Tuesday, 17 January 2012

It's not always black and white

My first client today at the CAB was a foreign born woman asking whether there is a chance that she might qualify for some benefits.

She has three children. Her husband works 40+ hours on minimum wage while she works part-time. (She also volunteers at her son's school.) Together they manage to cobble together just enough money to rent a three-bedroom property, but there is very little left after paying rent.

Hmm, another scrounging family?

I withheld judgement and continued to do all that I was supposed to do to find out which is the best way out for her.

She is half an hour short of qualifying for Working Tax Credit but could certainly get some help with Child Tax Credit. As her husband is on very low income, he might also qualify for Working Tax Credit.

Probing further I learned that this family has, to date, not received a single penny of benefit.

Not even Child Benefit which is supposed to be a universal benefit. Either because their immigration status made them ineligible or that it was far too difficult, they had not bothered to claim.

Then there is Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. If they manage to get this sorted, or even any of these options sorted, it would make a huge difference to their lives.

Then I learned that their 19-year-old has been offered a place to study Medicine at Kings College London.

Now, THAT is quite some achievement. Despite being so poor her daughter was able to capitalize on the state school system, almost universally villified by commentators in this country.

She must be a very bright young thing. During this "gap year" she decided to give tuition to earn some money. The father of the girl she was tutoring thought so highly of her that he offered her a job.

Any parent would warm to a story like this.

And I felt no resentment at all in advising her on how to claim these benefits. It was great to see that despite all the disadvantages her daughter now stands a very good chance of lifting them out of poverty. Her skills as a doctor would also benefit the British public.

The next client was an older woman who kept on and on about how "I was not able to get MY money" -- because she was a bit confused about bank holidays, etc -- and failed to pay her council tax leading to the council cancelling her agreement and demanding for the whole sum to be paid or the matter will be passed on to bailiffs.

This old woman was really frightened, "I'm afraid I would lose my house."

[It is a council house, not hers.]

She also managed to raise two useless sons who were not able to help her very much in disharging her debts -- council rent arrears, council tax arrears, bank overdrafts, etc. [She is paying £400 for a three-bedroom council property, while the first client is paying £1400 for a privately-rented property of the same size.]

This woman is nearly 70. Her sons are not youngsters who she says live with her, and yet she is not getting any help from them. (She did say the one who's on the dole does give her some money.)

The most difficult bit was trying to get her to understand that in order for us to help her sort out her debts she has to provide us with the information we need. [We need to get her to do her budgeting statement and then talk to all her creditors to negotiate a loan repayment on her behalf.]

Every time I tried asking if she was able to gather all the information to tell us exactly how much she owed she interrupted, "I've already done that! I was given some forms which I filled in and sent them off to Lloyds. Now they want me to fill them out again," getting quite agitated.

Keep calm, keep calm, I told myself. Take a deep breath.

After further questioning I figured that the bank had passed her case on to a debt collector who in turn wanted to help by asking her to fill in a form (probably a budgeting statement). Her refusal to "do it all over again" made it impossible for anyone -- even the debt collector -- to help her.

I  could not actually help her, bar calming her down and making her see that she must help herself by providing the information required.

After carefully explaining to her what I thought the bank had done, and what the debt collector was trying to do I asked, "Are you willing to do this?"

She agreed, at long last. This interview could have been shortened by 10 minutes if she would only let me finish asking the questions, really.

In ten years one immigrant family was able to nurture a hardworking disadvantaged young woman into a potentially net giver to society.

But the indigenous family, given all the benefits and privileges (my house, my money) they have enjoyed for years, only managed to produce children who either cannot or do not help an aged, widowed parent.

People in this country often assume that the immigrants -- anyone of colour -- are the ones who scrounge. The white indigenous people are the angels.

This afternoon I had the perfect example, side by side, "ebony and ivory", to show this is not always the case.

I am not saying that all immigration is a net benefit. I still have to think about that one. (UK did gain me, that is true.)

Rather it is the "failure to thrive" by some groups of people despite everything provided for them by the welfare state that I worry about.

Compare with this news: Homeless teenager competes in national science competition

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