An Epistolary Project

letters to a reader, unknown

Tag: food parcels

Moral disgust, financial discipline and efficiency: Smartcards and 21st century welfare.

During late 2012 a debate began on the discussion board of a group I belong to. It focused on developing local currencies and promoting local businesses through Smartcard technologies. What concerned me wasn’t the technology, but the attitudes that seeped casually around the edges of the discussion about the necessity and inevitability of smartcard use for welfare recipients, alongside a morally ambiguous justification for the control of other people’s expenditure via smartcard technology. I felt angry at this liberal iteration of the disciplining of the ‘out-of-work poor’, but also painfully ignorant about the background to the broader issues. This prompted me to do some research into the genesis of Smartcards. This first post summarises some of the policy background and current uses that I’ve discovered; subsequent posts will explore other aspects of the prepay landscape.


Smart Cards entered our collective consciousness during autumn 2012, as Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), Work and Pensions Secretary, unleashed his attempts to discipline Britain’s ‘troubled’ families. In unveiling his proposals at the Conservative Conference October 2012, IDS framed them as ‘better value for taxpayers’ money’, but, in his rhetoric, cast doubt on the lifestyle of all benefit claimants:
I am looking […] at ways in which we could ensure that money we give [benefit claimants] to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle.[Telegraph 13.10.2013]

MP Alex Shelbrooke, in his (rejected) private member’s bill, December 2012, provided a glimpse into the underlying moral and punitive attitudes towards benefit recipients amongst the Tory heartlands, when he argued for a ‘welfare cash card’ to limit spending to absolute basics.  UKIP then jumped on the benefit bandwagon, reiterating the demonising narrative that benefit recipients are financially reckless and spending ‘your’ hard-earned taxes irresponsibly.

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Fruit cake, soup and packets of tea.

We all have other tales we tell, or not, about ourselves.

I have variously been: production line worker, agricultural labourer, Unemployed Centre dogsbody, housing department administrator, psychiatric nursing assistant, all encountered as I worked my way through the education system post-1960. University in the 1970s was a shock to my Northern working class sensibilities as I met, for the 1st time, the southern middle classes, along with the cosmopolitan elite with their sports cars & weekends in Paris & Milan.

My mother sent me weekly food parcels filled with fruit cakes, soup mix & packets of tea (Ringtons, of course), all essentials, in her eyes, for survival in the alien South; these weekly parcels from Newcastle caused much amusement amongst the college porters, as well as recognition. She couldn’t send me money so she did the only thing available to her: baked me cakes & made me soup, by proxy. My college roommates never understood my parcels & clearly saw my mother as a strange northern creature; they always giggled when I returned with my rather crumpled offerings from the pigeonholes. I felt both embarrassed & protective of these strange missives from home arriving in my new world of higher education. Yet, they provided the anchorage I needed, connecting me back to the realities of life in the North East, amidst the enervating oxygen of academic debate & reading. Not all was wonderful; I found my situation alien most of the time whilst also revelling in great freedom.

Some writers, discussing cultural & social capital have argued that social & cultural connections can both support & hinder people. I’ve sometimes felt my background hindered, but, on reflection, it has grounded me, bringing a much-needed sense of reality to my views & actions in the world. I remember having tea with one of my university tutors soon after I’d graduated & had begun teaching apprentices as a Further Education  lecturer on Tyneside: think Wilt with a Geordie accent. I was evangelical about culture & the masses. I told him tales of my adventures in my General Studies classes, how I’d managed to get a class interested in Dylan Thomas by reading Under Milk Wood, aloud. They competed to do the reading & listened in anticipation of the bits about sex; they greedily absorbed Richard Burton’s classic recording, abandoning their customary clock-watching (this was a classic 4pm General Studies slot). He commented that I must feel my work worthwhile compared to my other option, continuing through to Masters. I agreed then; now I wouldn’t see them as mutually exclusive.

What happened to chase me away from academic study when it was the one thing I’d always enjoyed? That is the subject of another post.

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