Life on the dole

What is the reality of life on the dole, behind Government and media caricatures of scroungers and skivers? Paul Walsh finds out. 

On 24 February the Government published details of its Pathways to Work plan, which aims to tackle long-term unemployment. The initiative includes a new rights and responsibilities contract, which will have to be signed by all new social welfare applicants from May. Claimants will have to agree to take up training and employment supports as a pre-condition for receipt of welfare payments. The Government’s aim, they say, is to get 75,000 long-term unemployed back to work by 2015. However, implicit in these policies is the idea that the unemployed are not doing enough to get a job. The image of the dole “sponger” is one that has been cultivated by both media and Government, with headlines such as “Kenny takes hard line on welfare in Young FG speech” and “Government to get tough with unemployed”. Behind the spin and the grotesque caricature, what is life actually like for those out of work and dependent on social welfare?

The INOU (Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed) introduced me to a number of their members so they could they give their first hand experience of being out of work. James L’Estrange was employed in sales and was made redundant in 2009. He is now completing a degree in Sociology and Social Policy in Maynooth. I asked him if he felt that various state agencies gave him the necessary support when he found himself out of work?

“From the FÁS point of view, it was worse than useless,” he said. “When I went in I had a definite plan to up-skill. I told them what I wanted to do and they had absolutely no way of accommodating me. They just threw a load of leaflets at me and said basically that they didn’t know what to say to me. They seemed to be orientated towards what was gone - the building industry. There was no thinking outside the box whatsoever. If you came in and asked them something that wasn’t on a piece of paper in front of them you were looked at as if you had two heads.”

Alongside inefficient state bodies, L’Estrange found a stagnant job market - something which influenced his decision as to the direction he felt he had to take. “I probably spent a whole summer looking for jobs and I couldn’t even get on the shortlist. I wouldn’t get called for an interview even. So, that’s what made the penny drop that I needed to up-skill. I used whatever money I had to pay for my first year in DBS (Dublin Business School). I did the first year of my degree in DBS because I was too late to get on the CAO scheme. I was then able to get a transfer to Maynooth for the next two years of my degree. So, the first year of my degree cost me €5,000, but I felt that that was the investment I needed to make to upskill myself and get into the labour market. I have done everything possible from my point of view to return to the labour market. So, that would contradict the view that people have that once you are on the dole, you want to stay on the dole. I have used all the resources I have to try and get myself of the dole.”

L’Estrange puts the blame squarely at the feet of the Government for the spread of the “dole sponger” caricature. “They are just trying to brainwash people into thinking that these people on the dole are somehow cheating and skiving. The reality is the jobs are not there. If there was honesty in the government they would put up their hands and say so. It’s a contradiction to say that they have put activation measures in place to get people back to work because the work doesn’t exist.”

The statistics would seem to bear this out. A Eurostat survey which compared the number job vacancies with the actual number of unemployed people showed in the third quarter of 2011 Ireland’s ratio was 26:1. That means that every vacancy in the Irish job market is being pursued by 26 desperate unemployed people. They will become even more desperate from May onwards when their benefits will be under threat.

L’Estrange also challenges the perception that it is the generous level of benefits that keeps our live register figures high. “I am on €188 a week; my wife finished her community employment place last week and signed on the dole. She was told she would receive €126 a week. I would invite any politician or minister to come and visit my house and take my place for a week on the same amount of money. Even that’s not fair because the resources he would have behind him would be massive. You can tighten up for a week but try and tighten up on a continuous basis at these sorts of levels. To say I don’t want to go back to work…I am actually applying for a job that will pay €250 a week. The difference between €188 and €250 is massive for me.”

Another member of the INOU, Barry Mullins (not his real name) was made redundant in 2009 after seven years in finance. He was out of work until the end of 2010, when he decided to do a Masters in Equalities Studies. He is now working on the National Internship Scheme and is positive about his experience with it. “Personally, it works well for me because it’s the area I want to work in.”

However, Mullins agrees with L’Estrange about the difficulty of surviving financially on benefits. “At the moment what I am finding is that nearly all my shoes have fallen apart. I really struggle to buy a pair of shoes. I am on a mortgage so it is really tight. It is a joint mortgage with my brother but this means that we have arguments all the time about finances. He was kind of subsidising my mortgage for a while but I do get mortgage assistance now. I haven’t really had any major holidays. I still go out but socially I wouldn’t go out as much as I used to when I was working.”

Mullins is also angry about the stereotypes of the unemployed that get trotted out continuously in the national discourse. He is especially angry about the criticism comes from close to home. “What particularly annoys me is that I hear family and friends saying stuff. I have to challenge them and say well you are talking about the likes of me, and they say they are talking about different people. But no, they are talking about someone like me. It makes me feel very angry that people unquestionably take on the opinions of the reactionary element of the media and just assume that everyone on social welfare is living the high life and defrauding the state.”

The aim of media and Government attacks on the unemployed is clear in the opinion of L’Estrange. “There is another €3 billion to come out of the economy next year. Where is that going to come from? They are obviously not going to go after the top earners. They have to get it from somewhere so if they don’t want to break the Croke Park agreement they will go after the people with the least voice, they are the unemployed, the disabled and other minorities. Those are the ones they are going after. They are putting in place a frame of mind into the general public. They are basically setting up the general public to believe that the unemployed are scroungers and some sort of unworthy poor.”

There is no doubt that education and upskilling should be a key part of any strategy for dealing with our unemployment problem. However forcing people off the dole and, realistically, out of the country, is not a morally acceptable policy. Mr. L’Estrange has already endured the heartbreak of emigration as the jobs crisis has taken its toll on his family. “I have two sons; one of them is living in London and hates it. The other one is moving to New York next Wednesday. That’s my two children gone out of the country because of lack of employment. They could have stayed around on €188 per week but they are not prepared to do that.” So much for Minister Noonan’s argument that emigration is a “lifestyle choice” for young people.

Both L’Estrange and Mullins have had a very tough time over the past few years, but instead of support and understanding they feel attacked and victimised. A recent report by the National Economic and Social Council said Ireland’s labour market will take years to recover due to continuing lack of growth in the domestic economy. This means that unemployment could touch any of our lives,. So the next time you think of  casually dismissing someone unlucky enough to find themselves out of work, think about how you would feel if you found yourself in the same position. As Leo Tolstoy once said: “I now understand that my welfare is only possible if I acknowledge my unity with all the people of the world without exception.” {jathumbnailoff}

If you are or have been unemployed, what has your experience of unemployment been like? Do you feel you've been attacked by the Government and by media portrayals of the unemployed? Do you think the Pathways to Work programme will help in getting people back into employment? Leave a comment or mail us at

Image top: Workers' Party of Ireland.