There is a 1969 Ken Loach film called 'Kes' based on a novel called 'A Kestrel For A Knave'. I would heartily recommend watching it if you haven't seen it already. To be kind, I would recommend doing so on a day when you are feeling more or less at peace with the world and to keep some jolly music on hand to play afterward, as it is a tear jerker, a brutal piece which is designed to leave one angrily pondering the unfairness of life.
It focusses on the life of a 15 year old boy called Billy Casper. Billy is a real little turd, a smoking, swearing, fighting, lying, stealing, shiftless little no-hoper, hardly a sympathetic character and more like one who constantly works against himself. One day he steals a kestrel and subsequently rears and trains it, finding depths of responsibility and patience within himself, a talent, a purpose. His is a small story, the heaven-sent bolt of inspiration and it looks as if this might be a redemption tale, but at the end... not so much. The audience is left unsure whether all hopes have been dashed for good. Probably.
Billy, back in the 60s, lives in a bleak and grotesque town. His home life is atrocious, violent and unsupportive and he has no example to make him behave or want to behave better. School is uninspiring, just a hard knocks holding pen for lads on their way to a life spent down the pit and no-one can see anything better for him than this. This is so despite the supposed backdrop of economic prosperity and increased possibilities for social mobility enjoyed in that era; the zeitgeist hasn't reached Billy's neck of the woods.
Fast forward 40 years and you know that there are still Billies everywhere, real ones with real problems, each as unappealing and hopeless as the last. The grim prospect of a job down the pit looks almost cute when one considers that he would at least have had a job and that the vast majority of these communities have now been reduced to ghost towns with the subsequent removal of the main employers there. Whither aspirations and escape, the thrust of the film?
Sorry, Billy. You may be fictional, but you are also damned useless and who cares what made you that way? Plenty of people, in theory, but then fictional boys are so much cleaner and neater when it comes down to it. No-one makes cracks when they can peruse a history from a safe distance.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
A good adage, don't you think? People need both the rod and the fish to be able to prove themselves. Many of us are fortunate enough to be born with both – the fish needed to sustain us as we grow and the rod to give a point to the lessons we learn. Many of us have so many opportunities and goals that we aspire to. Sometimes these goals take a long time to be fixed upon and longer to reach and sometimes we doubt that we are good enough to attain them.
For many people, education is the fish and the rod, the great broadener of horizons. For others, social welfare extends this possibility. If you give someone the time and the money to enable them to live decently – by which I mean with adequate shelter, heat, light, food and health – they will be better equipped to learn to help themselves, to grasp that rod. In a healthy society it is desirable that as many of its members as possible are able to fend for themselves, if not do substantially better than mere fending, to contribute in some positive way. People need to to be shown how.
To take the press's word for it all, one might have the impression that the stick and carrot would be the more apt tools, with emphasis on the stick when it comes to matters such as benefits and welfare. For lo! The modern day Billy Casper ends his troubled school career without any qualifications and loafs around with his dysfunctional family in receipt of state money as he can not and will not find work. He possibly gets in real trouble with the police later on. He possibly begets a number of children that he neither has the motivation nor wherewithal to care for. He is, apparently, very much not alone in this and a scourge endemic to modern Britain, a waste of space and a drain on resources.
Open a newspaper and you will be regaled with tales of families where no-one has worked for generations. This is particularly juicy if criminality and prolificacy are involved. Try this case for instance. A family with 9 children, reputedly tearaways, who have been given a new and expensive house. Note that the sum of the monthly benefits has been given – about twice the national waged average – and the details of expensive items owned by the family etc etc. so that readers may shake their heads in prurient disgust. Who says that hard work and prudence pay, eh? How are we meant to encourage our kids to behave themselves when there's this sort of example going around? Where is my flat screen TV?
Or try this story about a single mother on benefits who spent £3,000 on her children's Christmas. The silly moo. Frankly, I essentially agree with her point of view that it's her business what she spends her money on. It's her business if she wants to take out loans, especially if she is able to repay them without having her children go without the rest of the year. That her priorities are so skewed is a different matter entirely. It's like the large family in the previous story – are we supposed to make them live in cramped conditions? Are we meant to throw them out on the street? Are we meant to demand that they are fined £10 every time a child does something bad or strays toward the chocolate biscuit aisle in the supermarket?
Essentially the argument is that these people are enjoying a lifestyle that the rest of us could only dream of and, worse still, it's all on us. The impression is also given that these people are far from uncommon and that there is no incentive for them to work as benefits are just too darn good. The woman who spent the £3,000 admits that she would be £10 a week worse off if she went back to work and that is designed to have the readership further gnashing their teeth in self-righteous wrath.
The impression is given that to claim benefits at all is shameful, scrounging. That there are many cases, including these ones, where the assistance is very much needed, required and, legally, deserved, seems to be pushed aside. Think of the damage done to people's lives and self-esteem by such stories, the secondary effect of such cracks after the titillation of the "Well, I NEVER! Bloody idiots!" has passed by. It's a big brush with a lot of tar on it to get splashed around.
For every soul who can 'work the system', there are many more who plainly can not. Last year alone, £16 billion in benefits was left unclaimed in the UK. This is presumed to be largely because people don't know what they can claim. It is estimated that the average household bearing entitlement has been losing out on approximately £38 a week. This is a great deal when families are on the edge because of their finances. Please note that the greatest proportion of claimants are those currently in work, but in low-enough paid work that they have an entitlement to pull them above the poverty line.
This is where we can turn the 'issue' on its head. Perhaps people are able to be whipped up into a frenzy so easily and uncritically because the average worker is under so much pressure. Jobs are constantly being cut, hours cut and wages frozen while the cost of living increases. Even childcare provision is patchy and expensive in the extreme. Life is a grind for a lot of people because they are poorly paid and lack security. A lot of people fall through the cracks when they could be receiving much needed help and possible retraining. It is also a sad fact of human life that many people would not only rather starve than ask for help but that they don't want others to have what they don't.
So very many of the jobs out there, if you can secure one, are for very few hours, dead end, paid at minimum wage and on temporary contracts. They are just about feasible if one has no children. How is that meant to motivate anybody really? Isn't that the real trap?
If there really are people out there who refuse to work, then that is surely part of a bigger problem which is not merely a matter of finances.
Fictional Billy Casper and his modern day counterparts shouldn't have their life's aspirations end at 15 or 25 or 35, but they should be shown the way to both the fish and the rod and helped to learn how to use the latter and see how it applies to them. There should always be more than one chance and it is no-one's place to sit in judgment on the missed opportunities of others. Let's never write anyone off. Let's quit making cracks and be understanding of others that we may receive the same understanding in return. I think we have needed it from time immemorial, myself.