needed, as his brother Charlie explained, “They put us into a room next door and lay him on a bed. We waited more than an hour for the ambulance without anyone coming in to even ask how he was.” Atos made the call, but in the words of a spokesman for Scottish Ambulance Service, “The call was clinically triaged as a non-emergency based on detailed information provided by the caller.” Obviously Atos had without any real medical knowledge decided it wasn’t that serious in what could only be described as an unnecessarily callous decision.
Robert Barlow had worked as a government scientist, until at the age of 38 he was diagnosed with severe cardiomyopathy, a degenerative condition which causes failure of the heart muscle. He was awaiting a heart transplant, and also suffering from a brain tumor. he had been slowly growing more ill for nine years, and by the age of 46 he couldn’t walk, his eyesight was so poor he couldn’t read, and he had a tendency for frequent falls. With 18 months to live, his ESA was stopped since he was deemed to be fit for work; despite having grown gradually less fit since having had to give up work eight years earlier. A once great servant to his country, died penniless, having spent more than his savings before he died without any state assistance.
Suffering from cancer, yet still found fit for work by Atos, Farmer David lost his sight, his hearing, his mobility then his life aged 57. His widow Lyn said, “David got a very rare form of cancer, it took his sight and his hearing, then finally his life. But months before that Atos took his dignity. His doctors and specialist nurses wrote to the firm but never received a reply.”
Despite suffering from Ischaemic Heart Disease, and having suffered heart attacks, 52 year old Paul was told in February 2014 that he was fit for work; by April he was dead. His devastated mum Sheila, 76, said: “We believe the claim he was fit to work brought on his death.” A spokesman for the DWP said, ‘‘Job center Plus decision makers look at all available information, including any medical evidence, to support their claim.”
Acutely ill, Stephen was waiting for major heart surgery. It was decided he was fit for work, and within a month he was dead aged 53. He died in December, and his brother Anthony said, “Stephen should have been enjoying time with his grandchildren. For this to happen was just terrible.”
Larry had a degenerative chronic lung condition which had caused his weight to drop from 10 stones to 7 stones. It was decided after the Atos assessment that he was fit for work, and he was dead within three months.
Terminally ill and suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a disease which causes hardening of the lungs, constant breathlessness and repeated coughing, she was found fit for work after an Atos assessment, and was dead within five months.
Was passed as fit for work despite his heart condition. The day after his benefits stopped he died of a heart attack aged 57.
A sufferer from Fibromyalgia, which causes scarring to the lungs, had an ongoing battle with the DWP for ESA and Disability Living Allowance driving her to the point of mental & physical breakdown before being found dead aged 52.
Despite suffering from the debilitating Addison’s disease, Graham was found fit for work. At age 63 and just short of pension age, he was under great stress and this resulted in a heart attack which caused his death.
Had a serious heart condition, but was nevertheless found fit for work; battled for 18 months to have his benefits restored and died of a heart attack induced by stress aged 36.
Was receiving treatment for aggressive breast cancer when found fit for work, managed to win her appeal, but died just a few weeks later aged 51.
Was declared fit for work by the DWP as he lay dying in a hospital bed.
Elenore was placed in the Work Related Activity group as someone who would return to full fitness in the future despite having an incurable brain tumor which she originally suffered from age 15, had received an operation for, but had returned. She also suffered from epilepsy. She died within three weeks aged 39 leaving her husband and three children. Raymond, her partner, suffers from gangrene of the appendix, diabetes, and has had to have part of his bowel removed, and is very unsteady on his feet, lacks any stamina and is prone to collapsing. Not long after Elenore’s death Atos called him in for assessment, and he subsequently received notice from the DWP that his benefits would cease as he was fit for work.
Mark was a 44 year old man, who weighed only 5 stones 8 pounds when found. Against his doctors assertion that he was not fit for work, it was decided after an Atos assessment that he was. He had complex mental health problems. His benefits were stopped, and he starved to death. His sister Cathie said of her, “Gentle and sweet,” brother, “"when the police found him, there was very little food in the house, just half a banana and a tin of tuna."
