• Alan Martin

All The Fun of the Welfare

I’ve been reading the media coverage (both left and right) about welfare reform for some time without really commenting. But today’s intervention by George Osborne finally pushed me into belated action. The part of the speech that caught me was this little snippet:

“Now, those who defend the current benefit system are going to complain loudly. These vested interests always complain, with depressingly predictable outrage, about every change to a system which is failing.”

As if the Tory Party is without its own set of obviousvested interests’, but I digress: here are my thoughts as one without any vested interests. I am not a member of the Labour Party, I have never voted Labour, I have never claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance or Housing Benefits and I don’t work in the public sector. I am unlikely, thanks entirely to good fortune I believe, to ever need to fall back on the welfare state for survival. And yet I think it is absolutely essential that the welfare state does survive.

That is down to one thing: empathy. I may not have the experience of living on a tiny amount of state handout, but I’m good enough at Maths (and that’s not really very good at all, by the way) to realise that £111.45 (Job Seekers Allowance at its absolute top end) per week isn’t very much to get by on. As I have no experience of this, you can get an excellent breakdown of how that money would get eaten up in no time elsewhere on the web. I actually believe that most politicians are privately aware that their rhetoric about ‘strivers vs skivers’ is a cartoon caricature of a problem that is massively overblown, but they don’t dare challenge it as being soft on welfare is political kryptonite. This is not an excuse: just because it’s political rather than intellectual cowardice doesn’t make a great deal of difference: it’s still cowardice, however you paint it. Ultimately, what’s the point in an opposition party if they don’t challenge the government’s implausible definitions? This probably goes a long way to revealing the reasoning behind my earlier statement that I have never voted Labour, but I digress again. You can read a brilliant response to the tired arguments against welfare here, rather than me regurgitating the same thing again.


Which brings me onto the recent petition to get Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary to put his money where his mouth is and live on just £53 per week, after he casually tossed off that he could do it if necessary. I signed it myself, but have been kind of questioning whether I should have done since, mainly because it risks trivialising the issue. It’s not so much that living on £53 for a week is impossible - I reckon I could have a stab at it, uncomfortable as it would be - but that doing it as a temporary stunt misunderstands the very nature of true grinding poverty, where it’s truly endless, and a sudden unexpected expense could ruin you. I could go on at great length here, but Alex Andreou in The New Statesman explains why much more articulately with genuine experience to back it up, so I shall leave that there. Since I started writing this piece, Duncan Smith has told his local constituency paper that the whole thing is a ‘complete stunt’ - he’s right, of course, but entirely wrong if he thinks that’s going to end the whole thing. Also, in saying that he’s been ‘on the breadline’ twice before (a claim that has come under some scrutiny already) kind of misses the point when he is in the process of cutting rates to levels comparatively lower than what they were when he used them, in a time when there are barely any jobs around, and his government is in the process of demonising people using the safety net as ‘scroungers’ (though not, to his credit, something that Duncan Smith does. According to a Telegraph blog post he was “absolutely livid” when he heard about a Tory poster campaign contrasting a nice family in work with a feral one on benefits).

But that’s an aside, really. Duncan-Smith’s most controversial moment so far has come through Workfare, a scheme encouraging people to work in return for their benefits to give them experience to get a job in the long run. Laudable on paper, but making it compulsory with sanctions for those that decline, and giving free labour to multi-million pounds like Tesco and Poundland is oddly counter-intuitive for a country so clearly desperate for growth. In my experience working in the media has taught me anything, it’s that free trumps paid for everything. I think most people would be in favour if the work was for not-for-profits, or local council projects for the good of the community, but it’s hard to sympathise with saving Tesco a few quid on their salary bill, that would then be taxable income for someone no longer drawing JSA. The whole benefits for work thing reminds me vaguely of Keynes’ not-to-be-taken-seriously idea that you could pay people to dig holes and fill them in again, rather than having them idle. It’s not the first time government rhetoric feels like it’s from a bygone age.

DELIBERATELY BLURRED DEFINITIONS The government say that the welfare bill is enormous, and that’s kind of true, but the trouble is they’re deliberately vague about what’s covered under welfare, because people automatically assume this is mainly housing benefit and job seekers’ allowance: in other words ‘the scroungers’ in the cartoon rhetoric they choose to frame the debate in. This actually isn’t fair, as this handy tax calculator will explain. Simply pop in your earnings there, and it will break down your daily tax return. With my salary, I pay just over £11 per day to ‘helping others’, but just over 50p on unemployment and housing benefit. Old age is over half of that, but the elderly are rarely hammered by budgets because they tend to be the group most likely to get out and vote and the public are a lot more sympathetic to the elderly than the unemployed. If you put the maximum salary of £200,000 per year into the calculator, JSA and housing benefit comes in at just over a fiver a day: hardly generous, compared to the £46.83 old age care goes up to. Sadly it’s hard to imagine Labour hammering the Tories over benefits in the same way they did with ’the granny tax’. Suffice it to say, a lot of the hostility towards social security comes from the misinformation about it, shown in the infographic at the top of the page, and expanded on in more detail here.

But even if you do object to paying a fraction of your taxes to the unemployed or underpaid (yep, as the graph at the top says only 3% of the welfare bill goes to the unemployed) the point about taxation is that you don’t get to pick and choose the bits you want to fund: it’s a social obligation. I put up with funding the monarchy (which went up £5,000,000 or 16% this year), nuclear technology and bank bailouts as part of the collective tax burden, and don’t particularly like it, but accept it as part of my social contract. Yet part of the rhetoric in the attack on social security is it being about getting value for the tax payer by getting the most out of those in the safety net. Odd: you don’t hear the government offering to launch our nukes when they’re expiring to get our money’s worth with a nice firework display.

Ultimately all this comes down to priorities. Don’t believe the argument that welfare is no longer affordable: it is if enough people deem it to be a priority, and it becomes politically expedient again (though support has dropped by half in the last 20 years). Personally my views on welfare can be summed up as follows: I’d rather we overspent and some people exploited the system, rather than we underspent and many genuinely needy people couldn’t survive. This doesn’t seem that radical an idea to me, so why won’t the opposition do the right thing and speak up convincingly for the most vulnerable, without needing to cover themselves with so many caveats that their support is essentially meaningless?

[CORRECTION 7/04/13: Someone with a great deal of knowledge about the workings of Job Centre Plus tells me that you can claim interview travel costs, so this wouldn’t come out of JSA. I have removed the suggestion that it would.]

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Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet