Thursday, 27 October 2011

Anti-welfare and why

I don't have the time (yet) to put together my next instalment of "How to help the poorest" (it is there, ruminating) as I am trying to write a conference paper on the UK benefit culture.

It's really "doing my head in" (as my son would say) with books I covered today in the vein of "So Marx was right, after all", more capitalism leads to more poverty, etc. (But who do these writers expect to fund a comprehensive welfare state? The writers talk about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett making so, so much money, but refuse to also note that they give a lot of their wealth away. O, don't get me started.)

This evening I got onto this website and found a whole list of "books".

Brilliant. That's my homework sorted for the next few days.

Civitas is, as you will see, rather "anti" the welfare state as it stands.

Enjoy reading!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

After CAB

The managers were pleased that I was back this week after this episode last week. Told them that I would tell clients off the next time if they mess with my fellow volunteers.

It was an interesting session.

First up I was able to tell this elderly gentleman (after I've organized an appointment for him) who could not speak much English (his son was speaking for him) that it would do him and his wife a lot of good to learn to speak good English.

I said otherwise they would not be able to communicate with their grandchildren. His son agrees, but elderly gentleman was not so keen.

We (ie anthropologists) see this all the time. Elderly migrants who become prisoners in their own homes because a lack of English means they can't go any where on their own.

Grandchildren speak English fluently. Migrants think they must preserve their own language and culture, insisting their grandchildren speak it. In the end they lose it because they do not have the English to tell their grandchildren about their own rich culture and history.

What a pity. (In this particular case it is all Joanna Lumley's fault!)
Then I had a young woman who appeared to just want to hear her own voice. Laugh if you must. There are lots of lonely people who have no one to talk to in their own homes.

She had several problems. My task was to get her to see the separation between the bureaucratic (requirement that she signed on at a particular centre) and the affective (apprehension about her treatment there as she has an outstanding complaint about this particular job centre).

She wondered about making an appeal for four months of "loss of income" (ie loss of JobSeekers Allowance when she tried to claim ESA, a higher-value benefit). Really she did not have a case as she had refused to undergo those tests that her GP had ordered.

(I nearly said "she did not have a leg to stand on", but if she really did not have a leg to stand on, then she would surely get her ESA! O, never mind!)

The GP could not, in honesty, sign her off, and so her application was rejected.

To be honest, at one point I nearly lost my patience with her. This client thought she knew better than her GP and refused to take those tests. What help could I or anyone give in this instance if she thinks the GP is not good enough?

She was speaking gently, always politely, but you could see she is just such a troubled soul. The measured way in which she spoke suggested a certain "tightness" (for want of a better word) in her being.

After I sorted the one problem I could help her with I asked "would it not be better if she let go of trying to claw back the 4 months of benefits that she felt she had been deprived of and instead focus on the future".

She is still alive, she has a future to look forward to, why spend all her time and nervous energy thinking, "O! I should have been given those benefits."

How about trying to do something positive to make her future more of what she always wanted it to be instead of being dependent on benefits?

Yes, she missed her benefits for four months, but the fact that she found the strength to survive that shows she is capable of doing better. Look at this experience positively.

As I said that it appeared that a light came on in her head. Her face lit up. She started agreeing with everything I was saying.

In the end she declared that she would now go to do the thing she said she was fearful of doing when she first came into my office. With a smile. :)

She was also sign-posted to a good counselling service.
Then a single mother who was "sanctioned" (penalized for not doing enough "job-seeking"). We talked about her problem. We talked through her problem: what she needed to do. And then I thought, "Hmm, is it worth talking AROUND her problem?"

I suggested that she might think about using her other skills to earn some money (ie start a business) instead of relying on benefits and the poor (non)advice the Job Centre seemed to be giving her. She agreed that she should do so.

She then told me she is a good cook. I suggested ways she could explore making her skills known, maybe get a shop to sell some of her food, let people know she could do that kind of work, ready to launch her own business if not now, then later on.

Yes, it is difficult now with a 10-year-old to care for, but 10-year-olds will eventually grow up.

I said if we were in a non-welfare state we would be cooking and making things to sell to make some money.

She agreed. She would very much like to do that. But in this country there is such a mountain of health and safety regulations to get over, it guarantees that it is much easier to rely on benefits than to think about starting one's own business.

If only we could have a way of co-ordinating a few good (women) cooks to prepare meals-on-wheels -- in this case for the Asian community with their specific dietary requirements -- would that not be wonderful? Local jobs for the local community.

Jobseekers get to do something. The community benefits. The taxpayers are not worse off.
On the whole I thought it was a good session. I don't think I was able to help these clients directly (the other advisers would be doing that) but I think (I like to think) that I had planted seed thoughts in these clients and I do hope that their future would be much brighter, much happier, as a result of their resolution to do something for themselves.

Maybe I should apply for a job at the Job Centre ....

Monday, 17 October 2011

How to help the poorest (3)

The thing that characterized my young life was "hand me downs".

Clothes -- hand me downs.

Mum had cardboard boxes full of beautiful clothes that belonged to my cousins. Even after I graduated university I accepted hand-me-downs from friends and family.

Books -- hand me downs.

Mum kept textbooks that my siblings had finished using. She also collected these from neighbours and any one willing to part with them.

Furniture -- hand me downs.

For a long time we only had mum and dad's "wedding bed". Over the years we were given a second double bed, a bunk-bed, a wardrobe and a sofa set. I was the last one to be allotted a bed and slept on the floor (first bamboo mat, then mattress).

Electrical appliances -- hand me downs.

We had no fridge until Second Auntie gave us her old one. A cousin gave us his old black-and-white TV when I was sixteen, our first TV.

My childhood was also characterized by watching my parents help those who are more in need.

One day the neighbourhood was abuzz with talk about an elderly couple two floors down from us who had no money for food or water. Neighbours found them with a mouldy bit of bread and nothing else to eat. Their water, gas and electricity had been disconnected.

Neighbours gave them cooked food. Mum was sent out to buy a long length of garden (water) hose. It was trailed from our bathroom tap down to this couple's flat in the evenings. It ran for as long as they had receptacles to collect water for drinking, cleaning and flushing the toilet.

We stopped when social services stepped in.

Our flat had an open-door policy, it appeared. People came from all the different households to ask to use the phone, for example. (It was a necessity, not a luxury, as my dad needed the phone to run his market stall.)

People came to my mum if they needed help with reading letters. When a neighbour was being beaten up by her husband, Mum was the person she shouted for.

We didn't have money to throw around but we were able to help in practical ways.

Take my eldest sister.

She always managed to find a neighbour here, a friend's child there, or someone else who needed help with school work. She gives free tuition to kids who needed that extra coaching.

So it has been ingrained in me that we must as neighbours, as fellow human beings, help those who are immediately around us. In practical ways.

Fighting for better national provision for the sick and elderly is important. Agitating for a fairer and more inclusive education where those who are not academically gifted are given space to develop is critical. Seeking pathways for our nationals to be happy and comfortable in being "Singaporean" -- that is urgent.

But it appears to me that most of us are also probably in the position to do something practical. If my late father, a market butcher, and my late mother, housewife, could make a difference in the lives of those in their neighbourhood, surely anyone reading this could do something, too. No?

The exchange of material goods is not only helpful but environmentally sound. These days we live in such a "disposable world" we forget that there is a long shelf-life to most of the things we own.

Just think, there was life before disposable nappies, when in fact people had more babies. The same cloth nappies could be used over and over again, and then either passed on to other parents or cut up to make other items (hankies in my case).

No, I doubt if my parents would have had six children if they had to depend on disposable nappies.

In Britain we have "Freecycle". We join Freecycle groups in our local area to recycle what might seem useless to you, but which would be of value to someone else.

Eg we had a robot lawn mower. (Husband bought this when he was too ill to mow the lawn.) When it stopped functioning we offered it on Freecycle and it was picked up by people who either like mucking about with robots or enjoyed repairing broken things.

Mum (who never threw anything away) found someone disposing of a huge "softboard" (which you could stick pins into). It was about six foot by three foot. We did not know what it was used for. Mum, being Mum, felt that it could be useful one day.

That "one day" came when a neighbour came to use the telephone, saw the board propped up between the bed and the wall and asked if she could have it. "Auntie Tailor" could use that to transfer her paper patterns onto fabric.

Rubbish to everyone else, but treasure for "Auntie Tailor".

So what can we do to supply those most in need amongst us with practical tools, appliances, bedding, clothes, books, furniture, etc?

We have the charity shops in the UK. (I used to volunteer in one.) My sister-in-law takes a lot of stuff to the Salvation Army in Singapore. (Unfortunately one day she took my 30plus-year-old Brownie uniform with all the badges intact.)

Such shops in the UK are great in re-cycling old but clean and useful clothes/other items. However they do also face a lot of flak from rival shops because they are seen to be unfair competition, in not having to pay employees but can depend on volunteers instead.

What about those who are unemployed? Disabled? Alcohol-dependent? The gambling addict?

There was a couple who lived in the next block who are both blind. But the husband was trained in sports massage and earned his own living. On occasions when I got to help him to cross the roads, etc. we had very interesting conversations.

How do we support our disabled so that they could lead an independent life?

There used to be "sheltered" factories where disabled people could make items with their hands or provide a service and earn their own living. Yes, these ventures might need to be subsidized. These people are never ever going to be able to compete against all the dagongmei from China if manufacturing is their mainstay.

But are there contracts that they could get for, let's say, filling goodie bags for National Day Parades or other corporate events? (I know it is cheaper to get our NSmen and prisoners to do these jobs.)

Such jobs mean workers are DOING something, creating and deriving a positive feeling about their own being. Even if taxpayers have to subsidize these ventures it is still cheaper, much cheaper, than handing out welfare benefits in the long run.

(As I pointed out in previous post, handing out welfare benefits willy-nilly only leave recipients free to loiter, listless, purposeless, and prone to being stopped and searched by police. Money does not remove the poverty in one's soul.)

By the same token, some unemployed can be absorbed into the charity shops either as volunteers or sometimes as volunteers who get expenses paid (transport will be expensive when you do not earn anything).

There are already people who collect perishable foods to distribute to those who need them. Such organizations need volunteers. Could you offer help, too?

My point is there are big overarching missions we can work towards: a change in policy, a turn towards passion, a step towards graciousness.

But there are little practical things we could all do to help. Let us walk our talk.

We are the ones who would know which neighbour is in need. What have we done in the last week to check up his/her needs? When we cannot finish the food that we buy on a "buy one get one free" deal, do we give the second lot away?

Do we make it known to those in a position to help that someone might benefit from free food? Or a care package (soap, toothbrush, shaving razers, etc) once in a while?

Or could it be that we could make a world of difference by volunteering to distribute food just once a week, a fortnight?

When we see our neighours' children struggling with school work and not being able to afford private tuition, are we able to offer help? Or point them to places where volunteers offer free tuition? Give them some old textbooks, or other books?

What about offering a lift in our car so someone could get to work? Or offering to childmind just a few hours a day so a parent could get to work?

Of course, of course, I also recognize that sometimes our offers of help are not appreciated. We risk rejection.

It has never occurred to me, once, that accepting hand-me-downs was a negative thing. It has not given me a low self-esteem. I have never once thought, "Yee, people must think we are so poor because they keep giving me their old clothes."

However when I consider that there are relatively good jobs that Singaporeans do not wish to take up, then possibly they would not accept offers of help.

(Times have changed. Jobs that my classmates would have aspired to are shunned by the younger generation. Is this a result of our own making?)

I remember two Cantonese phrases learned in my childhood: ma sei lok dei harng. When your horse dies on you, you jolly well get off and walk.

The other phrase is yum soey see yuen. When you drink water, think of its source.

When we help those in need, as I had been helped when my family and/or I was in need, people remember. When we then get to a position where we are able to help others, we must all see yuen and do the same.

And perhaps this is why people from humble backgrounds who have received scholarships and other types of help want to put themselves in positions where they are able to influence policy. When one is born with a silver spoon in one's mouth (can't understand this idiom, think of the poor mum!), one is less able to understand what it is like to have so little, and yet be given so much.

If some of our leaders (or civil servants or their offspring) appear to be heartless is it because they do not have the "privileged" disposition to yum soey see yuen as an impoverished young person, because everything had always been handed to them on a silver platter?

(Maybe some have chosen conveniently to blot out memory of their humble beginnings?)

Still, if each of us could do one additional thing for our neighbour in need, today, we will make this world a better place. Not just for this generation, but also for the next (should they remember to see yuen).

No need to wait for the politicians to debate until the cows come home.


How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (1)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Where got time to loiter?

The CEO at my CAB phoned yesterday to check that I was alright after the Monday run-in with client.

That was nice, I thought.

I didn't tell her though the next time I see clients mis/behaving this way I shall tell them in no uncertain terms what I thought of them. The CAB staff cannot do that. But as a volunteer, I can.

(This CAB employs about 5 staff members, the other 30-40 "work" on a voluntary basis.)

Clients have no right to abuse a free service. Even less so do they have the right to abuse volunteers who try their best without any thought of being paid.

And that man who told us to "get a real job", he has no job. He does not pay tax. I pay tax, a lot of it. So how dare he shout at my co-volunteers in that manner?

Thinking about how this client alleged that he was simply stopped and questioned, I thought, I have never been stopped by police and questioned.

(I've stopped them several times, though. Once to ask if a crime had been committed across the road. Turned out there was a cannabis farm. Once I saw that a group of Chinese illegal DVD vendors had just been rounded up. I asked if they needed any interpretation. Etc. etc.)

Is it because I always look like I am walking with a purpose?

People who are "time-poor" do not loiter. We just focus on what we needed to do, do it, and head home.

Why would anyone "loiter"?

When you look around you the next time you go out for lunch, do you see people "walking with purpose", or do you see many who are just ambling along, loitering?

The next instalment of "How to help the poorest" is brewing. I am too busy in the next couple of days to spell it out. I think it would have something to do with "walking our talk".

Monday, 10 October 2011

How to help the poorest (2)

Just come back from a rotten time at a CAB session.

My first client refused to leave my office insisting that his human rights had been infringed because we could not help him. It was a criminal matter. We only deal with civil matters. I had given him all the phone numbers for people he could contact but he was not happy.

This person alleged that he was "kidnapped" and assaulted. It turned out that he was being charged with assaulting a policeman. A senior volunteer adviser (SVA) tried to explain the situation to him and client went, "What? Are you trying to strangle me?" Senior volunteer (probably in his 70s) had not laid a finger on him.

Client finally left my office when SVA said he would have to call Security. Client was shouting that SVA had assaulted him. ??? This client was in denial that it is a criminal matter. I had given him a list of solicitors circling "C" for "Criminal" and he said, "I don't want no criminal lawyer."

When I thought the dust had settled, another client was shouting, saying us volunteers were useless, go get a real job. By this time, security had been called. This second man left before security appeared.

I learned later that the bureau had been helping this man countless times before. He is a case where instead of being empowered from previous advice given, he had taken CAB as a crutch.

This time he alleged that a policeman was mistreating him simply because he is black. Sure, police officers stop and question a black man simply because he is black and ignore the white man who is ranting and raving and behaving in a threatening manner across the street.

First up, two people who seem to refuse to take responsibility for their own aggressive behaviour. It is their human rights being violated and other people's racist actions to blame. Nothing to do with the way they were shouting and making life unpleasant for other people, even those who were trying to help them.

Rant over.

The Big Issue

Meant to say, really, that if you were to visit the UK you are likely to encounter people with big plastic identity tags dangling from their necks selling copies of a magazine call The Big Issue.

