by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass
Last month, Jon Leighton posted a pie chart on Facebook accompanied by, in his own words, a ‘slapdash, hastily written, gritted teeth’ rant.
Within a couple of days the post had gone viral, accumulating over 30,000 likes and thousands of shares.
This is what he posted:
“I’m sick to death of seeing posts on Facebook about benefit scroungers” Jon explained in his rant. “Do you know the figures? Because if you did you might see it in another light.”
The chart shows that only 3% of the benefits budget is allocated to unemployment payments (in 2011/12). Almost half (46%) goes towards pensions, which by far makes up the majority of the spending.
The second largest spend goes on housing benefit, an amount that is becoming more prone to the whims of private landlords and their soaring rent.
“Our benefits budget is not out of control” Jon explained in his rant, “according to the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Britain’s benefit bill per head is nowhere near as generous as half the countries in Europe. (And unemployment benefit is particularly stingy compared to most).”
Read the full post here.
We caught up with Jon to talk about going viral, his views and why he feels so passionately about getting this information out to people. In the first part of the interview, we found out a little more about Jon, the reactions to the post and why he thinks society has the wrong idea about welfare…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do for living? Where are you from?
I was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire and have worked across the East Midlands for several charitable organisations, supporting the homeless, preventing tenancy breakdown and mortgage repossession. I currently work for Framework Housing Association in Nottingham. I manage a range of services for vulnerable people.
The pie chart you posted up on Facebook got over 30,000 likes and went viral in the UK, with thousands of re-posts and shares. Did you expect this reaction? Why do think people did react so positively? Why did you post it up?
I don’t really use Facebook that much. My social media weapon of choice is Twitter. For the past few years I’ve used it as a learning tool, stretching my intellectual legs and becoming something of an authority on Welfare Reform. Conversely, my Facebook posts are limited to inanely alerting friends that I’m enjoying a pint of Peroni in some pub somewhere. I had compartmentalised the two. Facebook was always about daily tedium and pictures of cats.
It all started when I saw a post denigrating benefits claimants. It had all the usual hallmarks. It began ‘why should I pay my taxes…’, and ended with ‘dirty scumbag welfare slackers’. You can fill in the gaps. I despise this kind of judgemental attitude. For a start these kind of comments are invariably based on wild assumptions, and in my experience, they just aren’t true. Most people are are struggling to get by, just like the rest of us and they deserve respect, be they a jobseeker, someone who is too ill to work or whatever. The social security system is there to provide a safety net, not to persecute the poor.
For the past three months I’ve been running a twitter account called @Welfare__Reform. I’ve followed every mover and shaker, from government ministers, policy experts, statistical wizards to those individuals affected by the reforms. I’d say I was pretty well informed about the debate.
“The social security system is there to provide a safety net, not to persecute the poor.”
So I decided to tap out a few words for a Facebook audience. However, I didn’t expect anything more than a bit of catharsis. As far as I was concerned, it was old news. I had been saying all these things on twitter for the past two months, and in my circle of followers, it was pretty much common knowledge. I sent it out to my friends and expected it to get a few likes from the usual suspects, and it did. A friend suggested that I share it, so I agreed.
Three days later the post had been ‘liked’ nearly 30,000 times. I had 500 friend requests and my Twitter accounts went off the charts, netting me around 800 new followers. My blog is finally being read too, which is nice. I was heartened that so many people supported me. Lots of folks said hello and thanked me for expressing something they instinctively believed. Unfortunately though, some were not of the friendly variety.
I’m now approached from all directions to provide stats, charts, comment and advice. I’m ‘challenged’ daily to justify my views. (I ended up writing a blog to ‘fact check’ my own work) I’ve had to hone my skills as a master diplomat too. Dealing professionally with antagonists hell bent on a fight has been, and still is, a time consuming responsibility. However, I’d by lying if I said I’d not thoroughly enjoyed the whole ride.
But why was it successful?
