Since I gave up my job five months ago and our family income reduced to one wage, we have been reliant on state benefits to supplement our wage. We qualify for these benefits in the main for the same reason I gave up my job – our 6 year old daughter Melon is autistic, and the chronic sleep deprivation, extra care needs and endless appointments that accompany her diagnosis made the situation of both parents working untenable. This is a common situation for families who have children with extra needs. Even though we were both nurses, Hubs was the highest earner, so my job was the one to go. This isn’t where I thought I’d be aged 36, with an honours degree from a good university and a Masters level nursing qualification, but life is what happens when you make plans.
I’m not proud of it, indeed, a lot of the time I’m deeply uncomfortable about the financial position we find ourselves in. Quite apart from pride – I’ve worked since I was 16, I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed the challenge and the professional responsibility, I enjoyed the contribution it made to my identity and life experiences – and dignity (how often do I cringe as I hear and read phrases such as “benefit scrounger”…”too lazy to work”?), there is also a disconcerting lack of financial control over reliance on benefits. An administrative error, a tweak to the qualifying criteria, a budget-driven snip to certain parts of the welfare bill, and suddenly our family income is reduced, without our voice or opinion being heard.
Well, usually that’s the case. This week though, in the UK, we have our parliamentary general election, where members of parliament, the prime minister and the governing party will be chosen by public ballot. It is our biggest chance to have our say on who we think should run the country, and how. Politics in the UK has traditionally been dominated by two major parties – Labour (left wing) and the Conservatives (right wing), with other smaller parties playing roles of little significance. That’s all changed over the last five years though, smaller parties, and parties local to regions of the UK such as Scotland and Wales have grown in support and influence. We have had a coalitiIon government between those unlikely bedfellows the Conservative and Liberal parties since the last election. The political map of the UK is more chequered than ever before, and there is a strong likelihood of no party winning a majority tomorrow, again forcing one or more parties to broker a deal to form a government.
Even though the political campaigning this time around has been lacklustre, with the Conservatives repeating their same lines about the economy and the need for prudence, and the Labour Party reiterating their belief in public spending and public services, for some reason I’ve been gripped by the proceedings. This isn’t my first or even second time voting in a general election, but it feels like the most important one.
In part, that’s becasue my new status as a benefit claimant puts me at the heart of many of the debates and pre election pledges. The economy is allegedly recovering, but more massive savings are needed to manage debt, and the savings have to come from somewhere. Politician’s promises to protect benefits and raise them in line with inflation reassure me, news stories about planned cuts and previously rejected cuts that may be put back on the debating table have me reaching for the calculator and our family budget plan with cold fear. I’m actually a very cautious person with money. I believe in paying off debt, living within your means and having a plan. Nevertheless, any altruistic thoughts I may have had about the savings that we need to make as a nation have been driven out by more personal, immediate priorities. Does that make me short sighted, selfish even? Maybe. The truth is I would love to be able to cast my vote tomorrow safe in the knowledge that our family could weather whatever financial fall out there may be, but I can’t. We can’t. So yes, I’m thinking selfishly with the priorities of me and mine at the heart of my decision.
It’s not just about our income, it’s about the education, health services and social services that have become so pivotal in our lives now and in Melon’s future life chances. Realistically, she is always going to need a level of support to help her function in the world. I cannot say with any certainty that she will be able to secure and retain a job that will pay her a living wage. I don’t doubt that she will find a place, a purpose and fulfillment in life, but whether those things will enable her to live with practical and financial independence? Only time will tell. So my vote tomorrow is also going to be a vote for Melon’s tomorrow. I know that a stronger economy is important to secure funding for services in the long term, I understand that debt has to be paid somehow, for the good of us all. Yet I cannot conscionably cast a vote which I believe would lead to sudden and significant cuts to our family income, and condemn the services that we rely on (and which Hubs is employed in) to years of drastic cutbacks in the name of prudence. There are other ways to save, there are other targets to aim at.
My name is Liz, I’m on benefits and I’m voting selfishly tomorrow.