You are not a scrounger: a letter to a disabled reader

A letter to a reader in crisis.

Dear M-, 

A few days ago you wrote to me and told me you were planning to take your own life. You told me that your reasons for this are: because you are frightened about what will happen to you when you lose the disability living allowance you rely on to live independently, and because you want to take a stand against the government’s assault on welfare. 

Since receiving your letter I’ve agonised over what sort of reply to send to you. I hope you found the strength to call one of the helplines I forwarded - Samaritans in particular are a life-saving service - but I felt that something longer was needed, is still needed. I’m writing to you now not as a journalist, but as a human being, a former carer and a person who has experienced depression to say: please, please don’t do this.

I’m writing like this, in public, in part because you spoke about taking your own life as a political statement. You asked if I, as a journalist you respected, would report on your suicide after the fact. I’ve been told by fellow campaigners in the disability rights movement that you’re not alone in thinking that harming yourself in that awful, final way is the only way you have left to make a difference. But that’s not the case. Not yet, not ever.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a physical disability. Having dear friends with physical disabilities only makes me more aware of how many parts of that experience I can’t fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be mobility impaired, or to have a body that seizes up with pain on a regular basis. Nor do I know what it’s like to wake up one morning and be told that, because you can’t hold down a regular 9-5 office job no matter how hard you try, because you can’t do that you are just a burden on the state.

To my mind, the most venal, wicked thing this Coalition government has done has been to rewrite the social script of this country so that some people feel that life isn’t worth living any more. They speak in their poisonous way about giving the unemployed and disabled people back a sense of dignity - but telling people that they’re worthless unless they hold down a job, telling people that they have no right to a decent standard of living unless they can find and keep work that lines the pockets of the super-rich, work that isn’t there anyway at the moment - that’s the opposite of arguing for dignity. That’s shame as a social manifesto.

If you hurt yourself now, if you give up right now, I’m sorry to say that it won’t change the minds of those who are currently making decisions about whether sick and mentally people ill live or die in this country. These people don’t give a damn - or at very least, they do a good job of acting like they don’t give a damn. If any person’s unnecessary death were enough to sway this government’s mind, it would have been swayed before now.

Even one death is too many. There are other, better ways to make a difference.

This is the point at which I’m supposed to give you the routine about how It Gets Better. But you and I both know that that would be a lie. We both know that right now, for anyone who is disabled, or mentally ill, or unemployed, or a single parent, or a young person, or a student, or simply poor and struggling, a lot of things are getting actively worse. So no - sometimes it doesn’t get better. What happens instead, as a friend of mine told me recently, is that you get stronger.

Choosing to live doesn’t have to mean choosing to accept the ugly reality that those in power are creating for us. By coming together and working to create change, by building each other up and getting smarter and more adept, you get stronger, we get stronger, people who care enough to resist and fight back and create a different reality get stronger together. You don’t need to be well to be involved in the fightback. The internet has enabled people with all kinds of different experiences of physical and mental health to make their voices heard and join in the struggle against shame and despair as public policy.

I know that right now you probably aren’t feeling very strong and powerful. That’s understandable. But please believe me: you are powerful, and important, and special, and stronger than you know. We’ve never shared a cup of tea together, or laughed together, or hugged each other. I don’t even know what you look like. But I feel like I know you, because I know you feel the same way I feel about what’s going on in this country right now. What I want you to try to understand, if you can just hold on to one thing, is this: you are not a burden. 

No human being is "just a burden". You are not a burden on the state, and you are not a burden on your family, who, much as you might find this hard to believe, would be devastated to lose you. Your presence makes this country and your family a better place.

I can’t promise you that after you make the choice to carry on living, life will get easier right away, this week, or this month. But I can promise you that one day you will feel stronger, and better able to navigate with the darker, more painful rapids of life. I believe that one day life in this country will be better than it is now, for every person who is disabled and unwell. And one thing I can tell you for sure is that the most important political statement you can make right now is to believe - even if it’s hard to hold on to - that you are not a burden, that you are a precious, unique human person who is valuable in and of himself. 

When society tells you that you are worth less because you are unwell, that’s society’s fault, not yours. They may be pursuing a doctrine of shame, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed. You have no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed. You are not a burden, and you are not a scrounger - you are just unwell.

As an unwell person, you have every right to support, from your family and from society. Please try to hold on to that belief, because right now that belief is the best weapon we have against the austerity consensus. You are not a burden. You are not a scrounger. You are valuable and important because you are human and alive. Believe it. Believe it because that belief is a torch in the darkness of an austerity winter. With love,

Your friend,

Laurie

Editor's note: You can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or through their website at samaritans.org. We consulted the Samaritans in the editing of this piece.

Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.