This started as the brainchild of a man called John Bird and co-founder of The Body Shop Gordon Roddick. You can read more about this magazine here.

The idea was that homeless people, if they fulfilled certain criteria for homelessness, could apply and be trained to become sellers of The Big Issue. They are given a few free copies to sell at a specific pitch, and after that they could buy a few more copies to sell, and basically decide on how many copies they could sell, and thus become self-employed.

One might well ask how it is that in a country with a comprehensive welfare system individuals could become "homeless".

There are a great number of reasons, not least of all arising from mental illness. For some reason people could be deemed "intentionally homeless" in which case local councils are absolved from any responsibility to house them.

There are those who prefer to remain homeless with their dog rather than be housed in a hostel or B&B while waiting for more permanent accommodation. But you are unlikely to be rehoused permanently unless you are first in temporary accommodation. A Catch-22 situation.

Be that as it may The Big Issue is doing a great job in helping some of the most vulnerable back on their feet.

What about Singapore? Could a Good Issue (bearing only good news?) help the poorest of the poor? Following the theme of a previous post we could call this The Good Heart Issue (or Ho Sim Times?)

To some extent, it is not much different from people who used to hawk Ma Biu Po (papers giving the race results) as such. (Is there still Ma Biu Po in Singapore these days?)

Selling The Big Issue is only the first step towards normality. These homeless vendors need further practical support to help them into long-term jobs and a more regular income.

In the same way the poorest and most vulnerable Singaporeans are likely to need help other than a pitch to sell magazines to get them into the rhythm of work. Are there debts that need to be cleared/otherwise managed, illnesses to be cured/managed, homes to be cleaned/decluttered, bedding to be de-bugged/replaced?

Part of the failure of the UK welfare system is that it is a huge, cumbersome and impersonal bureaucracy. There are fixed sets of criteria and fixed sets of rules and corresponding sets of decisions and sets of rewards.

But in the real world people's personal circumstances do not fit neatly into those sets of criteria.

Handouts prevent a person from being homeless but it does not stop him/her from getting dependent on alcohol and spiralling into deeper troubles. Nor does being so aggressive like our first two clients today make long-term employment possible.

For any "helping system" to be effective, the whole person, the individual in his specific set of circumstances, within his family of a particular/peculiar structure, in the context of his personal abilities, mental well-being and emotional/physical limitations, must be taken into account.

It's what the anthropologist calls the "holistic" perspective again.

I mean, if the first man here went to court and was found guilty of assaulting the police, what is going to happen other than a short prison sentence, maybe some "unpaid work", a fine (paid out of his benefits money) and then he's still back on benefits.

It chews up police, court and probation service time. Should he complain about police mistreatment he would be chewing up even more administrative time, maybe even precious legal aid. And the result? It is still one young man who refuses to work and who thinks that the whole world is against him.

He, on the other hand, is the ultimate innocent. His only recourse is to shout "my human rights are being infringed", "you are not helping me", "don't treat me like I am stupid".


Any way, note though that even an ostensibly charitable venture like The Big Issue could be abused.

It has been reported that in certain regions of the UK Romanian migrants who do not qualify for welfare benefits get themselves into the The Big Issue circuit. As they are classified as "self-employed" they then become eligible for benefits.

This is another example of how when there are easy pickings (a generous welfare system), people would try, in the most devious ways, to benefit from it.

And I wonder if our two CAB clients were out busy working at a suitable job to earn their keep because there are no welfare handouts, would they have the energy to be so aggressive?


How to help the poorest (3)
How to help the poorest (1)

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Payday loans -- avoid, avoid, avoid

On the news today we learn that the government is looking into "payday loans". Hurray!

The issue was brought up by the Citizens Advice Bureau, where as a volunteer I was shocked to see clients having to pay eye-watering 600-1000+% interest on a small loan that they thought they could pay off come their next pay day.

When I joined the CAB I was heartened by their mission to provide evidence to the government on issues affecting the general population.

When we come across cases which could be sorted by policy changes, we flag up such cases. So when bureaux across UK have sufficient evidence we could alert the government to what is really (f)ailing the people.

As an anthropologist stuck on the "holistic approach" to life I find myself asking questions around the issue that the client comes in with. Debt often surfaces although this is not at first articulated.

My advice is always to stay clear of the "personal credit" people such as this and this who are just one half-step up the evolutionary ladder from unlicensed loan sharks, it appears to me. 1068.5% APR.
How would it be deemed "responsible lending" when they approach people on their door-step knowing that they are already hugely in debt, and some already have taken an IVA (individual voluntary arrangement) to sort out their mounting debts?


Friday, 7 October 2011

How to help the poorest (1)

I grew up in a family which would be considered poor by many. ("Poverty" is always relative. We were rich in love and enthusiasm for learning.) Yet I am against the welfare system that I have to subscribe to in the UK.

So how do we help the poorest of the poor amongst Singaporeans?

I remember when in primary one the teacher Mrs Jalil said to bring in 20 cents to buy a plastic cover for a workbook. I went home to ask Mum for 20 cents.

Mum did not have 20 cents to spare. Instead my eldest sister removed the (dirty) plastic cover from one of her books and put it on the workbook which I took back to school.

The next day a classmate laughed at me. I was too poor to afford the 20 cents to buy a book cover. I cried.

I went home, told Mum, and a few days later Mum found the 20 cents to let me buy a pristine plastic cover.

On another occasion someone told me the handbag I was using (a gift from my aunt) came from the "50 cents bargain bin" at CK Tang.

There I was, chuffed to the bones with a handbag at last (I was 12) as my mum had never bought me a handbag. A rich girl turned her nose up at my handbag because it cost all of 50 cents.

I remember these occasions well because clearly they had left marks on my psyche.

Sadly the classmate who laughed at me lost her father soon after that. She had become one of my best friends by then.

Then it transpired that her grandmother was given a stall in a nearby coffee-shop to sell wanton noodles (very yummy ones, too). This way her grandmother helped to support her family.

It appears to me that that was the way the Singapore government used to help the very poor and uneducated. They were given help or some sort of priority in running a business in coffee-shops, school canteens and so on.

I don't see how my friend's grandmother would have found a way to run a stall these days. The cost of renting a stall must be exhorbitant when one hears of coffee-shop owners having to bid a million dollars for a unit.


It has long been recognized by people "in the field" in developing countries that "throwing money" at some people would not help their situation. International aid often goes astray, lining the pockets of dictators and those in positions of influence instead.

Yet many charities are able to make a real difference by offering interest-free micro-loans to women (usually) so that they could start a business. The loan is then repaid and the money given to another person to start another business.

Such schemes engender empowerment instead of dependency.

Are we in Singapore able to do something similar?

Instead of making old ladies sell tissue paper in food centres, is there something we could do to set them up in business?

Here's an idea, an untested idea. So please bear with me, and do please add your suggestions.

In the bus exchanges, void decks, and appropriate locations, could shop space be allotted to a group of needy Singaporeans who might wish to run a business? Let's call it, for now, a "Ho Sim [good heart] Shop"*, run by "members" and not "owners" or "employees".

Members could run mini-units (just a table space, say) within the shop/space, or they could run the whole shop on a rota, or the shop could be run as a co-operative, with members sharing all profits. A decision as to organization has to be made at the start.

Say we find a group of individuals who make some really beautiful one-off cushion covers, aprons, dolls, clothes, other decorative objects, etc. They do not have the platform to sell these items. They could sell these through a Ho Sim Shop.

Items could be bought outright for re-sale or on a "sale or return" basis. Members pay makers a commission, as if they are running a physical version of eBay.

Maybe the Ho Sim Shop members are themselves creative people. They could weave baskets out of discarded magazines, for example, or knit and crochet items that people would wish to buy. They could sell such items (and perhaps the odd pack of tissue paper) at such shops.

The thing is Ho Sim Shops must only sell items which are unique, not items that other shops could sell better(er?) and cheaper, like tacky plastic mass-produced items bought extremely cheaply from another country.

Maybe (and this idea is full of "maybe's" because it is just an idea) polytechnic/university business (and law?) students could come and help them get started, help organize them, help source supplies (eg gather a group of housewives keen to make things to sell), help them to agree on how to run the shop, help them commit to doing some simple book-keeping.

Maybe other students could advise on window displays, marketing, etc. ITE students could be in charge of the fittings and upkeep (electricals, plumbing, eg) of the shop, etc.

An audit trail is important. Because we want members to be able to return whatever start-up money they were given. Maybe they could be given tax breaks for a fixed period. Maybe there is a maximum stay of three to five years so someone else gets the chance.

So perhaps they get a discount on tax/rent every time they let a new member in. On a first-in, first-out basis, members also have to think about a longer-term plan. The point is this scheme is a temporary help. Members who have gained confidence and contacts could move on to other enterprises.

The result?

A platform for home-bound creative people, a source of income for destitute Singaporeans, a chance for students to hone their skills (which would sit well in their CVs), and a unique shop for shoppers to browse where they can expect the unexpected.

A win-win situation?

Alternatively, existing shops could be given a discount on tax or rent if they gave a "Ho Sim space" to a needy person "approved" by the appropriate authority. (Be careful this does not degenerate into a "rent-a-granny scam".) In the long run, this is still cheaper than a comprehensive welfare state.

Who qualifies for such help is a tricky question. If left to a bureaucrat, underlying reasons for "need" would become subsumed under red-tape. One could almost guarantee that.

I suspect it is better for a charity or a "people's champion" to do this work.

If you think you could do something, please kee chiew.

* Overnight thought of another name "The Traiding Post". As some charities say, "Trade, not aid". We also have "Traidcraft".
Playing on the concept "Hand up, not hand out", what about a "Hand-me-up" shop (in contrast to the "hand-me-down's" I used to wear)? NB there is a shop in Georgia, USA, called "Hand Me Up's".

How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (3)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

How welfare culture evolves (4)

A Solution in Sight?

In my three previous posts about the welfare state in Britain I might have sounded like a hard-hearted woman. What about those people who are really in need? you ask.

Hopefully it has also become clear that I believe welfare benefits are great iff (if and only if) it is structured in such a way that those who need temporary help/support are helped/supported, but those who only intend to sponge on the hard work of others could be weeded out.

Clearly no government has been able to design a welfare system so "fail-safe" that this very important principle could be adhered to whatever the circumstances, whatever the political party is in power, and whatever the global economic situation is.

