I cheered this morning when I read on Twitter a plea for a “nuanced debate about benefits, which doesn’t assume polar split between the hardworking & benefit scroungers.” Yes, please, but it feels like a long way off.
Much of the debate about cuts has seemed to concentrate on cases at the further extremes. The debate about housing benefit focused on the argument that it’s not fair for hard-working taxpayers (HWTs) to subsidise workshy benefit-dependents living in expensive houses in central London, so benefits must be capped. Jeremy Hunt raised the spectre of large families with lots of children being supported by HWTs when changes to child benefit were being discussed.
The biggest HWT issue of all is benefit given to the long-term unemployed – too easily demonised as a workshy mass who can’t be bothered to work (but want money for fags and booze and have lots of kids).
The World at One’s package on the welfare reforms proposed today was illustrated with an interview with two women from the Glasgow district of Easterhouse, where Ian Duncan Smith was first converted to the cause of welfare reform. Neither of them had worked in a decade, one had spent the past ten years taking drugs. Both felt that threats to take their benefits away were disgraceful and that, for different reasons, they couldn’t be expected to work. However liberally-minded you are it’s hard to argue that a system which allows this is a good one – although the question of exactly what kind of work they might actually be able to do inevitably springs to mind.
The Glaswegian duo though, shouldn’t be used to represent everyone who needs the support of benefits. As it happens, housing benefit is far more likely to be paid to HWTs to help out with high living costs caused by a shortage of affordable housing than to feckless families in penthouses in Kensington. The long-term unemployed haven’t all made a lifestyle choice to be on benefits – many are qualified, highly motivated, clever people, desperate to work in an economy where there are no jobs and little in the way of accessible, affordable childcare.
I don’t think anyone is arguing that the welfare system doesn’t need to be reformed. Drawing battle lines between the “undeserving poor” and the rest of us, though, just generates heat without light. Labelling those who accept benefits as scroungers; pleading that it’s “not fair” to pay for services we ourselves don’t need, undermines support for the whole system and the social good it generates for everyone. Time, I think, to claim back the notion of “fairness” before the welfare state is dismantled around us.