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10 April 2008

’People try to portray us as spongers’

Simon W Jenkins talks to one man struggling to escape the cycle of poverty on Jobseeker's Allowance

By Simon Jenkins

“It’s like being in prison.” Chris Lister equates the impotence of living on benefit with the loneliness of the long-term lag. Chris, 49, lives in a second-floor flat in inner-city Leeds, reliant on state handouts but determined to escape the cycle of poverty with his fledgling computer business.

On leaving school, Chris packed his guitar and headed to London. When it dawned that stardom wasn’t coming, he took a job as a driver for a big company. His face fitted and he moved quickly through the ranks to become a senior accountant. “My salary went from £4,000 to £20,000 in five years.”

He stayed another five. “In the end I was on more than £30,000 with a company car. In the 1980s this was serious money.”

But the firm hit hard times. Chris was made redundant and went back north to care for his parents. In the space of a year he divorced, his father died and he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Chris recovered, but a recording studio venture folded, leaving him penniless and with a drug habit. He lived in a series of dangerous, squalid digs before a friend offered him a home and supported him through months of agonising cold turkey to get his life off the floor.

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He came through and now has his own flat. His benefits add up to about £80 a week – “better than a smack in the mouth, but still a pittance”.

He has a jaundiced view of the benefits system. “You think these people are there to help. What they’re actually trying to do is get you off their lists.

“But this is our money. When I was working I paid a shedload of tax – but when I want some back they treat me like I’m trying to steal from the state.”

Chris has been on any number of schemes to help him back to work. “Most of them are glorified CV writing classes. They basically say, ‘If you don’t go we’ll cut your benefit.'”

Then a Leeds University course called Amaze Yourself helped him start a business. “Seventy per cent of those who enrolled are now running their own firms, or in new jobs or education,” he says. Even so, until his business thrives, Chris remains reliant on handouts. The findings of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation bear out his experiences. “It’s getting harder to survive on benefit. Jobseeker’s Allowance is £60 a week, an eighth of the average wage – and people try to portray us as spongers. A mate of mine went begging on the streets and got more than that.

“The government say they can’t afford to pay more, but they can still be at war for five years and find £30bn to bail out Northern Rock.”

He is disillusioned with politicians. “We go around the world preaching morality when thousands are sleeping rough in our own country. You expect it of the Tories. Capitalism just doesn’t have the moral backbone. I put my faith in new Labour to change things but it seems the parties have conspired to dismantle the welfare state.”