If there is a "perfect" or "ideal" system, every country would have adopted it. If I could come up with this perfect solution I would not be "self-employed craftswoman" and "general busybody", but specialist adviser to national governments, being feted by national leaders and jetting around the world, first class.

Having lived and worked in the past 20 years in a welfare state first in the Netherlands and then in the UK these are some of my observations (it might be useful to substitute "Singapore" for every time I use "UK" or "Britain" when you ponder "welfare" in Singapore):

"Us" versus "Them"

When my friend drove us to what is ostensibly one of the poorest parts of Amsterdam (to visit a church member living there) I was struck by the number of BMWs in the carpark. My friend enlightened me.

"These people have lots of children. The more children the more benefits they get. They can afford to buy expensive cars."

There was a lot of friction between the indigenous Dutch and the new migrants from North Africa (Algerians and Moroccans ). My friend said, "Sometimes I feel like I am living in a foreign country. This is not my own country any more."

She also warned that some day there would be a backlash.

In England I researched the first generation of Chinese who retired in this country. They were also up in arms against the new arrivals.

They insisted that they deserved their pension privileges because they have long "lim see-tump" ("pasted their stamps", meaning paid their national insurance). But "that one there", the one who's just arrived from America, she had not paid anything. How is it that she also gets the benefits?

Meanwhile "that one there" told everyone her children had long paid their taxes and national insurance and so she, too, was entitled to her benefits.

Somehow or other a benefits system such as this would evolve into a system where people who have tenuous relationships with those who have actually paid would find ways to assert their rights to benefits. Eventually a group of people would fight for these relatives on their behalf and the "entitlements" of new arrivals will become entrenched in the system.

In view of the current immigration policies that irk Singaporeans so much, do we want a welfare system where 20 years down the road, a whole lot of new immigrants would claim the right to long-term, indefinite benefits for themselves and their extended families? Your children and children's children could be funding these benefits instead of looking after you.

Where pensions are concerned, the truth is few people actually pay more into it then they get out of the system. Only the top earners do so. How else would the bulk of a population agree to such a system knowing that some/most of their contributions would go to other people?

The point was people thought, "Great! I put in £x, if I live to see it I could be getting £10x out of this."

The next question is: how does a government come up with the shortfall?


Remember that a welfare system does not exist in isolation. It exists within a context of a failing or thriving economy, a political context with greater or lesser tension, a social context of contested or free-flowing immigration.

In the UK we have just been told that EU citizens can now come to the UK and claim benefits without having first worked here. In other words, people who have not contributed a penny to a country can now claim benefits. Is this morally correct or acceptable?

How do you separate the nationals from the "inter-nationals"? If your border is hermetically sealed, then it's less of a problem. But if it is as porous as it is in Britain, then you are in serious trouble.

Add to this the non-EU nationals who come here, work for a year or so, often less, claim to suffer backache, and never work again. They continue to draw benefits, have several children, and are not in a hurry to get back to work.

Soon non-EU citizens would say "if EU citizens do not need to contribute and still get benefits, to make non-EU migrants work first before being given benefits will constitute discrimination". What then?

Attitudinal change

I went to school with classmates whose mothers washed clothes for a living. My mum used to hoard newspapers to sell to the karung guni man for a few cents. My neighbours sold nasi lemak and goreng pisang to earn the extra money for household expenses.

Day in and out we were told, "Study hard. Get a good job. Or you'd end up in a labouring job. Get good grades. Then you could get a good office job."

It was the same in Britain. It used to be that people who needed money would "char" (clean) or do gardening work. It was a respectable thing to do. They were earning clean money to support their families.

These days people simply expect to receive handouts. There is a dearth of entrepreneurial spirit.

Meanwhile retirees who cannot manage the scrubbing and cleaning, mums and dads too busy working to pay taxes, pay above minimum wage to have East European women clean their homes and East European men to do gardens.

In short taxpayers are paying twice:  for (1) one group of people who do nothing and (2) another group to do the same work that group (1) would have done had there not been welfare handouts.

When the welfare system was first introduced in Britain after the war it had the laudable objective of helping those who were most in need: widows and orphans, those maimed in the war. People avoided getting any public help until it was impossible to put food on the table for their children. People had so much pride.

These days children learn in their citizenship classes (I kid you not) that the welfare state would look after them.

We have a friend whose daughter is disabled. He cannot get her to do her homework. Her view is that it does not matter whether or not she studies. Because the government would look after her, give her a house, and pay her for doing nothing.

Inevitably people come to the conclusion: why work at all?

Young girls vie with one another on how soon they could have a baby so that "social" would give them their own flat and they could stop going to school. I actually know young girls who would have more babies in order to get a larger flat.

One claims to suffer from bad backache and was unable to work. (She keeps a taxi running on the meter while she shops, the taxpayer picks up the bill.) "But the backache disappears when I'm pregnant". (Tell that to a woman who's ever been pregnant.)

She was chuffed when allotted a larger property. A few weeks later she had chucked the boyfriend out.

In Britain now there are families where members have been on benefits for two or even three generations. Single mothers beget children who beget children while still in their teens. Women become grandmothers by the time they are 28 and such-like.

Even my hardworking Chinese friends are saying, within a generation of living here, "Why bother to work 40 hours just to have some money to spend when you can do nothing and still get money to spend?"

You cannot legislate against creeping laziness.

