More and more disabled artists are needing to access benefits. As austerity measures increase, and Covid-19 impacts across the cultural sector, the low pay and precarious employment routes within the cultural sector are becoming more and more exposed. So where does that leave disabled artists and what support is out there? Unlimited contracted Alistair Gentry, freelance artist, writer, and former Unlimited trainee, to undertake some investigation, and he tells us his opinion on where we are now and what we should do…
Anyone who is an artist, or works with them, already knows that it’s not about swanning around in your smock and beret all day before applying the perfect dab of paint to your masterpiece. And even if that was what being an artist was all about, anyone who identifies as a disabled person knows the barriers that society puts up seemingly all day, every day, would make that lifestyle an impossibility for most of them. Many disabled people rely on benefits like Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Universal Credit, or Access to Work (all of them, tellingly, with evasive and morally-loaded names) to access their basic human rights to live, travel, work, and have a social life.
But these benefits can be extremely difficult to get, and harder still to keep, when you start earning ‘too much’ [sic] money. Previous research commissioned by Unlimited from Inc Arts established that there is no clear solution. My personal opinion is that many just choose which rule they prefer to break and then keep quiet. Obviously, this is not something that I, Unlimited, or any other funder or commissioner would want or advise, but I feel it’s undeniably one of the horrible choices that some people face. Having people pay for things that won’t show up as actual money is a fairly common dodge around this issue, but it doesn’t solve the problem or recognise that what people on low incomes really need is to not be on such a low income in the first place. The fix is to be able to give them money without destroying the fragile balance they have made in their lives.
Meanwhile the government’s own figures on benefit fraud show that it remains steady at 1.4%, where it’s been for years when adjusted for other factors, regardless of tabloid and political rhetoric about dole scroungers and people who ‘aren’t disabled’ claiming disability benefits. Nearly 10% of Universal Credit overpayments on the other hand, are not the claimant’s fault but are in fact due to errors by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) itself.
Unlimited recently asked me to work with a few disabled artists who receive state benefits to see if there was more that could be done to support them. There’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that even in this tiny, self-identified sample of people, one of the themes that came up universally was the government’s attitude towards disabled people and other benefit claimants: so draconian, punitive, paltry, and humiliating that it has the (possibly fully intended?) effect of people not claiming the support they need and deserve because the toll on their mental and physical health isn’t worth it. And so, it falls to them, their family members, peer support, or to charities and unions to find some way to simply eat and keep a roof over their heads – barriers that non-disabled people never face. Either that or they are literally left to suffer and die, as thousands of disabled people in this country – including many loved and dearly missed disabled artists – have through austerity and the Covid pandemic.
There’s a genuine and justified fear of doing or saying anything that might jeopardise fragile financial arrangements. Unlike the claims process, which is tortuously slow and puts the onus on the claimant to prove they’re not fraudulent or criminal, the state acts rapidly and mercilessly to sanction claimants and take their support away. For these reasons, nobody I spoke to for this research will be identified here.
However, a more detailed analysis of these conversations shows that there is some good news…
There are good people and organisations out there who can and will help! Relatively few artists seem to know the extent of the pastoral and practical support that is available to them at low or no cost from the UK’s unions and artist membership organisations – more on how to find these later.
Experiences of claiming benefits
If you don’t experience stress and anxiety already as a disabled person, you will when you get involved with the DWP. One person characterised them as ‘bullying and coercive.’ Others used words like ‘demeaning’ or ‘punitive.’ They describe their experiences of the DWP system using the language of warfare: ‘battle’, ‘attack’, ‘destroyed.’ They speak of being ‘grilled’ or ‘interrogated.’
The Access to Work scheme, explicitly meant for disabled people, has similar barriers – deliberate and otherwise – but with the added consequences to the mental and physical health of people who are by definition the least able to cope with them. Even a successful application can involve unfair, dehumanising, and slow judgement by a series of strangers. One person had their disability summarised as being ‘deformed,’ for example.
Artists on benefits
Thanks to a such a system plus the stigma or shame that some disabled people inevitably internalise from a society that embraces the ‘scrounger’ narrative, anybody who’s going through these kinds of battles tends to feel they are alone. Almost none of them know just how many others are in the same situation.
Whilst the provision of government advice in easily understood plain English is in a different league than it was even five or ten years ago, unfortunately, this doesn’t change the underlying rules which are extremely complicated, contradictory, or vague. The rules also seem to change with ever-increasing frequency, perhaps for reasons of political point-scoring rather than care of the individual. Austerity policies finished off support systems that were already overloaded and are now in states of constant chaos and near-collapse.
No artist I spoke to was particularly clear or confident on what the rules are on things like disability benefits, income, paid work, grants, and how they might all interact. In some cases, all they were certain of was that they didn’t want to needlessly rock the boat.
Advice and peer support sometimes comes through informal, off-the-record networks but more often the people I spoke to had little idea who they could turn to when the civil servants who are meant to help them don’t or can’t. Several people suggested they needed a guide on ‘How to be an Artist on Benefits’ so with that in mind, we are crowdsourcing options and organisations that can help. Follow this link to a Google doc to see a list of what we have so far, and if you have anything to add, email email@example.com, before mid-September. Then I’ll pull a short and hopefully useful guide together that all of us can use to try and support those caught up in this web.