#1 HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERon 12 June 2009
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.