I know it sounds bad, but he really didn’t look like a food parcel client. This is the case more often than not these days. A few years ago and nine times out of ten a food parcel client looked like a food parcel client. The unsteady walk, the charity shop clothes in desperate need of a laundering and the eyes red and vacant care of a noxious mix of methadone, cheap cider and street valium.
Not so this lad.
Jeans, T shirt and sunglasses. He had the look of a high flying Harvard English student who had been offered a professorship at an unusually early age. So, no. Not the usual food parcel client.
These days we have a form to fill in which teases out the reasons behind a person having no money to feed themselves in Dumfries 2013. In the month of May we handed out 255 parcels - about three times as many as a year ago. 30% of the time, the reason for these people coming through our doors was that they had been sanctioned from their benefits.
Never before has the word 'sanctioned' played so large in our daily vocabulary. I suppose the word does the job it is required to do. Try on these three sentences for size.
Sir, I must inform you that all of your benefits have been sanctioned for three months.
Sir, I am taking away all for your benefits for three months.
Sir, I am going to leave you completely penniless for three months as punishment for you turning up ten minutes late for your appointment.
Sanctioned kind of sounds the easiest option, doesn’t it?
So what heinous crime had the young Harvard professor lookalike committed to have been rendered penniless for a month of his life?
When he told his story, there was a reluctance. A wariness. He was pretty sure that I wouldn’t believe a word he said. This is hardly surprising. With every passing week, the ongoing media campaign to get us all to hate, loathe, distrust and despise the poor is having an ever deeper effect. It means that people who find themselves in poverty feel like lepers. Bad people. The shirkers. The ones everyone suspects as having 52 inch 3D TV’s and clockwork regular holidays in Benidorm. They do not expect to be believed.
I guess visitors to the sleepy Silesian town of
must have had a
similar experience when they told their stories back in the early 1940’s. There
was this terrible smell and trains running all hours of the day and all this
smoke pouring into the sky 24 hours a day from what looked like the middle of
the fields. Did anyone believe these far fetched tales? Nah. Did they hell. Oswiciem
by the way was the town’s Polish name: the name it bears today. Its German name
was Oswiciem Auschwitz.
In the end when you hear the same stories over and over and over, you get to believing the stories and discounting the nonsense spouted by junior ministers.
So. Back to my man.
He had his next appointment at the Job Centre on 16th May. But they decided to change it to the 10th May. They called him up and left him a voicemail message. You can probably guess the next bit. He never has any credit in his phone. So he couldn’t afford the call to pick up the voice message. They know this of course. Everyone else from Dentist Surgeries to the Tesco delivery service send out texts to give the person at the other end the best chance of picking up the required information. They never tend to leave voicemail messages because people tend to miss voicemail messages, whether they have credit or not.
It is hard not to conclude that the Job Centre were actually not overly keen for the required information to find its way to the recipient. No information means non attendance which means another sanction. Their target is three a week and people kind of know this by now. It means the staff at the Job Centre are having to find new and more creative means to catch people out. My man was the wrong side of a particularly cunning plan. Change the date. Inform via a voicemail message. Assume the punter has no credit. Bingo. Gotcha. One down, two to go.
So actually we do believe these tales of woe. And every month of a sanction means at least 8 food parcels will need to be filled and handed out.
I am pretty confident that none of the seventy odd people we have given food to who have been sanctioned in the last month are about to starve to death. The deal seems to be that it is down to the Voluntary Sector to make sure that nobody starves to death.
I recall a joke from the 1970’s which did the rounds for a while. The joke came in the form of a mock newspaper headline
application to join the Third World turned down’
It doesn’t seem so funny any more.