Poverty in the archives: a tale of persistence

Jackie Gulland, University of Edinburgh

Today we hear a lot about people claiming benefits, people being refused benefits, people appealing against these refusals.  Many of them win their appeals but not all. What happens when people try to get benefits and lose their appeals?

In my research on the history of incapacity benefits, I’ve found many people failing to get the benefits they felt they were entitled to.  This blog post tells the story of one of those claimants.  Earlier this year I was in Belfast for the Social Policy Association annual conference.  The talk at the conference was all about austerity, poverty, stigma, the decline of the welfare state, the Budget.  There were excellent presentations from researchers at all stages of their academic careers.  There were discussions of ‘impact’, questions about whether or not social policy research makes a difference, how we can do it better.  But my trip to Belfast also had another purpose: to have a look at some benefits papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, conveniently located next door to the conference, in another magnificent purpose-built building.    My hunt was for benefit claimants.  Throughout my research on the history of incapacity benefits, I have often wondered what happened to the people who were refused benefits. Some of them appealed and some of them won their appeals but many didn’t.  In a collection of files in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland I have found out about some of them.  The Public Record Office holds files of correspondence to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister’s office in the 1920s and 30s, and there are about a dozen files concerning people’s problems with sickness benefits.

Here I found a man who claimed sickness benefit in July 1928 and was told he was fit for light work.  He appealed against that decision and the appeal confirmed the original decision.  He wrote to the Prime Minister asking for advice so that he could ‘procure justice’.  The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that, since he had unsuccessfully used the appeal procedure, there was nothing more that could be done. So then he claimed unemployment benefit.  His unemployment benefit was refused.  He appealed against that decision and the decision was upheld. So he wrote again in March 1929 to the Prime Minister asking for advice.  He was told that all the appeal procedures had been followed correctly.  What to do next?  In November 1930 he wrote to the Prime Minister again about his unemployment benefit and asking whether, if he couldn’t get either sickness benefit or unemployment benefit, perhaps they could give him a job with the labour exchange.  The Prime Minister’s office replied saying that, since he had followed all the appeal procedures, there was nothing they could do about his benefit but that should a suitable vacancy arise, he would be considered for a job.  By August 1931, his persistence seemed to have paid off as his next letter concerned his dismissal from a two month temporary contract at the labour exchange.  Unsurprisingly there was nothing that could be done, since: ‘retrenchments are necessary and that those who can best be spared are the ones who are selected first of all for retrenchment’.

Fast forward to 1938 and we find the same man writing to the Prime Minster again asking for a job.  This time we are told that he worked for a temporary period for the employment exchange in 1934 but had been laid off again.  The file closes with a polite letter from the Prime Minister’s private secretary ‘regretting that there are no vacancies at present for which you could be considered’.  At that point he seems to have given up.

Learning from the letters

What did I learn from this file?  I learned a lot about this particular claimant. Over the course of the correspondence, which amounts to thirty-three letters altogether, I learned that he was married and had seven children, including three who were grown up and unemployed , that he had worked in the ‘shirt and collar trade’ and that he had a war injury of some kind from the First World War and that he was desperate to find work. One thing can be said for him and that is his tenacity.

Lessons for today

What can we learn from this story today?  The main lesson for me is that people do not claim benefits frivolously.  They claim them because they need them.  If they have the energy and persistence to appeal against refusals, they might succeed in getting desperately needed income.  But many people do not have this kind of persistence.  They give up and they plunge further into poverty.  They may, like this man, attempt to get work but, in hard times, work may be short term and underpaid and many will soon find themselves back trying to claim benefits again.  Few have the tenacity of the man in the archives.  Much needed welfare rights and advice services will help but what we really need is a fair and accessible benefits system, which recognises the reasons why people need to claim in the first place: poverty.

Dr Jackie Gulland is lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh

For further information about this project see http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/constructingincapacity/

(where an earlier version of this post was published).