Humiliating benefit systems undermine self-respect

‘When you lose your self-respect, you’re done’
I, Daniel Blake is a British-French drama film about a 59-year-old skilled craftsman, widowed, living in Newcastle.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), is recovering from a severe heart attack. For the first time in his life, he needs help from the State.


Daniel has been advised by his doctor to take a break from manual labor because he is too ill to work. He should be eligible for Employment and Support Allowance to tide him over. The benefit eligibility test results in twelve out of the necessary fifteen points for the payment; the system decides that Daniel is fit for work. He is redirected to Jobseeker’s Allowance.
What follows are his increasing struggles. We see him trying to navigate the UK benefits system that is meant to serve those in need. Instead of serving it is humiliating in its paternalism and punitive approach. Daniel has to spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs on the orders of the job’s centers work coach. At the same time he is trying to reverse the decision to deny him illness benefits. In both cases he is forced to use the computer that he has never touched before in his life. The constant use of words like ‘clients’ and ‘service users’, the endless filling in of online forms and the perpetual waiting on government phone lines, torture this craftsman.


During his struggle he befriends a single parent Katie (Hayley Squires), and her two young children, Daisy and Dylan. After two years in a one-roomed homeless hostel in London, Katie had to move to Newcastle, 300 miles away from London. There is no affordable housing in London for people like Katie although the city has 10,000 empty homes. Shortly after moving to Newcastle, Katie’s benefits are frozen, leaving her penniless, and desperate. She is not able to feed her family or heat their flat. She has been punished for being five minutes late for her first appointment at the Jobseeker’s Office.

Both Katie and Daniel are confronted with a welfare system that is careless and not interested in humans that try to survive in hard and chaotic circumstances. They take care of each other and their relationship is touching, textured and full of care.
Daniel’s skills and qualities are not the kind that the market rates highly since they have little monetary value. Qualities such as compassion, integrity, care and honesty have no worth in the job seeking process. ‘I give you my word’, he says to his job coach, but she replies: ‘what is your word worth?’ Hard evidence of sent out resumes, not a ‘word’, that is what she wants. This dialogue manifests a shift in understanding of the self. An idea of morally oriented ‘character’ is displaced by psychological notions of ‘personality’. Daniel has to perform self-government and self-responsibility. At the same time care and compassion are highly honored in the voluntary social networks. The people involved in the food bank are very supportive. Daniel’s old workmates and the couple of neighbors (practicing semi-legal activities), keep offering to help. It’s in sharp contrast with the state bureaucracy that dehumanizes both the few well-meaning providers of that service and the people on the receiving end in times of ‘necessary’ austerity.
The film consists of a perfect mix of understatements, humor and tragic. A very funny scene occurs when Daniel attends a course about ‘how to write a CV’. The instructor asks his audience of jobless people what they all should do when there is only one job available in a coffee corner. Daniel answers: ‘We need to drink more coffee’, suggesting that job creation is of high urgency. But the right answer is: they have to distinguish themselves in their CV’s. Daniel’s ‘But there are not enough jobs!’ is not heard.
Finally, Daniel is invited to go to the appeal court. Katie supports him when he meets his welfare rights adviser. His case looks sound on the basis of the obtained copies of the medical record. But what will the judge and doctor decide?
The film shows more than once, in an unsentimental and realistic way, what desperate people might feel driven to do.

Ken Loach

The film is directed by Ken Loach, 80 years old, and written by Loach’s frequent collaborator Paul Laverty. It won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival which makes Loach one of only a handful of filmmakers to have won the award twice. The societally engaged Loach has been a filming activist throughout his life. In I, Daniel Blake, Loach addresses deep problems of late modernity and people ‘equally’ held responsible for their lives and fate. The State is privatizing structural social problems and understands poverty as a lack of self-responsibility instead of systematic and tragic structural issues. Insecurity, humiliation and suffering are not ‘new’ as such. It is the combination with an ethos of self-development and self-help that is new. Worth mentioning is that the actors are portraying officials of the Department of Work and Pensions in the film have actually worked there. They are obvious familiar with the jobseeker sanctioning systems that the film showcases. As the film shows, as soon as anybody tries to step outside of the regime to be helpful, she is penalized for it.
Loach wants to tell a private story that is universal at the same time. Many countries use bureaucratic systems like the UK does. It is a cruel reality, for those that fall through the cracks of society, to experience that their vulnerability increases by social and political constructs. They end as people who have nothing to lose but their self-respect.

After 100 minutes film it remained silent for a while in the movie theater.


About the author: Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp (1957) has master’s degrees in both Theology and Ethics of Care and is currently a PhD-candidate at the VU-University of Amsterdam. In her thesis she examines, from a care-ethical perspective, how citizen-patients are seen in the context of the upcoming experience economy. More specifically, she examines how ‘patient-experience-central’ market models deal with the concepts of vulnerability and suffering. She works as a freelance pastor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.