Despite his failing eyesight and agoraphobia, 53 year old Tim was deemed fit for work after an Atos assessment. He went into rent arrears when his benefits were cut, and was about to be evicted when he chose to hang himself instead. His sister Linda said, "Tim ran out of money. He was a proud man and never let on to anybody. It’s so sad. I want everyone to know what this government is doing to vulnerable people on benefits. He had a certificate to say he was blind. When we got into his house there was no food, he practically starved in the last weeks.”
Had his DLA and benefits stopped, sank into depression, and was found dead within six weeks of being assessed as fit for work.
Ian, aged 43, was found fit for work despite multiple health problems and deteriorating eyesight; he died 10 months later, emaciated and described by his family as looking like a concentration camp victim.
Jacqueline was a former nurse with severe mobility problems; she could hardly walk. She had typical conditions connected with a career in nursing, sever arthritis in her neck, and severe back problems; both almost certainly from years of assisting others who had mobility problems. Her sister Christine, also a nurse, recounted the medical, saying, “They asked her one question, ‘Did you get here by bus?'” That was it, she was able to get on and off a bus so they decided she was fit enough to work; it mattered not how much effort had been involved in that one small action. She chose to take her own life the day after receiving notice that Atos had found her fit for work aged 53. As is standard a spokeswoman for the DWP said, “A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and consideration of supporting medical evidence.”
Elaine was a 53 year old lady who suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD); a disease which affect breathing and thus affect the ability to do most things. Chronic means permanent and incurable. Her benefits were threatened and she knew she was incapable of working due to her severe and chronic illness. Not knowing how she would survive and believing she would suffer a slow death by starvation, she instead chose to commit suicide.
A sufferer of severe depression, it was decided after an Atos assessment that he was fit for work and despite previous diagnosis by his doctor did not have a sufficient level of depression to affect his ability to work. He then killed himself. The founder of Rebel Inc publishing, who knew the author Reekie, sent the following to George Osborne, "It has come to my attention that while many of my friends and I were at the funeral of our good friend Paul Reekie, aged 48, it would appear that you were giving a speech in Parliament announcing your intentions to slash the benefits paid to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.”
A sufferer of depression for many years who had in that time been accepted as unable to work. Was called in for an Atos assessment, and killed herself soon after. Her body was not found immediately, her mother Val explains the emotions of a family who believe they have lost someone, “Ever since she went missing we have lived with the agony of wondering what had happened to her, reacting to every knock on the door, every phone call or every car which pulled up outside.
Elaine was a fifty seven year old lady with mental health problems who had been told she must attend a Work Capability Assessment and that her benefits were at risk. She was found with multiple self inflicted wrist wounds at Holderness Drain, Hull. Her husband said, "She was worried about the assessment, but was never one to complain." Katrina Dennis, who managed the local Cooplands said, "She was one of the nicest people I knew and had a heart of gold.”
Sandra Louise Moon
Sandra a 57 year old mother, had a degenerative back condition, though worries about losing her Incapacity Benefit and the prospect of a Work Capability Assessment had also done much to exacerbate the depression she also suffered from. She took an overdose and died. Blackpool coroner Anne hind put it quite succinctly when she said, “We can only feel so sad for what must have been going through her mind.”
A 47 year old man who suffered from HIV and Hepatitus, was known to have a history of severe depression and self harm. After an Atos assessment it was decided he was fit for work, then being unable to attend the necessary interviews his benefits were stopped. He chose to commit suicide.
Despite having suffered a stroke, a brain hemorrhage, and having a fused leg, the DWP decided to call him in to see if he might be suitable for unpaid work. The actual appointment date arrived after he’d took his own life aged 49.
David was known to suffer from severe mental problems, though Atos decided he was fit for work nonetheless. He appealed, and upon his appeal failing, threw himself from a bridge to his death aged just 28.
Iain suffered from antiphospholipid syndrome; a disease where white blood cells mistakenly attack the hosts body and the risk of blood clots in arteries and veins. People with this condition are at constant risk of things like heart attacks and strokes. Iain was, nevertheless, passed as fit for work and had his benefits stopped. he chose to end his life aged just 30.