Mission creep

A woman told me her husband had not been in work for more than five years because he cannot cope with employers who have rules.

What sort of rules, I asked.

You know, like being on time.

[And actually being productive? I said to myself.]

This woman came to see me to have her benefits transferred from her husband's name to hers. The taxpayers pay her some £250 a week for Housing Benefits, and she was concerned that she had no money to organize a halloween party and then a birthday party for her daughters.

A woman who is a German national shouted and ranted about the civil servants not giving her her money. She suffered so much she had to pawn her gold jewellery to get £500 to feed her five children.

This woman is given £1500 a month for Housing Benefits. She's not even British but gained EU status as a refugee from the sub-continent. She has a second husband with whom she has children. Her husband had come from India to join her and was trying to get benefits as well.

I was really cross with her as she had already been given an appointment to see our adviser but had come to clog up the system demanding that I rang around to find out where her benefits were. She had also been hassling the various govt depts to no avail.

This woman worked 16 hours a day. She spent her free time ranting and raving at govt servants and CAB volunteers. Why does she not increase her hours of work to increase her income to support her family now that her husband was in the country to care for their children?

Because she knew that if she worked more than 16 hours she would lose a lot of her benefits (losing out on her Working Tax Credits).

She and/or her husband could also either return to Germany or India. But would she/they?

A woman from a North African country was in receipt of benefits and found herself in debt. She demanded that I rang Belfast (benefits office) and other agencies to ascertain why she was not getting her money.

I looked at her letters and said, "Here, this is the number to call."

She steadfastly refused, "You have to call. I don't understand what they say."

"You seem to understand perfectly well what we are talking about here."

"No, those people they speak with an Irish accent, I cannot understand them. You have to call them."

I was trained not to discriminate on racist grounds. What do you do when a client is racist in this manner?

She also disclosed that she is a member of a private gym charging some £50 a month.

So, "not got money enough" for gas and electricity, requiring help from the taxpayer, but "got money enough" to join a private gym. After 20 years in the country she had no intention of learning the language well enough to get real work.

Young man threatened suicide if I didn't let him see an adviser straightaway.

He was on incapacity benefit that was being phased out. Recipients have to undergo medicals to show they are indeed unfit and unable to work to receive the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which is now time-limited. He failed this medical (meaning he was shown to be fit to work).

This man was loud and rude, telling me that even talking to me was stressful to him. He just wanted money to feed himself and his dog. His sister was with him. She said she tried to help him where possible but she has her own children to feed. She is dependent on welfare as well.

I made the appointment for this man, briefing him on the documents he needed to bring so that we could help him.

"I'd be dead by then!" he shouted, and stormed out of my office. [My husband has very strong opinions about such people.]

Young man with "depression" problems wanted help to fill in forms to appeal a failed ESA application. When I looked at his claim it says he could not go out of the house by himself or cope with being with strangers. His claim of depression was not substantiated by any doctors. Neither was he on any medication.

Yet he was at the bureau by himself and waited in a crowded waiting room full of strangers for hours so that someone, he hoped, could help him claim that he was really too ill to work because he is not able to step out of his house.

My personal, possibly erroneous, assessment was that this man (who came into country as a refugee) needed to brush up on his English. But he cannot be bothered to learn English. Or someone told him that he should try to claim a disability instead.

For these claimants, the welfare system is not the safety net it was meant to be. It is a lifestyle choice.

Why work when you can get benefits indefinitely? When the Housing Benefits, Council Tax Benefits, Child Tax Credits/Working Tax Credits, etc are all taken into account, some claimants are getting (are you ready?) more than £15 an hour. And that is FOR NOT WORKING. There is no way that they would be paid anything close to this in the real world, given their lack of work ethic, punctuality, skills and literacy.

Of course I do not see/know everything about the welfare system. The type of cases I come across are repeated in the 394 Citizens Advice Bureaux across Britain. I am barely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A Covenant?

As I said at the start, if I could come up with an ideal/perfect welfare system I would be feted by national leaders.

One cannot legislate against laziness or greed. There will be mission creep. How do you cope with the question of immigrants' rights to benefits?

The Israelite nation of the Old Testament were reminded of the covenant that God had made with them. Parents are to keep teaching their children how they were slaves in Egypt, how they were delivered from Egypt and how they were brought into the land "flowing with milk and honey".

They were also told that if they were to break their convenant and worshipped another God, calamity would befall them.

Part of my church building was sold off many years ago. Written into the title deeds are a covenant that anyone who runs the shop (which it has become) must not trade on Sundays.

It is now an estate agent's office. Some years ago the owner wanted to sell it to a cafe owner, and with it the application to trade on Sundays. The matter was brought up to members at the church business meeting. The proposition to allow Sunday trading was unanimously rejected.

Change of ownership is fine. Change of use is fine. But Sunday trading is not OK. It is written into the covenant. It would cost a long court battle to break that convenant, if ever.

But covenants only work if there is a shared vision, a set of shared values. Twenty years down the road the church members may not be so irked by Sunday trading because they have grown up with Sunday trading unlike the current generation of church members. Then, maybe, the church would allow the covenant to be broken.

When the UK welfare system was mooted, there was a shared value system. Most of the population were church-goers. They may not be very staunch Christians, but they upheld the teachings of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, etc.