I have thought long and hard about this and here’s what I know: It was a focused riposte, written directly to the reader. Person to person or rather ‘toe to toe’. I suppose in one way, I gave Facebook a telling off, kneeling down to explain my reasoning and then sent it to sit on the naughty step. I suspect that most people liked it because they instinctively know the truth. Their mum, who claims DLA isn’t a scrounger because they know how she struggles with her health. Their brother isn’t a shirker because they know how many jobs he’s applied for. Their uncle doesn’t have a spare room, he has a box room which you couldn’t swing a cat in. Every one of them will have been affected by these changes or know someone who is.
“I suspect that most people liked it because they instinctively know the truth.”
The other biggest selling point was the facts and figures. I infused it with all that I could remember from my research. And, for good measure, I threw in a pie chart which showed a breakdown of the overall benefits budget. It was easy on the eye, colourful and simple. They loved that pie chart, it was big news to Facebook.
I’m not getting carried away though. I’ve tried to repeat it and had very limited success. There was something about that 500 word rant which worked. If I could bottle it, I would. And, let’s put it in perspective; underneath my respectable 30,000 liked post sits a video of a fluffy kitten with 45,000 likes.
Photo: Jon Leighton
Why do you think people have got the wrong idea about welfare/unemployment? What sort of picture do people have of it?
It’s all to easy for someone in employment who is working hard, struggling themselves to keep their head above water to look across the road, see someone else who is out of work and vent their frustrations against them. No one wants to be stuck on benefits. No one, given the choice of a productive and positive future, would choose to stay on benefits. The people who are claiming JSA right now will tell you that it’s nothing more than financial purgatory, a debilitating existence. Nothing more. Often something less.
I understand the feelings people have but their real anger should be focused on a system that is content to allow the vast majority of wealth to be concentrated at the very top. Reported this week (in April) was the fact that 200 people in Britain have over £300 billion stashed away. This is why we’ve got austerity, right there.
Can you explain what you think this negative view of welfare/it’s size/the people on it, is doing to our society? Who is gaining from promoting this picture?
The welfare debate now has some buzz phrases associated with it. These phrases have been hammered home by this government over the past few years and have been very effective in shaping the narrative:
‘Hard working families’
‘Something for nothing’
The truth is, these phrases are political inventions -focus group tested to within an inch of their life to create maximum impact and extract maximum effect. They are not at all descriptive of the problems within the benefits system at the moment. They appeal to our most human of failings; the willingness to blame someone in a crisis. Tag an easy target, voiceless, powerless, unpopular and you have the beginnings of a good old-fashioned moral panic. Remember single mums? Or asylum seekers? Or the Irish? Or Jewish people? This kind of propaganda has some unpalatable historical precedents.
“If you want to change the culture, you need to look at the associated spend on housing, education and training.”
However, that’s not to say that I disagree with welfare reform per se. There is some merit to the argument that people can get ‘parked’ on benefits for too long and this serves as more of a hindrance than an incentive to get back into work. However, reforming welfare cannot be seen in isolation. If you want to change the culture, you need to look at the associated spend on housing, education and training. We have a skills shortage and are not preparing ourselves for the challenges of the 21st century. Our education system shies away from creating engineers and scientists for industry or computer programmers for the hi-tech economy. Instead we are content to pack people off to university to become media savvy (An over-simplification I know but it’s probably not far off!).
Inevitably, in any system there are people who do not play by the rules. I’d ask the question though whether the benefit fraud rate of 0.7% (DWP figs) is the best place to start when forming welfare policy. Clearly those who are defrauding the system should be brought to book and suffer the consequences of their actions. The fraud equates to £1.2 billion (again DWP figs). This is by any standards, astonishingly low given the overall welfare budget. You would think that from reading the Daily Mail it was rife. It’s not. Also, to put the fraud rate into perspective, the CAB [Citizens Advice Bureau] estimate that £11billion of benefits go unclaimed each year.
Here’s Part Two of the interview.
Follow Jon on Twitter via @Welfare__Reform
And his blog here http://pokerfiend71.wordpress.com/