Sunday, 19 June 2011

Unconsidered consequences

Why are people on Housing Benefit? Because they're on low incomes. Why are people on low incomes? Generally speaking because they are unemployed, working part time, or working minimum wage jobs. Often this is because of restrictions placed upon people like health problems. Like back problems. On any given day, 1% of the population are off sick because of back pain, and it's the second most common cause for long-term sickness leave. (

Back pain covers a multitiude of experiences - an acute muscle spasm caused by gardening too much at the weekend, or a general nagging ache in your lower back, to conditions like Cauda Equina - the spinal cord at the very base of your spine being constricted, causing excrutiating pain, numbness in the legs, and incontinence.

I am one of the many people with low-grade, nagging, no clear cause back pain, with referred pain in my hips, thighs, and calves. There's no clear reason for this, I just know that, at 29 years old I swear with pain when I'm getting on and off the toilet, and feel like my partner has bruised me if he gives my bum a playful squeeze.

I've seen a physio and been given exercises to do to maintain, and hopefully improve my flexibility, as my muscles are very tight and I don't have great mobility in my spine. I need floor space to do these exercises. I'm not large - 5' 6", with an armspan roughly to match. So I need less than 6 foot squared of clean, clear floor to lie on, plus something to balance myself with (such as a chair) for some of the standing exercises.

I'm lucky, I live in a one bedroom flat, meaning my living room fulfils this function nicely. When I stay at my partner's, I can only do about half of the stretches recommended, because he lives in a room in a shared house. That room would be the living room, but it's been converted to a bedroom so three people can share the house, making the rent affordable.

This room houses a bed, wardrobe, desk, long stool, and bookshelves. There's room for me to lie on the floor, but not really move once I'm down there.

My partner is 34, and isn't on Housing Benefit. Were he reliant on Housing Benefit to pay his rent, would be ineligible for anything more than one room for another two years. As it is this is what he can afford. And I know lots of other people in a similar situation. They live in one room, paying £90 - £120 a week for that one room, and the living room is, more often than not, converted to a bedroom. This is what the government deems people aged 35 and under to require.

Now, lets imagine my partner is the one with the back problem, having to do physio twice a day to try to stay mobile. Where does he do this? He's 6' 4" inches tall - he needs space to exercise. Going to the gym sounds sensible. That costs £40 a month, give or take a few quid. Council subsidised gym memberships are hard to come by because of cuts to council budgets, and is it reasonable to expect someone to go to the gym twice a day, every day, weekday or weekend?

You need moderate warmth as you exercise, lying on a cold floor ends up sending the muscles into spasm as you try to stretch them gently, make them compliant and forgiving. You need to be able to afford to heat your home in winter to not end up locked up in pain.

When my back's in spasm I can't move. I can't get off the sofa without help. I can't get on the bus to go to a gym to lie on the floor there and cry whilst I try to unknot my muscles. That's something I'd rather do in private, thanks.
So when the government restricts the amount of space people can live in, they need to think of the unintended consequences of limiting people living on benefits to existing in one room.

I think there are people in the government not joining the dots. Not seeing the big picture. The media, aided and abetted by the government labels people with health conditions - like back problems - as, basically, workshy, but at the same time restricts the wherewithal for people to manage these conditions, and this is fundamentally wrong.

(Thanks over at Broken of Britain for cross posting this. If you're here via some other route, go there and read people far more eloquent than me on similar topics. )

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