Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Luxuries, Necessities and the Right to Make Mistakes

My good friend Hazel Parson sent me the link to this article with the comment 'I should not read the comments. I should not read the comments'. Consider that your warning - it's the usual pre-election round of beneficiary bashing in there, and I'm honestly not sure if some of them are satire or not. So you don't have to go there, a number of them (some from people claiming to know the woman in question) are critiquing every aspect of her spending; the alcohol she may or may not have in her house, that she drinks coffee in cafes, she owns some electronic something and hey, whaddayknow, let's throw in some fatphobia - she certainly doesn't look like she goes without food.

The temptation is to respond with examples of people who do everything right, who trim everything possible from their budget and still can't make ends meet. Those stories need to be heard. But there are some other responses that sometimes get lost.

Sometimes luxuries are necessities
I know I link to 'Mental Health At Every Size: Yes, Your Brain Counts Too' every opportunity I get, but it's one of my favourite ever blog posts, and I think you can extrapolate from it a lot. In short, sometimes things which don't appear to be necessities are essential for people's well-being. That money you spent on Chinese was a lot - why didn't you cook and save the money sounds reasonable. Except the kids have been sick all week and the supermarket's a ten minute walk and twenty minute bus ride away and you'll have to take them with you and then cook when you get home, and they've been hungry all this time. And no, you couldn't stock up on necessities because you never have that much money in your budget to buy more than you need for that week. That weekly night out with your mates? That's when you get to talk things through with them, stops you being so lonely, helps you work through some important decisions. Some examples are smaller. Sometimes it's just the thought of a small luxury that gets you through the day.

Luxuries are okay
Really, we're past the point where we should be expecting people to live at subsistence level. We're not talking private jets here - we're talking the odd trip to a cafe or a movie or a television. These are part of any reasonable lifestyle, and not something to be ashamed of - and it's time people found something else to shame people for than being unemployed or having children. 

People should be allowed to make mistakes
I make mistakes with money. I have the benefit of a university education and a good head for figures and have had some financial literacy education, and I still make mistakes. So does everyone else I know. Every organisation I've worked for, as far as I know, has had some kind of allocation, formal or informal, in the budget to cover mistakes and wastage. But I'm not expected to starve because of them.
So why the hell should we expect low income earners - who are often the best budgeters and the least likely to make mistakes anyway - to control their finances perfectly? A reasonable margin for error - or even less than perfect decisions - belongs in any budget, just as much as rent or power, and I think it's time to state that.

I absolutely understand why people argue these points in the way they do. It needs to be made abundantly clear that for many people on low incomes, even doing every single thing right just isn't enough. But there also need to be some terms for the discussion not set down by the beneficiary bashers, and one of them has to be that just having enough to cover absolute necessities if you do everything right isn't a reasonable way to live either.


LudditeJourno said...

Beautiful post Anthea. There is something going on here for me around compassion being the bedrock of any healthy society, community, family, relationship. And having compassion for people who are currently receiving state support - rather than judgment - just takes us to a very different place in terms of all the things you name here. Thank you.

Hazel Parson said...

I approve of this post.

Which sounds facetious, but there you go. I can't add much without getting enraged. I think surviving on a benefit prima facie proves that the recipient is excellent with money and living sparsely anyway; expecting people to give up everything they enjoy because they're unemployed or a single parent or sick or disabled or old is inhumane.

[I did have another paragraph here but it was incredibly bitter and only tangential to your excellent post.]

MozIsFlummoxed said...

This actually applies to anyone trying to live on a budget. If you read just about any sensible budget advice they say "allow a little bit for luxuries and impulse purchases". Obviously this is even more so for someone on a benefit.

But of course some people prefer not to see beneficiaries as human, and like to punish them, so this is just another angle.

One thing I've always admired is the way benefits are explicitly set below the poverty line and you can't get a benefit if you have much in your bank account, but people still bash people on benefits for not having enough money set aside for contingencies like needing a new fridge or car...

AnneE said...

Great post and excellent comments. Benefits were originally intended to be set at a level that would enable people on them to live at the same level ordinary people take for granted. The whole point was not to exclude them. Banefits were meant to prevent poverty (the way the pension still does, pretty much), not guarantee it. But that was 40 years ago...

Hugh said...

Anne: More like 70 years ago, surely?

Victorina said...

Brilliant post, and I've 'shared' it on Facebook. It's so good to see someone standing up for the right of people to try to have a life, no matter how much society and nasty people don't want them to.