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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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'Dear Joan: Today, I sat in a dole office and cried to a complete stranger through a glass partition'

An open letter to the Minister for Social Protection: “I left that office embarrassed, angry, degraded, and a shadow of the educated, confident woman I am meant to be.”

Anonymous

DEAR JOAN,

We are apparently out of a recession – things are looking up, they say. But today, after working consistently from about the age of 15, until now, 34, I sat in a dole office in Dublin and cried to a complete stranger through a glass partition.

He told me I was not entitled to a red cent. I had applied for social welfare at the end of 2014, after being let go from my job. When I went in to apply for benefit I was told that they are working off of 2012 – I was self employed from 2008 to 2012 – so therefore I would need to be means tested, I could not automatically get my stamps/credits – I was a company employee in 2013 and 2014.

I was honest with them, and said that I lived with my boyfriend who was currently self-employed. We both submitted a myriad of paperwork – tax clearance certs dating back to 2010, bank account statements, credit union statements, company accounts dating back to 2012. You name it, I handed it over. During my time as a self-employed person, I was a sole trader and earned a very average wage, between 28-40K over the years. Nothing to be opening offshore accounts for. My partner, again self-employed, makes closer to 50K, a good wage, but again, nothing to get too excited about – we are no Donald Trump, and my partner is self-employed because he has to be, not because he wants to be.

After all the paperwork was looked at, we were told we were over the threshold, he earned too much. Two people, with a Dublin mortgage, bills, small debts, living costs etc; he earned too much, and I could not get Jobseekers’ Benefit. I accepted this and went on my way to looking for more jobs.

When the New Year rolled over, and things became very tight, I went back into the dole office today to see if now – as they would be working of 2013 – I could draw down my stamps. I sat in the public area for nearly an hour, and as I sat there I overheard story after story, one person after another come in making a new claims, following up current claims or just updating address – who, from what I could hear, have been on Jobseekers’ Benefit forever, and I can only presume that some have never worked a day in their lives.

I heard a young girl say her carers allowance had stopped as her granny went into a nursing home so can she now get her dole – ‘before I got the carers allowance, I was on jobseekers’. So she went from Jobseekers’, to Carers Allowance, and now back to Jobseekers’? She couldn’t have been more that 20, and it all seemed to be kosher with the guy behind the glass, he didn’t even ask her if she was actively looking for work – something I had to prove (happily) when I filed the myriad of paperwork in October.

Next up, a foreign lady explained her own situation, which seemed to be fine, but went on to ask if her friend, working in Ireland but who’s child lived abroad, could get child benefit, ‘I heard she can’, the lady said. The man sounded a little hesitant on the matter, but sent the lady off on her merry way with guidelines for her friend. Friend is here, said baby is not.

Then it was my turn. At this point my anger had turned into tears. I told myself, ‘If he says you can’t get anything DO NOT cry’! I explained that I knew we had been refused in the past – due to my partners HUGE paycheque and off shore accounts! – but now, as we were in a new year, maybe my stamps for 2013 would be OK, and being almost three months out of work – I know that is not a lot for many people – it was taking its toll on us financially.

He looked into my files, said I ‘might’ be able to get income off my credits and went off to check it out. I have to say he was super nice and helpful, but the answer was still no. I didn’t work up enough stamps in 2013 – I was self-employed for the first half of that year – and the tears started to flow. I couldn’t contain it. I asked him how, when I had been working for so long, could this be? I said ‘I know self-employed tax is a different tax bracket, and we don’t get the dole, but surely seven months of being in PRSI company employment in 2013 and almost a year in 2014 would entitle me to something? Plus, I still paid my taxes when I was self-employed! I have more than paid it into the system. And I only need it for about a month, I have two job prospects for February onward?’

He looked at me and didn’t really know what to say. I said that I had heard the stories in the dole office, and that I know I have paid more into the system than half the people surrounding me, he said ‘I know, I know you have’. He asked if I had kids, I said no. I don’t think he could take my tears much longer so off he went to another colleague to see if there was anyway to work this. I heard her say no, my partner earns too much. When he came back I told him how the threshold for self-employed people is a joke – I think, if you earn just over something like €300 a week as a self-employed person, you basically earn too much! Who put that figure in place?

He then said two things, trying to make the situation better, but it didn’t work – ‘If we could put your credits for 2013 and 2014 together, you have worked enough (therefore in theory, I have worked enough), but we can’t, we work off 2013 only. But next year, if you’re unemployed, you will get the money’. Oh yay! I really can’t wait to be unemployed next year so I can get the money that I paid into the system. ‘Goals for 2016; lose the job you hope to get this year.’ The second, and more annoying, comment was, ‘If you had kids, we could give you something’. Right, let me head off and have a child that I can’t afford while I am waiting to get a job, and whichever comes first – fingers crossed the baby! – then bam, I’m in luck and out of the red.

I am not writing this letter for anyone to feel sorry for me. Believe me, I am well aware that individuals, couples and families are in much more difficult circumstances than I am. I have a partner, and though divided by two his income is not huge, it’s an income and I won’t go hungry. And, I don’t have kids… I can’t afford them. So I am in an OK place. The reason I am writing this is to highlight, yet again, how flawed the welfare system is in Ireland. I have worked hard all my life, from a very young age. I took the initiative – and had the balls, I might add – to start my own business in a time when SMEs and sole traders were encouraged to take the plunge (they keep this country ticking over regarding employment, by the way) and now, when things are not looking so rosy for me, for only a few months while I get my company back up and running and take the same risks again, I am afforded nothing from this government for my hard work and tax money.

I am entitled to nothing. The men and women who sit at home by choice all day, every day, and have never contributed to the system are entitled to more than me. The young people who have children they cannot afford are entitled to everything, but the couple who have decided to be responsible and wait until they can provide everything their child needs can’t get a red cent because it’s just them, no babies involved.

And that was it. I asked, ‘what do I do now’ and he said there was nothing I could do. So I just say a few prayers that the jobs come through, and if they don’t, who knows what will happen, and who even cares? I left that office embarrassed, angry, degraded, and a shadow of the educated, confident woman I am meant to be.

I will come out of this dark time, I am an entrepreneurial person and pretty resourceful when I need to be. But one thing I know for sure, if that day of success ever comes for me in my own company, I will use every trick in the book to make dame sure I pay you, Enda and Joan, as little as is humanly possible – any good accountants out there? – because, clearly, being honest and working hard does not pay off in the hard times.

Thanks a lot. Happy New Year.

The author wishes to be anonymous.

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