A father and grandfather, had been suffering from depression when the DWP decided to stop his ESA. Could cope no longer and shot himself. As one of his neighbor’s explained, “He was pretty down about it and said he was finding it hard to cope with the decision. He was a lovely man. It is not fair what the Government is doing.”
Craig had lost his job when an accident at work led to a partial amputation of one of his legs. He had been in a vulnerable state, depressed because of his situation, and to add to that state his social security had been cut. He had previously attempted suicide by overdose, and was in dire need of support. He was found hanged. his neighbor Kevin Martin said he had spoken about his worry that his benefits had been cut.
A deeply depressed man, so much so that the judge in his appeal against being fit for work told the DWP and Atos to leave him alone for at least a year. They chose to ignore the judges direction, and Chris responded to their continued harassment by killing himself.
A thirty year old mother with sever mental illness, Annette decided to commit suicide after her disability benefits were ceased.
Suffering from severe depression Michael, aged 34, was called in for a Work Capability Assessment by Atos and chose instead to take his own life.
A father who, on 30th October, his sixtieth birthday, decided to take a massive overdose, after his benefits had been cut, and died.
Father of two Carl, aged 42, was demonstrably fearful of losing his benefits before he chose to commit suicide.
The DWP stopped Victor’s benefits despite him suffering from severe depression; he chose to hang himself aged 59.
Nicholas Peter Barker
Nicholas had suffered a brain hemorrhage which left him paralyzed down one side. It was decided he was fit for work and his benefits were stopped; he shot himself aged 51.
Steven had his social security payments stopped despite rising debts, and chose to take his own life as a way out aged 55.
Found dead in his home after being told he needed to undergo a Work Capability Assessment.
Paul had suffered for years with mental health problems. His concerns about being tested by Atos led him to take his own life aged 33.
Trevor had always suffered from epilepsy, with frequent and severe fits. The DWP made repeated attempts to stop his benefits until he chose to commit suicide aged 50.
Aged 36 was found fit for work despite serious mental health problem, schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations. He left a note saying, “To those I love, I’m sorry, goodbye.”
I'm sorry too. I'm sorry for the present lack of humanity among so many humans who either encourage this, or allow this to continue through their silence.
The above is only a small sample of the fatal effects of means-tested welfare requirements. And the cases of non-fatal suffering are even more numerous and commonplace. By choosing to not provide unconditional benefits, we create holes for people to fall through to their deaths. And for every one who dies, there are hundreds and even thousands more who suffer.
Our best intentions do not matter. There is no perfect test. Whatever the test, there are those who should pass it who won't, and therefore there will always be those who should not suffer who will.
If you support drug-tested means-testing, then you need to understand there will always be those who don't use drugs who will fail your test and will unjustly starve as a direct result of your own conditions.
If you support ability-tested means-testing, the idea that all people should work who are able to work, then there will be those who are actually unable to work who will be forced to work or suffer the consequences.
If you support marriage-tested means-testing, such that only those who are legally married receive help, there will by consequence be those who are married and those who aren't legally recognized as married, who don't receive help.
If you support child-tested means-testing, such that only those with children or who are children receive help, you must understand that a real percentage of children will not receive this aid.
No test is perfect. No administrator of tests has perfect judgment. No system involving any form of means-testing will ever not accomplish exactly what you don't want it to accomplish.
The only way to truly help someone, is to give help unconditionally.
If we can't do that, if we can't help our fellow human beings without first asking what they can do for us first, we turn our backs to each other and to a better world.
For everyone lost before we achieve the universal right to live in the form of a basic income, and through this achievement a universal recognition of our inherent worth as human beings, I am sorry. I am sorry because I believe firmly in the words of John Donne.
"No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee."
Let us all become involved in mankind.
Let us all stop the tolling of conditional welfare, and make it unconditional.
Let us all stop asking if one is fit for work, and start asking if we are fit to live.