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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poverty can't be simulated, 12 Jun. 2009
This review is from: Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (Paperback)
Being unemployed, I read this book hoping that Polly focused primarily on her observations without too much analysis of causes and solutions. Sadly, politics dominate the book, but that's not the only problem.

In order to simulate a life of poverty, Polly created a completely artificial scenario that made things far worse than they would be for most people. She found accommodation (in a run-down tower block) that desperately needed furnishing, but without a starting allowance. While some people may find themselves in such a situation, I suspect that it's only a small minority. For example, when I was made redundant in 2002, I still had my rented accommodation, my possessions and some money. I still have the first two although I have much less money these days. Polly decided that she was going to get a job come what may and created a bogus CV, necessary for her purpose but not an option for me. Polly was able to use her real name as it's not her professional name. Polly also regarded a lot of things as necessities that aren't. By contrast, I adjusted gradually to a lower standard of living as I suspect most people do.

Since coming out of bankruptcy (something caused by taking out a huge loan six months before my redundancy), I simply remember when the big bills are due (every three months for the telephone, every six months for the water) and plan accordingly. I don't have a TV because the annual licence fee is a pernicious tax, but I can visit a betting office to see the big races (the aspect of TV that I most miss) although I rarely bet these days. Radio serves me well for news and sport. I do without home heating and when it gets really cold , I either hide under the duvet, go downtown or have a hot bath, all cheaper than heating a room for several hours. These and other sacrifices allow me a limited budget for books and music, but even then I am price-conscious. Life on benefits isn't great for me, but it's worse for some people, especially those with small families.

There are many problems relating to long-term unemployment that cannot be simulated including the re-training schemes (particularly New Deal, for which I prefer the description Raw Deal), the limited range of subsidised training courses and the even more limited capabilities of the agencies to understand individual needs (Next Step, a government agency, tried to put me on a NHS course but the NHS said I was over-qualified), the periodic jobcentre interviews, the checking-up in between, the impact of bankruptcy and so much more. The housing benefit system doesn't allow monthly payments, so as the landlord refuses to accept payments directly, I get 12/13 of my monthly rent every four weeks leaving me to pay the difference. Yes, there's a once-a-year bonus month but I'd rather have monthly payments without a bonus month.

Polly took a series of jobs in a short space of time (obviously for journalistic needs; I'll allow her that much) in order to get an idea of how hard some people have to work for pitiful wages, spread over several industries. The fascination of this book for me lies in the description of some of the condition under which people sometimes have to work, not least being the one-copy employmennt contract. If this isn't illegal, it certainly ought to be. In the days when I was able to find employment, there were always two copies, one for the employer and one for myself. I was always able to read my copy at home before signing, and keep it thereafter for reference. It seems that some agencies expect people to sign contracts that they can only study in the agency's office, but not take home. The system is clearly designed to stop people showing it to anybody who might make life awkward for the employer. I can only hope that I never end up desperate enough to sign such a contract. Polly also highlights a number of other issues that are useful to know.

I'd be interested to see how easy it would be for Polly to get a menial job using her real CV. My experiences suggest that employers seeking to fill such vacancies don't like taking on people with a history of well-paid jobs (in my case, as a computer programmer), preferring candidates accustomed to menial work. Meanwhile, the shortage of IT staff is a myth. Employers could fill such vacancies with people like me who could do the work but need re-training. Employers won't fund such training, nor will the government.

The book is good at highlighting some specific housing and employment problems but Polly's artificial scenario, only a little of which (the fake CV and rapid job turnover) was necessary for journalistic purposes, together with the large amount of unnecessary political dogma, detract substantially from what could have been a great book. If Polly had stuck to the facts as she saw them, letting readers make up their own minds about causes and solutions, I could have sympathized with her inability to adjust.

If you have an interest in the subject, this book is worth reading despite its limitations. One way or another, it will make you angry, whether you direct that anger at employers, governments, journalists or all of them.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Apr 2010 09:47:32 BDT
Damaskcat says:
I'm glad you mentioned this book Peter as I have had it on my 'to read' pile for ages and your review has made me put it to the top of the pile. I will be reading it soon. I found your review very helpful as you speak from experience,

Posted on 24 Jan 2011 17:53:58 GMT
re Peter's comment in his review:

"If this isn't illegal, it certainly ought to be... It seems that some agencies expect people to sign contracts that they can only study in the agency's office, but not take home. The system is clearly designed to stop people showing it to anybody who might make life awkward for the employer."

Through my day job as an employment lawyer I can tell you that under Section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 employers should give employees a written statement of the terms of their employment) within 2 months of an employee starting work, and yes, the employee must be allowed to take it home.

However, there is no automatic penalty for an employer who fails to do this; only if the employee wins some other claim against the same employer in a Tribunal e.g. unfair dismissal, unpaid wages the Tribunal will add an extra amount to the compensation the employer is ordered to pay to the employee, for failure to provide a written statement of terms.

'Temp' staff employed through employment agencies have legal rights to be given various details of the terms under which they are employed at or before the beginning of assignments.

However, of course, employees do not necessarily know their legal entitlements or how to enforce them, nor when there is competition for jobs do they necessarily want to mark themselves out as 'troublemakers' by demanding their 'rights'.

Posted on 16 Apr 2013 15:18:57 BDT
Last edited by the author on 16 Apr 2013 15:24:40 BDT
T. S. C. says:
It seems to me that the odds are always stacked against the individual who finds him or herself at the mercy of poverty or reduced circumstances, and that those who will ruthlessly exploit such people will often do so without a qualm, whilst governments of the day, be they Left or Right, Labour or Conservative, will look on from the sidelines detached from it all simply because they have high salaries and nice areas to live in, children in private schools and at the end of their careers gold-plated index-linked pensions. In short, nobody gives a f***! Sorry to be so blunt, but that is the reality most poor people live in; endure unemployment or compete with loads of other people for minimum wage, often dead-end jobs. Linking it all of course, is injustice, injustice plain and simple. We can all turn a blind eye to something bad that happens to someone else, simply because it's someone else, it's only when we are at the receiving end of such unpleasant realities that we might realise what others go through. For that alone, Toynbee was at least trying to empathise, but she goes back to her cosy Middle class existence and wonderful career, whilst millions of other people have no choice but to stick it out and accept grim reality. That is the real tragedy.

I may add this; I am a Christian, and come from a very poor Working class background and have also endured many years of unemployment for one reason and another. I now believe that if a person wants to change their circumstances, they can. No, God probably won't let you win the lottery, (I haven't so far!) but believe me when I say to you that He can and will supply all our need, as opposed to all our greed. A believer only has to pray, have faith and believe. And no, I am not being naive; I see the first fruits of a better life both spiritually and materially in my own life. No one has to suffer endlessly.
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