My year of housing benefit shame

Right now, I am in the bath, messing about on the netbook, which is resting on a pile of books on the bathroom bin. The book at the bottom is The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I think that is symbolic. I haven’t actually read The Wealth of Nations – it’s my partner’s book – but hey, it’s symbolic anyhow. Because I’m thinking about money and the men who decide where it goes.*

I am so fucking annoyed about the Tory plan to cut housing benefit for the under 25s I don’t know where to begin. Indeed, my head might explode with sheer annoyance at it all. And that would be a bad thing, because mine is the head of a taxpayer. And I won’t be paying much tax if I don’t have a head.

Anyhow, I will start with a true story, a story of better times. In 1995 I was under 25 and claiming housing benefit (I would die of shame, but again, that would stop me paying my taxes now). I was living in a YWCA – which is, of course, the female version of the YMCA. It was as you’d expect. I could get myself clean, I could get a good meal, I could do whatever I, um, “feeled”. And I did it all, courtesy of the taxpayer, which back then wasn’t me.

So how did I end up in such a situation? After all, I was the girl who, two years earlier, had appeared in her local newspaper under the headline “Heading for Oxbridge” (above a picture of my head. I have never been quite sure whether this was a pun, given that I have such a massive head). In essence, I’d just fucked up massively. I had an extreme relapse into anorexia, dropped out of university, checked into a psychiatric hospital, decided I couldn’t stand it, then walked out. After a week of sleeping on floors, I was “given” a place to stay. I don’t know the exact workings of this. Someone did it all for me. Most of the time I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

You may wonder where, in all this time, my parents were. They were, of course, at home. But it was their home, not mine, and it was a long way away. And if I’d gone back there, I wouldn’t have got better. It wasn’t just that I’d waited a long time to gain access to the treatment available in Oxford and that, post force-feeding, I mistrusted the hospitals up north. I just wouldn’t have got better living with my parents. That’s not a criticism of them; it’s just the truth. I was an adult, and I needed to find a way of functioning in the adult world.

That year was very hard. I got to watch a lot of Trisha (there was no such thing as Jeremy Kyle!), but I struggled for money, far more so than I do now, and I struggled to make my days meaningful. When I wasn’t in day-patient care, I worked voluntarily in Oxfam. It gave me a little self-respect, but also a lifelong hatred of World music and of useless terracotta mobiles that are way too heavy to hang. I didn’t really think about whether or not the money I did have was truly “mine”. I’d been used to being around students, some of them Bullingdon-club rich; they didn’t ask any questions, neither did I.

Anyhow, I got better, and then I became respectable, and now I even own a house (insofar as anyone can say that owing a frightening amount to a bank due to being a first-time buyer in early 2008 is truly “owning”). I don’t honestly know if I’d have been able to do any of that if I’d been forced back to my parents in 1995 or, worse still, if I’d never been able to leave. Sometimes I think if I’d stayed there, providing I hadn’t died, I’d still be there now (only my parents have now moved to Cheshire. The jury’s still out on whether this is an actual improvement).

To tell the truth, I am not really ashamed of claiming housing benefit in 1995. I actually believe scuttling off to my childhood bedroom and saving the taxpayers money would, in the long run, have been a less responsible thing for me to do. That’s not to say that adults who live with their parents are less responsible or less “adult”. Just that I would have been, because of who my parents are and because of who I am. And I don’t really understand a society which doesn’t want its individuals to function and flourish as effectively as they can, a thing which depends on where they live, whom they live with and the opportunities that surround them. And of course whether or not they’re treated as adults or as children.

The move to deny housing benefits to the under 25s, and the suggestion that they should live with their parents (regardless of who their parents are), seems to me a downgrading of them as adults. An admission that we have nothing to offer them so we’ll get them to put their lives on hold instead. Yet if a person in employment has to save for years before being able to afford somewhere to live, surely the problem lies not with others who have their accommodation paid for. It’s with how much accommodation is costing. If a person can work, wages should surely cover a place to live. It seems so bizarre to me to suggest that it naturally shouldn’t. And besides, even if you accepted that you’d need to live with your parents in order to save, how would you actually do it?

The “living at home” idea is so fanciful, and so London-centric, and so out of tune with what’s required to even get a job. You need work experience in your chosen area. You need flexibility, and to be able to move. None of this is possible if your parents live in the back of beyond (unless we’re presuming that the children of the poor no longer have “chosen areas”, regardless of their skills and potential. Perhaps it is only a misguided “sense of entitlement” which currently allows them to have such ideas above their station).

Anyhow, I often look back, and I think housing benefit, amongst other things, might have saved my life. It gave me the opportunity to get support and to grow as a person. All of this might sound a bit fanciful, and a bit wussy for these times of austerity. But hey, it’s important to allow people to grow. Many of us will actually grow into fully functioning taxpayers.

* I know, what a waste – there’s all sorts you could do in the bath with a less weighty tome – but I’ve still not recovered from the Fifty Shades disappointment.