A guest blog post by Stef Banstead.
I had the pleasure of attending the second Welfare Imaginaries conference on Tuesday 26th September. Somehow I had missed the first one in June, but I am definitely going to book a place for the third and final seminar. The December seminar is on the future of the welfare state and I am excited about the opportunity to join in discussions about how to make a welfare state that works. It’s something I am very interested in, and have made some suggestions for in my forthcoming book, Second Class Citizens.
Self-promotion aside, there were five speakers at the second seminar in Liverpool whom I was particularly pleased to meet and listen to.
It was a privilege to hear Kerry Hudson read a section from her forthcoming book, Lowborn, which recounts her own personal history of growing up in poverty and encountering the welfare system. I wish I could remember it better! Alas, I was very tired, and relied on the knowledge that I could buy the book when it comes out to save writing any notes on what Kerry was saying. But I do remember what I felt as I listened: that this is a lady worth knowing and listening to, and consequently that Lowborn is a book worth buying.
Scouring the internet for more freely-available stuff that Kerry has written, I came across this comment that she wrote about her BTec tutor, Ian: “He taught me that the interior world of those people queueing in the jobcentre is something of absolute value and this became the fundamental truth that I based my whole career on.” I can’t really add to that.
Also at the conference was the Artist Taxi Driver, Chunky Mark. Mark pops up on my Twitter timeline regularly enough to give the feeling of ‘knowing’ someone whom I’ve never met! I hadn’t known that the ‘Artist’ part comes from Mark being an artist (of paintings and performance art) as well as a taxi driver and out-spoken political commentator.
At the conference, Mark kept his youtube persona in the background, speaking articulately and intelligently about the problems that have caused poverty in the UK. I haven’t watched much of Mark’s youtube output, but having heard the brains behind the bolshiness, I intend to look some up. His watercolour paintings also deserve a look and, like Kerry, he understands the value of art over shelf-stacking.
Sara De Benedictis, whom I had not previously come across, told us about her research into period poverty. It was disturbing to learn how the focus has shifted from the adverse impacts of austerity – that women are left so poor they can’t even afford basic hygiene – to a focus on the individuals as being at fault for not managing their money properly. Perhaps, at the next conference, we can challenge such views by creating a new narrative based on the “absolute value” of the interior lives of benefit recipients and the working class more generally.
I was pleased to finally meet Mo Stewart, author of Cash not care: the planned demolition of the welfare state. I have read Mo’s work and we have ‘known’ each other for some time via email. Mo’s focus is on the role of American medical insurance companies, in particular Unum, whose desire to downgrade the medical severity of insurance claims has found its way into the UK social security system. The result is sick and disabled people assessed as healthy and able-bodied, thus allowing the State to get away with leaving these people in deprivation and isolation.
Finally, I was glad to learn of the work done by Rachel Broady, the National Union of Journalists and Church Action on Poverty, to produce guidelines and reference material for journalists to use when reporting on poverty. As Rachel pointed out, most journalists come from the middle and upper classes, often with degrees from Russell Group universities. It is difficult for such journalists to find the time to really understand the lives of the poor on whom they report. Rachel’s work is vital and I hope that we will increasingly see its impact in the mainstream media.
Overall, it was a good opportunity to meet people and lines of work that I had not previously come across, as my own work is focused on chronic illness and disability. I was pleased also that the event didn’t start too early, and that there was space in the timetable for me to lie down and have a nap part way through! I’m excited for the event in December, confident that again it will bring together a good range of people and set up discussions that will lead to a better country in the future.