It was unspoken but there was this "social glue", a "British" value of looking after oneself, and where one is able, to look after one's neighbour as well. Marriage was the norm. Having children within wedlock was the norm.

In the aftermath of a Pakistan-born member of the Lords blowing the whistle it has become known that thousands of Muslim men have multiple "wives", each claiming benefits as a "single mother" while the husband keeps on fathering more children. Entitlement without responsibilities.

Non-Muslim men are just as culpable. Why work when you can enjoy sexual favours from multiple wives/partners and produce many children who are all given all kinds of child benefits?

Worse still is the spectre that the welfare state skews the law of natural selection (if you believe in such a thing). The feckless procreate whilst the able and conscientious, mindful of mounting bills, increased taxes and responsibilities, choose to have fewer children.

The result is the "survival of the unfittest".

The social glue, British (to a great extent Christain) values, have eroded as Britain became a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, in a political Europe that has made its border porous.

Would a convenant -- a constant reiteration of how the welfare system is meant to be a safety net, not a lifestyle choice, not a gravy train to multiple conjugal relationships -- prevent mission creep?

I have my doubts.

One thing I am sure: if the bogus, lazy, feckless and undeserving claimants can be removed from the system, those who are really in need through no fault of their own, or those who have tried despite disadvantages, will be far better off. But how do we design such a system?

How welfare culture evolves (3)
How welfare culture evolves (2)
How welfare culture evolves

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How welfare culture evolves (3)

Let's talk "Underbelly"

On mornings before I set out for my stint at the local Citizens Advice Bureau my son often tells me, "Hope you don't get too many benefits cases." Sometimes we even pray at breakfast that I don't get any benefits cases.

He knows how I detest having to deal with benefits clients who say, "I'm entitled to this. Do this for me. NOW."

Yet a month ago I was incensed that a client has had his benefits stopped. This man is a refugee from an African country. He has four young children. He was on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or unemployment benefit, and therefore housing benefits, and with that, Council Tax benefit.

(Failure to pay Council Tax could land you in court and a hefty fine. Council Tax debt is classified as "priority debt".)

This man, who took care to dress smartly and spoke most politely, decided that he needed to improve his English and signed up for a college course (ESOL Intensive) and did so well that he passed his exams before the end of his course.

This course required him to attend 15 hours of classes a week. Somehow a civil servant at Job Centre Plus decided that 15 was the same as 16 hours (how???). They pressurized him to sign a piece of paper which says he was at college for 16 hours a week.

As a result he was deemed, technically, "unavailable for work". Therefore his JSA was stopped, leading to his Housing Benefits (which pays his rent) and Council Tax benefit being stopped.

With that he would soon get a demand from the council for unpaid Council Tax. Unpaid Council Tax of £200 (say), would become £350 as soon as they pass this on to debt collectors. If still unpaid this man will be taken to a court and another £100 will be added to the debt. You get the picture.

More urgently his landlord was threatening eviction because he has rent arrears.

A man tries to improve his language skills to improve his chances of finding employment and he is penalized. Now it is going to take at least 50-100 civil servant hours, I imagine, to set it right.

Who really benefits from this?

The civil servants, paid by British taxpayers, who are making sure that they still have jobs to go to. Yes, the blundering civil servant would still keep his/her job. The trade unions have made it impossible to sack any one for poor work performance in the civil service.

This is what I mean by the great "underbelly" of the welfare state, civil servants whose strong trade unions are always asking for more money and threatening to go on strike. More on this later.

Back at the ranch (in a manner of speaking, we don't actually live on a ranch), my husband tells me he was in a similar situation many, many years ago and took the relevant government department to the tribunal, and won. They then awarded him a fat cheque for arrears in his benefits.

Husband's defence (and he represented himself): If they could find him a job/apprenticeship in accountancy he would leave the (accountancy) course he was studying to take up the post. As they could not, he was going to improve his chances of becoming an accountant instead of sitting at home to watch TV. (He later had a successful career in finance.)

In other words it was OK for someone to receive JSA and vegetate at home. As soon as they try to improve their employment chances, especially if this took up more than 16 hours a week, they get penalized.

Clever system, innit?

In my husband's case, the benefits he received while studying helped this (once) young man into a job which has made him a net contributor to society. He now pays (too much) tax to support quite a few civil servants.


Back to this great "underbelly" .... When you have a welfare system such as this, you have, at the least:

(A) people on benefits (for reasons beyond their control)
(B) another lot who wants more benefits but who cannot get them (eg wanting more benefits by claiming to be ill, thus excusing them from the hassle of "signing on" every two weeks if on basic unemployment benefits)
(C) one lot in govt offices making sure lot A gets paid
(D) another lot in govt offices making sure that lot B does not get paid more than what they are already getting
(E) the lot in the "helping industry" fighting on behalf of lot B against lot D
(F) yet another lot in govt constantly asking for bits of proof for lack of income (???) or ill-health, just so to ascertain whether those of lots A and B should return/repay benefits already paid out to them.

If lots C, D, E and F all go on strike together tomorrow, what impact would there be on the taxpayer and the economy?

How do lots C to F and their unions add value to my life as a "tax slave"?

In what ways would a country get economically richer, or become spiritually and morally uplifted, by feeding the groups of people D to F?

As we say in Mandarin, the answer is precisely "ji dan" (="egg" => zero).

How welfare culture evolves (2)
How welfare culture evolves