Maternity Allowance: A Benefit from Another Time

I’ve recently left work at the Citizens Advice Bureau to take maternity leave. My work is primarily in benefits advice and I am a huge benefits geek. It’s a combination of the intellectual exercise of manipulating regulations along with the pleasing sense of mastery over a system that appears all powerful and capricious when you are on the other end of it. I love it.

One interesting thing about the benefit system is that every government since its inception has tinkered with it to some degree and marked it with its own ideology, so that the regulations resemble rock strata, each layer reflecting the social narrative of its time; the prevalent views about unemployment, the social contract and the minimum standards of dignity which citizens should be afforded.
The majority of benefits claimants I come across at work are dealing with the most modern form of the system, the means tested benefits. Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (the recent replacement for Incapacity Benefit) Housing Benefit and so on.
The internal logic of these benefits is brutal. Apart from being set at (no exaggeration) starvation level, they tend to be subject to draconian and vicious entitlement conditions. So if you are claiming on the basis of illness, you had better be so ill you can hardly function. If you are claiming on the basis of unemployment, you will be made to show exactly what you have been doing to look for work.
The level of interrogation set against the amount of help, is in itself, a humiliation and speaks volumes about the attitudes of those who set the system up.
You work with this system everyday and you get inured to it. You learn its internal logic to better help others and, god help you, you internalise parts of it yourself. You start thinking that perhaps someone with agoraphobia should be expected to do a bit of piece work from home. You start believing that even with back pain; perhaps you should struggle in to work. Everyone seems to have back pain and depression these days after all and people should just toughen up.
I get thoughts like that creeping into my head occasionally and then I get the flu and experience perhaps one tiny fraction of what someone with a chronic condition goes through every day and I call in sick with no problems at all, because I am not on benefits and the brutal logic of the system does not apply to me.
I try to hang onto this thought and use these occasions to remind myself that the logic of the system is wrong, wrong, wrong. People deserve dignity and comfort and some decent standard of living and no one should be pressured to work if they are not able to do so.
Going on maternity leave was like that writ large. I’m lucky enough to have built up enough National Insurance Contributions to receive Maternity Allowance. Remember the rock strata? Maternity Allowance is laid down in ancient times, representing a different version of the social contract altogether. An older version of the welfare state where everyone pays in and everyone draws out. When circumstances require them to, without shame and with no conditions attached, other than the condition of having paid the contributions in the first place.
(I’m not sure when Maternity Allowance was introduced, but as a contributions based benefit the legal principles governing it can be traced to the National Insurance Act 1911 and to the National Insurance Act 1946, following the Beveridge Report.)
I went off for maternity leave a little earlier than originally planned. I had been wildly over optimistic about the amount of time I would be able to keep going and found myself at 36 weeks, emotionally volatile, knackered and, in all fairness, not a great deal of use to my employer.
I turned up at the midwifes all red faced and puffy eyed because negotiating with (my own) housing association about a water tank had somehow led to a crying jag two hours long. I was firmly advised to stop work. This turned out to be excellent advice and I am now much better, thank you for asking. If you don’t want to be stressed, stop going to where the stress comes from. Works a treat.
The point is though, that even though my symptoms felt impossible for me and even though a health professional advised me to leave work, by modern benefits standards they were nothing. Take pregnancy out of the equation and what are you left with? Anxiety and Fatigue. Trust me that is not getting you anywhere at an Employment and Support Allowance tribunal. And a tribunal is where you will end up because really, no one is being awarded Employment and Support Allowance first time these days.
And yet I walked into work, stated that I was leaving early and met with no resistance. I filled out a form, sent it back and received £138 per week with some delay but no major difficulty. My need not to be at work was not questioned for an instant.
My point is that you still come across these bits of the welfare state sometimes. The bits that remain in the lower strata. The bits that are humanitarian and still work. You come these bits and you realise how low our expectations have become and how much has been lost.

Thoughts on Etsy’s “Hobo Wedding”

It seems like this couple:

http://www.etsy.com/blog/en/2011/handmade-weddings-depression-era-hobo/

managed to get the internet up in arms after over their cultural appropriation of depression era poverty as their wedding theme.

This reminds me of something that happened when I was planning my own wedding.

