I am lucky. When my life fell apart I had enough inherited cash that I did not have to seek social housing. I can earn some money, even though I’ve been ill, and thanks to self-employment have been able to stay out of sickness related benefits. I do get some help from the government – you can get support alongside quite decent incomes, if you have children. But on the whole, I’m not as dependent on the system as many people are, and that’s pure, blind luck.
It was sheer luck that the bad choices in my history did not leave me in a mental health hospital, or out on the streets. It was pure chance that set me up in life with a decent genetic intelligence and some good teachers. Not everyone gets that. I’ve been able to roll with changes and challenges, survive setbacks and find ways round problems because I am fortunate enough to be passably bright and pretty well educated. Not everyone gets those breaks.
It’s all too easy to look at the successes in our lives, and put those down to how good we are. We deserve our winnings, our paychecks, our comfy homes, good health. Of course we want to believe that because it gives us an illusion of control. If we made it and earned it, then we ought to be able to keep it. This is just an illusion. Bad luck, an accident, a folding company, ill health, a run on your bank, a tree root undermining your house. The lucky amongst us are seldom more than a couple of missing payments away from total disaster. Should that happen, much depends on how lucky we are in our friends and family, and how much support we get.
Blaming those who get into trouble is a way of reassuring ourselves that it won’t happen to us. We’re too smart. We work too hard. We’re too together to have a mental health problem. We jog, so we aren’t going to get sick. No matter how hard you try, one mistake with a car can take all of that way from you in a space of minutes. We want the people at the bottom to be lazy scroungers, so that we don’t have to be afraid of that happening to us. Well, we should be afraid, and we should see our illusions of security for what they really are. Bad luck strikes randomly, and does not pay much attention to how clever, hard working or health conscious you are. There’s only so much you can ward off by doing the right things, and only so far a clever mind will carry you. I’ve seen it happen to plenty of people. There are lots of folk on narrowboats who got here because they were too smart to entirely go under. Businesses ruined by supermarkets. Lives ruined by violence and abuse. People plagued by ill health, or who lost everything in a messy divorce. But people who had enough left and enough imagination to take up boating, and survive. Not everyone has the inner strength to keep getting up when they’ve been knocked down more times than they can count.
Some of what pushes people to the bottom of the pile is not pure bad luck. It’s deliberate abuse by others. Unlucky to get a dose of that, but not wholly accidental. Robbed, raped, beaten, bullied, intimidated, forced out, mistreated, conned… there but for the grace of… go any of us. These things destroy mental health, destroy financial success, demolish lives. If we’ve avoided one of those disasters, it may not be because we’re too smart, it may just be we were lucky. Sometimes people fall because they are ignorant, or naïve, or gullible, or too willing to forgive, or not mean enough to take advantage of others. Are these things we really think others should be punished for?
If we recognise that luck, it’s a lot easier to stop assuming the poor are at the bottom of the heap because they can’t be bothered to arrange anything better. It’s easier to find some compassion, and not to judge everyone without knowing any of their details. As the job market dwindles, more and more people are pushed, wholly against their will, into poverty and dependence. People who want to work if they could, who would gladly take on anything. Why burden them further by stigmatising them for things beyond their control? So that we can hang on to the belief that we deserve what we have and it won’t be taken away. And because it suits the government as they take yet more money out of the welfare system.
When it is taken away, when you find life spiralling out of control, and you desperately need help and someone to pick up the pieces, there’s much to be said for finding yourself in a kind and compassionate system. Because the alternative is to believe that you deserved the fall as well, that it represents a failure to work hard enough or be good enough. You are a failure, then. Or the alternative is no safety net, and destitution, and no second chances.
Picture yourself (if you’ve not been here) suddenly out of a job, and unable to pay the bills, with the mortgage company threatening to take the house, and your relationship falling apart under the strain, and the anxiety making you feel so sick you can’t get out of bed in the morning, and crying for no reason sometimes and wanting to die. Picture yourself there, and then ask how helpful you’d find it to have the government treating you like a lazy scrounger who is destroying the economy.
We’re long overdue a culture shift on this one.