When does exclusion become discrimination?

In 2010 I suffered redundancy; and long-term unemployment is an on-going issue. Whilst I am technically unemployed, I am trying to carve out a new career for myself in the world of digital media.

Far from resting on my laurels, I have been fortunate enough to be able to spend some time travelling (in the vain hope things would improve), and since my return to the UK have been toiling away at finding a new job in a new career. Alongside the ‘dreaded job hunt’ I have been carving out a small, but consistent client base for whom I am consulting on their social media and event management requirements. Add to that a bi-monthly live music night and my work calendar is bulging healthily (unlike my bank balance). It is useful to mention to the reader, at this juncture, that the work I am undertaking is all pro bono – for now at least.

I understand that job market is it an all-time low, and that whilst it’s the perfect time for me to change career path, I have relatively little work experience in the field I wish to migrate to (approximately six months communications and website management experience at the end of my last role as a PA), and therefore working purely to portfolio and for free, is necessary. Although this is unsustainable in the long-term, for now, it serves my purpose (not to mention keeps me from climbing the walls in boredom!).

Whilst this post is essentially about the struggle for employment, I want to focus on one key area – the obstacles faced by the out-of-work-force in battling social and professional exclusion.  It’s certainly not the first time this has come to my attention, but recently it has become more relevant than ever.  I’m certainly not alone in my current predicament, and with over two and a half people unemployed in the UK, it’s hardly surprising we’re having to become more creative and giving of ourselves.

This is why it seems ludicrous to me, for certain bodies/companies not to offer discounts to benefit claimants, alongside the discounts given to students, retirees, and often, disabled.  I’m not suggesting this should be legislative or adopted by all, but those within the employment and training sector could really benefit those seeking new avenues into employment, and themselves, by including a discount for benefit claimants. With public funds being cut so severely, many back-to-work initiatives, such as travel assistance, have fallen by the wayside, and housing benefit levels have reduced, meaning many people have to also use part of their weekly living allowance to supplement their rent. This is no mean feat given the prescribed benefit entitlement for over job-seekers over 25 is £67.50 per week – there is precious little room for manoeuvre within such a tight budget.

There are various free networking events in my local area I am fortunate enough to be able to attend, but every now and then an event pops up I would immensely benefit from, but is out of my reach for financial reasons.  I’m not talking about great, expensive corporate affairs, but smaller, perhaps local events, that offer discounts to all but the unemployed. The fact the pricing is so fair to begin with is fantastic, of course, but when trying to carve out a new direction, learn new skills, and/or gain a great understanding of the field you’re in or wish to become part of, but are not considered, is a real blow. Especially when it’s so tantalisingly close, yet still out of reach – we’re talking a difference of tens of pounds, which to me, at this point in my life, is the difference between feeding myself vaguely healthily, or living off noodles (which I can’t eat due to the wheat content), for a week!

Am I splitting hairs? If I had a job that paid me any semblance of a wage, I’d say yes, I am, but the fact remains there are so many people unemployed who truly want to return to work, and improve their skills and understanding of different sectors, that are being blocked again and again by not being able to afford to do so. I don’t believe the onus is solely on the government; the private sector must also rally to improve the chances of those two and half million people, of which I am one. Of course I expect my social life to fall by the wayside whilst on benefits, I don’t expect anyone but myself to fund that, but to be denied opportunities into employment? Where’s the logic in that? The business world seems intent on polarising, or perhaps they simply haven’t thought about it. Either way, I can tell you from the 99%’s perspective, exclusion feels very much like discrimination.

I already feel socially excluded; I don’t want to be excluded from my career too. Like many others, am doing everything I can to improve my situation, sustain my life (in the most literal sense of the word) and continue towards my goal with as little damage to my CV as possible. I’d just like some encouragement, you know?

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Future changes to local housing benefit and housing allowance (UK)

I’ve just read up on the changes to LHA, and my findings are, frankly, more sickening than I originally thought. I’ve listed the main points of my ire below.

1 .Only 30 percent of properties will be affordable

From 1 April 2011, maximum local housing allowance rates in all areas will be reduced so that only three out of ten properties for rent in any area will be affordable for people claiming local housing allowance. Affordable properties may be concentrated in certain places, and some places may have none.

– this seems to be an incredibly low percentage of affordable rental properties. For some people this will force them into ‘undesireable’ and potentially dangerous areas of the UK.

2. Reduced LHA if you have non-dependents

If you share your home with any adults who are not dependent on you – for example, adult sons or daughters, parents, relatives or friends, your local housing allowance may be reduced – it is assumed that they should pay something towards your rent, whether they actually do so or not.

– this is a ludicrous assumption. The cost of living is already so steep, and many people, of varying ages, share accommodation, either because they want to reduce their outgoings, or simply cannot afford to live alone. To expect strangers, or even friends to pick up the shortfall of a housemate is both unfair and improbable. This could easily lead to more people being forced to move into yet cheaper accommodation, which we have already seen will be a mere 30% of the rental market.

3. Reductions in LHA if you are under-35

Currently, if you are under-25 years old and renting in the private sector, you are probably only entitled to enough benefit to cover the cost of renting a single room in a shared house, even if you occupy self-contained accommodation. If you are over-25, the maximum amount you can receive may also be restricted if you are living in shared accommodation.

From January 2012, these rules will apply to people aged up to 35 years. This will mean that, unless you are already in shared accommodation, you will see a cut to your LHA payment if you are aged under-35. You may no longer be able to afford your current property as a result. You may have to find shared accommodation, or a cheaper alternative.

– this is a gigantic leap – a full decade between the current and future single-occupancy age. If a person has been living alone for a number of years, the forced move into shared accommodation is going to be exceedingly stressful, not only because of the lack of available or suitable house-shares, but also the mental difficulty of such a life adjustment. There are also many people who live alone because they suffer mental illness; how are they expected to cope, when frontline services are also being cut, or having their already disturbingly low funding cut?

There are a few positive changes being made, such as the abolition of the excess HB payments that a few people currently received, and the increased payments to disabled people. However, these are small victories. The majority of people claiming HB, not forgetting those who have been made redundant due to the CSR and public sector cuts, are going to be backed into a very tight and expensive corner, all fighting for a poky room on the wrong side of the tracks. It seems it’s not only the police kettling protesters, but the government too. I assume the government believe private landlords will have no choice but to reduce their rents, but it could easily swing the other way, with landlords capitalising on people’s desperation, and thus adding to the problem.

In high-cost, low income areas such as Brighton and Hove, for instance, there is already a premium on rents, which HB does not currently cover (after I was made redundant from the local council, there was a shortfall of £20 between the HB I received and my portion of the rent on a two-bedroom shared flat). The other benefit I received, JSA, covered my essential bills alone, leaving no money even for food.
I simply cannot fathom how the government can justify these reductions, when it seems patently obvious that all they will achieve is an increase in homelessness, nationwide poverty, and ultimately, death.

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