Jossie Katayama recently spent a week with us at Oxfam, getting work experience with our team. One of the things she did was visit the Citizens Advice Bureau in Oxford, one of our partners. These are her thoughts.
Growing up in such a media driven society, it is hard to escape from the harsh stereotypes for those who claim benefits. Recent headlines push the ‘scrounger’ vs. ‘striver’ story, blaming those dependent on the state. I know it is never that black and white, and what hit me when visiting the Oxford Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) was how the ‘scrounger’ label has managed to filter through to those most in need. Not only are the welfare reforms cutting benefits to often unmanageable levels, but some people are feeling
embarrassed to claim. “Probably over 50% said to me ‘I’ve come to ask about benefits but I’m not a scrounger'”, says Oxford CAB’s Welfare Benefits Supervisor Kate Burnham, referring to a project in which she had been working with cancer patients having to claim benefits for the first time.
Talking to Kate gave me a deeper insight into the problems faced by people in the Oxford area. I was surprised to learn that only one in five people coming to the CAB in Oxford are unemployed, and just under a third of their clients work part-time. But whether they are in work or not, their clients are increasingly struggling to pay for basics such as heating and food.
Although adverse effects of the welfare reform are already being felt across the nation, these new welfare changes like Universal Credit will affect everyone differently. This is a distressing time for many as it is, and these changes will put even more people in a difficult position. The funding of Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country has also been cut, so how will they be able to provide sufficient support?
You may be surprised to know that your local CAB gathers statistics of all the issues they deal with. Citizens Advice, the national ‘umbrella’ organisation then analyse data on over 7 million issues every year, to assess how current social policies affect its clients, and whether changes to these policies could prevent these issues. Citizens Advice actively lobbies the government, and is a vital voice for those otherwise left unheard.
Right now, many people rely on the CAB for advice and support with benefits and other issues. With Universal Credit, more will come, and this shows the growing cracks in our welfare state. It is worrying that more and more people have nowhere else to turn.