Benefits...


By Gideon Schneider
October 10, 2008
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Starbucks Caramel Frappaccino in hand, I parked myself on one of the well-worn couches in the Hampstead branch to escape the midday sun. Around me, tables were being used for impromptu business meetings, while old friends chatted over steaming espressos. I was smugly slurping the cream from the top of the cup when it dawned on me that the £3.20 cost of this thick, frozen, altogether harmless-looking beverage had single-handedly eaten up 10% of my weekly income.

That is, my incapacity benefit from the government. The shudder that passed down my spine had nothing to do with the chunk of ice I almost choked on as a consequence of my rude realisation - and everything to do with the shock of my newfound poverty.

£32.50. They certainly make you work for your money; in order to secure this benefit I was sent on a red-tape obstacle course. I spent an hour on the phone answering the initial battery of questions needed to kick-start my application. A few days later a door-stop of an envelope was crammed through my letter box, almost denting the floor on impact. In it was a printed transcript of the questionnaire I had verbally filled in.

As instructed in the accompanying letter, I dutifully went to the local job centre to make sure I had all the necessary documentation. Waiting in line was less entertaining than The Full Monty had led me to believe. Those hunched figures in the never-moving line were united by frustration rather than the infectious beat of ‘Hot Stuff'. Babies in prams were screaming like boiling kettles and swearwords were muttered in Polish. I could hear the weary mantra of the harangued girl behind the desk: "We don't deal with that here. You'll have to book an appointment next week".

As slow as the percolation of filtered coffee, my position in line edged ever closer to the front. When my turn finally came I was instructed to take all my doctor's notes, put them in the envelope I was duly given and then send them off. Two weeks later I called to check what progress had been made on my application only to discover that no letter had been received and as such my application had been closed. Simmering with frustration, it took the next turn of events to actually push me to boiling point.

A new set of questionnaires were sent to me. I had to trawl through booklets so copious they made the collected Harry Potter seem like a quick read, their dullness seasoned only by an amusing peppering of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The purpose of this über-form was to find out everything about me before my claim could be processed. I spent three hours filling it in before popping down to my GP's surgery again for repeat copies of my doctor's notes. Again I sent off all the necessary documentation and again, two weeks later, I was told upon inquiry that my application had not been registered. All the sweeteners in Starbucks couldn't neutralise the bitterness I now felt.

Foaming at the mouth like a frothy cappuccino I stormed in to the job centre gun's blazing and ready for all-out war. Thankfully Kerry was on duty that day. She listened to me rant then as calming as chamomile told me she would make some phone calls and see what she could do. It soon transpired that my documents had gone to the wrong office, but keeping the pressure on, Kerry stayed on the phone until things were resolved. At this point I was still expecting £60 a week. However, because I have savings of £12,500, £4000 of it student loan so not really mine, my final weekly amount was almost halved. This is because for every £250 of savings over the £6,000 threshold, the claimant is penalised by £1.

Let's face it, I am unlikely to end up rummaging through pizza boxes for crusts. However, what frustrates me the most is the inflexibility of this ‘benefit'. It does not allow for the fact that there will be days when I'll be energetic enough to work during my treatment. On those days I would love to labour away. If I do, however, I jeopordise my right to financial assistance on those many days I will be unable to work. This is because the hoops are so hard to jump through each time you want to claim, that it makes more sense to make one continuous request, even though this bears no reflection on the reality of the effects of treatment. It makes about as much sense as a David Lynch movie while drunk, but this was the reality.

However, reality was something I was happy to leave outside in the street for the fifteen minutes it took to reach the bottom of my frappaccino. So as the condensation dripped down the side of the cup, I twiddled my straw luxuriously as I wildly imagined what I'd spend my remaining 90% on.

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