Ken Loach’s most recent film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of Daniel, a fifty nine year old joiner from Newcastle, and Katie, an out of work single mother of two from London. They become perhaps unlikely friends after meeting in a job centre. Daniel has been advised by medical professionals that he is not ready to return to work having had a major heart attack. Though as a result of the inflexible Department for Work and Pensions assessment for sickness benefits he is found fit for work and migrated to job seekers allowance. Katie has been moved from a hostel in London to social housing in Newcastle. She has her benefits sanctioned when she is late to her job centre meeting having got lost on the way there. Both Daniel and Katie experience an unmanageable shortfall in their income as a result of their engagement in the UK welfare system and the film chronicles their journey and their friendship. Debate around the film has largely been focused on its accuracy. Right wing commentators have objected to the film, complaining of exaggeration and sensationalism. These objections have been thoroughly debunked, with many praising the film and Loach for his unflinching portrayal of life at the sharp edge of welfare ‘reform’.
At fifty-nine, Daniel is at the younger end of the baby boomer cohort. This is, of course, the generation that were told that the NHS would be there for them from cradle to grave. They were born into a welfare state, where they could access sickness benefit, and saw the introduction of income replacing long term sickness benefits for those deemed unable to (re)enter the workforce. For those (men) that did work, there was a reasonable expectation that they would receive state pension and perhaps enjoy a period of subsidised work-free time in retirement. Daniel has paid into the system his entire working life. As such, as a citizen of a welfare state, he presumes support in his time of need. In the film Daniel is bewildered by the system he enters. The state welfare system does not appeal to his sense of fairness or event to his understanding of common sense. The lack of support he receives violates his expectations of the social contract.
Recent changes to the delivery of state welfare for disabled people and those with long term health conditions have the specific effect of pushing people back to work, irrespective of their capacity to do the work that is available or whether the available work provides any form of income security. The government seemingly view worklessness as an entirely supply-side issue. Added to the increase in state pension age (particularly steep for women), and the cost of taking an employer to tribunal for those in problematic work – the government is clearly following an unapologetic agenda to get as many people as possible in a ‘work ready’ limbo, and keep them there for as long as possible. Further to this, the rhetoric delivered by the media and politicians divides recipients into false categories of deserving and undeserving that stigmatise people who are not in work (including those with long term health conditions), cultivating an environment of shame and competition. The current system is not at all reflective of Daniel’s expectations. It presents a new model of citizenship, one based on each individual’s capacity to earn and to look after oneself, not one of collective goodwill ratified by social policy.
The social contract that Daniel expected is replaced instead with an individual contract, a ‘claimant commitment’, which takes no account of his work history, his role as a carer for his late wife or indeed his health. Daniel is presented with a written contract at the Jobcentre that he must sign to receive job seeker’s allowance while he appeals the decision on his sickness benefits. To fulfil this new social contract, Daniel must evidence spending full working hours job hunting, attend courses and complete a CV. Here, demonstrated in the film with wry humour, we see the farce of this contract. Daniel seeks work how he always has; person to person in industrial units, pounding the pavements, handing out handwritten CVs that reflect a working life that has not necessitated becoming IT literate. At one point Daniel is even offered a job, but can’t accept it on account of his health or his benefits, for which he is shamed by his would-be employer. Daniel’s efforts are sneered at by unsympathetic Jobcentre plus staff and earn him a sanction.
The film shows the quiet desperation of poverty caused by benefit sanctions, including a harrowing scene in a foodbank (the government steadfastly refuse to associate sanctions with foodbank usage, despite compelling evidence of such an association). Sanctions are demonstrative of the punitive stick rather than carrot welfare system. This stick, we know frequently provides people with insufficient income for an acceptable standard of living and places ever increasing conditionality on those people who are claiming support. Neither of the film’s protagonists are able to adapt to the new model of citizenship, Katie because of her caring commitments for her two young children, and Daniel because of his health. They are both forced into making painful decisions out of financial necessity. Katie resorts to shoplifting and then prostitution and Daniel sells all his furniture and carpets. His experience in particular provides a devastating critique of the current distribution of welfare for ill and disabled people in the UK.
In I, Daniel Blake Ken Loach delivers a eulogy for the post World War two social contract. The baby boomers are supposed to have won the generational lottery, but in Daniel we instead see someone plunged into a nonsensical system which makes unreasonable and inflexible demands of a man who is not yet well enough to return to work. Laid bare is the hypocrisy of a system that doesn’t reward exactly who it claims to support; the ‘deserving’ unwell, the ‘strivers’. Daniel is not illustrative of the (non-existent) dependency culture, he wants to return to work, he does what he is asked to do. Ill people and disabled people can try to fulfil their duties as citizens, strive to meet the ever changing requirements made of them to become ‘deserving’ recipients of welfare, but the time of the social contract is over. We are entering the era of the individualised citizen contract, no longer able to rely on the collective goodwill or state welfare as a financial safety net. The rules of the game have changed, and those that find themselves in the position of Daniel or Katie are finding out the hard way.
‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief,
I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen, I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.
I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don’t accept or seek charity.
My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.’