Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: poverty

Questions about Disability Cuts

I was recently asked by the Almeida Theatre company to answer a few questions about myself and my point of view. I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had written to them, so thought I might publish the questions and my answer here out of interest.

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and the job you do?

I am the Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, which is an independent think tank, formed in 2009, to try and develop ideas and policies to strengthen and reform the welfare state. We believe everybody matters and work to help build a world which values human diversity and where we treat each other as equals. The Centre mostly relies on voluntary efforts from citizens to research and share good ideas or to examine policies and injustices. Personally I split my time between research, writing and helping people solve social and system problems.

2. Could you tell us (assuming we know nothing about it) how collective cuts are impacting the lives of disabled people and how they are being targeted by the government?

 When the Coalition Government came to power it announced a series of cuts across most areas Government, although largely protecting pensions, the NHS and education. These cuts were particularly severe in two areas: Benefits and local Government. What the Government did not say, but which anyone who understands the basics of Government finance would know, is that severe cuts to benefits and local government will directly impact disabled people:
  1. 60% of local government spending is for children and adults with disabilities – what is called social care – and local government was cut by 30% by the Coalition Government and is being cut again in the Conservative Government. More than half a million people no longer get adult social care – a cut of 30%.
  2. Once you exclude pensions, which the Government did, cuts to benefits means cuts in income to the poorest and particularly to disabled people. In fact only a small percentage of benefits is spent on the unemployed, most of the rest is for disabled people and carers. Disabled people have faced an array of cuts – the picture below perhaps shows it best.
  3. In addition the Government increased the rate of VAT and changed the rules on benefits so that they would lose value over time. Both these policies severely impact on those living in poverty. This policy has continued for the last 6 years, and the cuts get deeper each and every year.

3. Could you tell us a little of the difficulties that disabled people may face when using the job centre service? 

 I think you could break down the difficulties as follows:
  1. The current system is very complex and many people don’t even know that they are entitled to any benefits because of a disability.
  2. If people are aware that they might be entitled to support they need to get through a complex benefit system where entitlements vary because of a whole range of different factors: age, impairment, income, family status, previous employment status.
  3. If people are told they are not entitled to support or if the system just seems too off-putting then many people simply won’t claim money they are entitled to [approx £17 billion is never claimed].
  4. If people do claim then the process of assessment can be very negative and harmful.
  5. If people feel they have been treated unfairly its very difficult to appeal.
  6. Once people are deemed to be entitled to support they can then become part of a Work Programme which may sanction them. The Work Programme has so far given more sanctions than real jobs.
  7. Overall the whole process is depressing, stigmatising and underlines a sense of unworthiness.

4. What is ESA and how are disabled people affected by sanctions?

ESA is the benefit that you get if you are unemployed, disabled and without any other source of income. ESA stands for Employment and Support Allowance and it replaced another benefit called Incapacity Benefit. This benefit has been chiselled away over the past 6 years.
Disabled people confront sanctions in a number of different areas:
  1. Some people are not deemed to be disabled enough for ESA and may instead only get Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). If this is what they get then they must obey rules set by the DWP and the private contractors who run what are called the ‘Work Programme’.
  2. Some people are deemed as eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) but also must join what is called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). This also means being part of the Work Programme and being subject to sanctions.

5. What is the purpose of a benefit sanction?

 Benefit sanctions are meant to make people compliant with the DWP and its private contractors plans and objectives. They are punishments, taking away benefits, for failure to follow ‘the rules’. There are many examples of these punishments (against which you cannot easily appeal) being imposed for obviously stupid reasons.

6. Our play is about poverty and it’s affect on people. Could you explain how and why people on lower incomes are being targeted by the government?

 This is a big question. In brief I would say the reason that people on lower incomes are being targeted would be as follows:
  1. They are a politically weak group who do not always vote, who are not perceived as a swing voter group and who are (particularly now) no longer well represented by the Labour Party.
  2. Since the end of communism the rich and powerful no longer fear revolution and have persuaded the media and many in the public that growing levels of inequality are ‘economically necessary’.
  3. People on low incomes lack systems to organise and mobilise. Trade unions, working mens clubs, churches and other community groups have diminished in strength or don’t reach out to the poorest. In a sense poverty has been privatised.
  4. The systems that support folk in poverty are often detached from universal systems. e.g. a benefit like JSA is poorly understood and stigmatised. The majority of the population see themselves having no stake in the benefit system – it is for ‘others’. Even those needing benefits are divided from each other e.g. disabled people get different benefits to other people on low incomes.

7. Social and financial inequality is at the highest it’s ever been – why is this and what do you think it points to in the future?

 In addition to all the points above there is the problem that the world is changing in other unpredictable ways – climate change, technological change, growing debt (which is just a special kind of socially constructed inequality). Often we don’t know what we can change, what we can protect and what is worth fighting for. Since the development of the welfare state we have often entrusted what is important to government and to politicians and hoped that they would ‘do the right thing.’ Sometimes they have, often they haven’t.

Strangely I think that – after the development of the welfare state and after the cold war – we somehow managed to forget what we were fighting for during the turbulent twentieth century, which was: equality, rights and democracy. Now we seem to have gone to sleep and we expect some mysterious powerful elite to take care of us.

