Television. You have a lot to answer for.
Yesterday, I caught for the first time a programme called ‘Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole’.
Essentially, it’s a series that follows a group of British people that survive (and sometimes thrive) by claiming benefits from the government. There have been similar documentaries of late aimed at shining a light on the system and exposing those they believe are abusing it.
Now, it’s very easy to judge, to criticize, to be downright angry at some of what you see (which is exactly what the programme makers are hoping for). And while I do tend to avoid such sensationalist and skewed viewing, it did serve a purpose for me. It wasn't specifically to do with financial advice. I was actually judging, criticizing and downright angry at times. I’m not especially proud of my reactions as my left-leaning sensibilities still took the bait. But, at the same time, it was kind of good. You see, it brought out emotions. Real emotions. It wasn’t just me passively accepting what I was watching. It made me more aware of values and principles that I actually believed in. It helped bring into the open some of my views on money – whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or I choose to change any of them is up to me. But at least I know what they are.
If you spend all your time watching people that look, sound and smell like you, it can be a lot harder to realise what exactly you’re passionate about. So the programme certainly got the blood pumping. Yes, it was staged. And, no, it certainly isn’t going to be representative of the vast majority of claimants in the UK. But it did get me thinking about my own biases and prejudices. What did I take from it? In no particular order:
• Don’t assume the State will support you forever. The system was set up to provide a safety net, and it’s not meant to be milked simply because ‘you can’. Most people don't see it as a piggy bank. Unfortunately, there are those that do.
• Cigarettes and dogs aren’t priority expenses. Not being a big fan of either, I struggled to connect with those people (and there were many) that complained they didn’t have enough money, yet still decided to buy a dog and puffed away on Marlboro Lights all day. Maybe it’s just me and my prism on the world, but choosing cigarettes over food didn't add up to me.
• The blame game is a dangerous one. Sometimes circumstances really do conspire against you and finding work to pay the bills really is tough. But when the economy, the foreigners, the Conservative Government, the bankers, the Chinese imports, the ‘posh’, and so on, get targeted I do wonder. It was a lot easier for some to play the victim than to take responsibility.
• You’ve got to start somewhere. Not all job opportunities are good. Some don’t pay well. Some really are as dull as dishwater. But if you have little to show on your CV or resume, sometimes you really do have to just start somewhere. It may not be glamorous. It may be difficult financially. But if you want to improve your financial story long term, you need to take the first step and start somewhere.
There are obviously other issues to consider (such as structural poverty, the education system, bad luck). But that’s my hat in the ring. Not everyone will agree. I hope they don’t. It’s time for a healthy discussion about society, respective responsibilities and how to finance it.