I, Daniel Blake – squeezed, cheated and dehumanized by benefits? #FilmReview

By Victoria Collins

It’s not about how accurate or inaccurate the film is, it’s about how people feel they’re being squeezed, cheated and dehumanized by a system that’s supposed to support them. Ken Loach’s latest work, heralded as one of his best and winner of the Palme D’Or, highlights four major themes that need to be reformed in the UK benefits system: an unjust and complicated system, a lost vision of getting people back to work, a lack of understanding, and a sense of dehumanization.

I, Daniel Blake, tells the story of a 59-year-old Geordie[1] who has been told he cannot work by his doctors but is disqualified from disability benefits. He therefore has to look for a job in order to still get financial support from the state. To appeal against it he has to come off benefits. This is not exactly the benefits trap, which usually describes when you’re better off being on benefits than working, but this story highlights the twisted complexity and feeling of injustice that people find when looking to the state for support. (An older article from the Guardian touches upon this issue, if you’d like to read more)

To look for that work, Daniel Blake is pushed through a series of administrative hoops not adapted to his industry, or indeed his age, as an experienced carpenter. He must fill in forms online and go to useless workshops while his genuine attempts to look for work are undermined. I’m sure that there are some useful workshops out and I’m sure some job centres do help get people back into work but certain aspects are not working. I know, for example, when I was on unemployment benefits filling out forms listing what I’d done seemed ridiculous and for others it may not be enough. I suppose the question the film is asking, is surely there’s a better way to get people back into work?

Daniel looks for work, and so does Katie another main character. She may not be “highly skilled” but she can work, she’s desperate to work, she wants to feed her two kids, herself and make a better life. She applies for jobs, goes from door to door but she finds it nigh impossible. She’s demoralised and hungry as a result. This desperate situation is highlighted by the high numbers of people at foodbanks (charity organised distribution of food to those in need). The Trussel Trust, a charity with the largest number of foodbanks in the UK, distributed more than 500,000 three day emergency food parcels from April to September 2016, of which over 188,500 were to children. Unemployment is now at 4,8%, the lowest since 2005 but people are still feeling the strain. The Trussel Trust tried to talk to the government about the problems they see and have apparently been refused an audience.

An overarching theme is that of dehumanization. The anguish you feel from the characters fighting against the system, the way job centre staff treat problems, the rules that are set out to drive home this feeling. The main characters are set up to be small cogs pushed around in a big system. This is not to be undermined, a welfare system which is making people feel like numbers does not make for a constructive society. At the end of the day most people are trying to make a better life for themselves and the system should help them in a way that makes them they feel like people and indeed engaged citizens.

To follow I’d like to look at the issues in the UK welfare system and what can be done.

[1] Person from Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

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