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Kenwood House: Dream Venue

Hampstead Heath is a beautiful big park in London, which I just adore. At the top of the park is Kenwood House, an old manor house which is now run as museum and restaurant.

Kenwood House is licensed to perform marriages and I loved the idea of having my wedding there. I could picture myself coming out of this big white building, family and friends around me and looking out over rolling parkland at all the families picnicking and the kids running around. I just thought it would be perfect.

Hiring a manor house does not come cheap but I was encouraged to see that they also do a reception package in the kitchen, which is a good sized room, and can be decorated in something called “shabby chic”: which seems to involve a lot of meadowy flowers in mismatched vintage milk jugs and oldie worldie style table cloths and doiles and so on.

I checked the prices on the kitchen wedding and predictably it was still way out of our budget so I put the idea aside, set myself down to organise something more realistic and thought no more about it.
No more that is, until my Mum mentioned that she’d seen the package advertised with the slogan “Have your wedding below stairs.”  She was genuinely freaked out and literally couldn’t imagine why anyone would find the idea attractive. Her exact words were: “My whole life is about trying to get away from life “below stairs!” I never want to go back.”
I should point out here that my Mum is from the post war baby boomer generation and benefited from the social mobility of that period. She has never worked as a servant and, given the times she grew up in, it would have been deeply surprising thing if she had. 

Her own mother however (my grandmother), was “in service” from the age of 12 and clearly, the experience has cast a long enough shadow that the idea of celebrating anything “below stairs” still carries with it a sense of horror and shame. Even for the next generation. Even 70 years later. And yet this response had not, for a second occurred to me.

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In case you were wondering: here's how it turned out

What’s interesting to me here is the difference made by that one additional generation, that can transmute a grossly insensitive act of cultural appropriation into a perfectly acceptable wedding theme. An object of aspiration even. You really have to laugh at capitalism sometimes. They would have had me break the bank to buy a sanitised pastiche of my own family history.
Instead of which, we had a quaint registry office ceremony and pub reception, incorporating all the authentic customs of the 21st century white working class. It was just just so cute. I can’t wait to see a knock off version at 4 times the equivalent price in 70 years time.

Aside

London’s Burning – Riots, Class and Masculinity

A brief glance over the news in the past 24 hours and you would be forgiven for thinking this country feels more for property than human beings. “The worst rioting in decades as crowds of youths smashed windows, emptied shops of their goods and set properties on fire.” (Sky News)

Images of burning cars, shops and other buildings are splashed all across newspapers and news websites. Hardly a mention anywhere of the human element , aside from the obvious demonisation of young hooded ‘thugs’ looting shops and clashing with police.

“Rioting has spread across London with cars and buildings set alight on a third night of unrest, with trouble flaring in other English cities.” (BBC)

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Weegies, teuchters, neds and chavs: microaggressions and pejorative language in Scotland

You won’t read the slurs in this post again on the Village Aunties, unless it’s under very particular circumstances. The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the following clause in the Village Aunties guidelines page, Take Heed:

Village aunties challenge language and actions that reinforce oppression.

Use of language on this blog that reinforces sexism, heterosexism, racism, transphobia, and class oppression (to give but a few examples) will not be tolerated. Not taking heed will get commenters summarily banned according to the sole discretion of the village aunties.

This includes such terminology as “ned”, “chav”, “pikey”, “white trash” and other insults regarding people’s position in the class structure. It also includes “teuchter”, “weegie”, “Gaelic mafia” and other terms (including sectarian slurs) used to insult people according to where they belong in Scotland’s cultural landscape. Exceptions will be made only for individual village aunties who rightfully claim a label for themselves, and for the use of words from Scots or other languages in the context of that language, as long as they are used non-pejoratively. For instance, self-identified ned feminists are more than welcome; as are posts written in Scots that use the word “teuchter” in its original sense.

Many readers may be shocked, puzzled or annoyed to read the second paragraph. The white people among us (which includes me) know we can’t use “the ‘N’ word” or “the ‘P’ word”. Most of us understand why. There are a range of words in between these almost universally acknowledged slurs, and general insults like the lovely Kiwi insult “ya egg”, where the degree of taboo, offense or potential hurt or exclusion are debated.

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