For me the question is whether or not we will wake up and start behaving like citizens: people who take our responsibilities to each other seriously.

If we do not then small problems, that are essentially easy to solve, will grow into cancerous problems that will overwhelm us. We are the key to our own future.

8. How has the bedroom tax affected the lives of people in this country either living with a disability or without?

The bedroom tax is just one other unjust attack on the incomes of the poorest. Its impact includes:
  1. Disabled people losing the space they need for carers or assistive flatmates
  2. People going into debt because they can no longer afford their rent
  3. People moved out of their home community because there is no suitable housing in their own
Essentially the bedroom tax symbolises our deep disregard for community – we can now be ‘priced out’ of our own place, our own history. Local government is not answerable to us – but to the money invested in our homes.

Clever Clever Tories

Recently I was asked on Twitter what was the best rebuttal for the Government’s policy of setting a Benefit Cap; this was shortly after watching a Labour leadership candidate back the Benefit Cap when challenged directly by a BBC journalist.

Clever, clever Tories.

If anyone doubts the cleverness of those in power then consider this:

The Government has devastated the income of the poorest, not by the Benefit Cap, but by a whole series of technical changes to how benefits are claimed and calculated. The poorest 10% of families lost 9% of their post-tax income in the last 5 years – down from a mere £100 per week. Yet the policy which the BBC uses as a litmus test for welfare reform is the Benefit Cap – a policy which applies to very few people (0.1% of families) most of whom live in London and where benefits are simply being used to subsidise excessive rents and therefore actually fund landlords.

Clever, clever Tories

There is no doubt indeed that we are dealing with some very intelligent and cunning people.

This Government’s policy can usefully be divided between:

  • Real policy – which is hard to see but which largely functions to impoverish the poor and to pander to the wallets of middle-earners and the truly wealthy.
  • Apparent policy – which is easy to see and which panders to social prejudices, the need for simplification demanded by journalists and which puts social justice on the back foot.

Of course one of the advantages of Government is that you can instruct your civil service to do most of the work of designing and defending these disgraceful policies. It is hard to compete with the billions invested in defending injustice.

However, perhaps we should think like Sir Frances Drake, when faced by the Spanish Armada: small and sprightly ships, connected by strategy, but attacking from different directions may be what we need.

Why We’re Launching the LDA for England

We are only 8 months or so away from the General Election of the 7th May 2015 and nobody knows who will win that election. However, over the last four years our Government has taught us that people with learning disabilities cannot expect things to get better on their own:

  • Benefits are being cut and sanctions are hurting and shaming people
  • Public services have been cut – 25% fewer people now get social care
  • Cuts target people with severe disabilities 6 times more than most people
  • The bedroom tax and the end of the ILF is making independent living harder 
  • Basic human and legal rights are ignored as Legal Aid is slashed
  • Thousands live in the likes of Winterbourne View instead of their own homes

The cuts and attacks have happened – not because of over-spending on disabled people – but because of bad management by Government and by the financial system. Instead of solving our real problems Government has falsely blamed disabled people for problems they did not create.

I must admit that all of this surprised me. I have no connection to any political party and, as someone who has worked in the public and voluntary sector for 25 years, mostly with people with learning disabilities, I did not expect this level of social injustice. It seems I had too much faith in the decency of the political classes and I expected a much stronger reaction from the Church, charities, the media and the general public. I just never thought things could get this bad.

We seem to be sleep-walking into injustice – how can we wake up? What can WE do?

The novelist Dorothy L Sayers wrote: “A government must be either servant or master. If you do not chivvy it, it may chivvy you.”

In modern English I guess that might translate as:

If you don’t stand up for yourself – then expect to be bossed around.

So, with colleagues, friends and other allies, we have decided to launch Learning Disability Alliance England – LDA for short.

LDA will be hosted by the Campaign for a Fair Society in England.

Our initial development group includes, people from:

  • People First England
  • Bringing Us Together
  • Housing & Support Alliance
  • The Centre for Welfare Reform

Hopefully others will join us as we grow.

We’re still at a very early stage and there’s still lots of details to work out;  but I thought it might be useful to offer some initial thinking about what we are doing and why.

First of all we want to make sure that the voice of people with learning disabilities is as loud and as powerful as possible. That’s why we are going to encourage every individual and organisation we can to join the Learning Disability Alliance.

Second we want as many people and organisations to work together as possible. The opinions of people with learning disabilities are the most important. But others can help. Families are often the key to helping people have the best life possible – they provide love, passion and support – we must listen to families too. And the voices of professionals and workers also count – they mustn’t become too loud or too important – but they still have much to say that can help.

That’s why LDA England is going to give every organisation a vote – BUT we will make sure that people with learning disabilities CANNOT be out-voted.

Third we are going to work with others. I had really hoped that perhaps some bigger alliance might emerge – women, families, disabled people, asylum seekers, the poor – they are all under attack and in an ideal world they would all work together. But this isn’t happening – so we must begin where we can and then reach out to these other groups.

There are one million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Most have family and friends, many have support from paid workers or professionals – together that’s probably about 5 million voters – 10% of the electorate.

Let’s make those votes count. Let’s chivvy back.

So this is our initial plan:

  1. Invite as many organisations as possible to join LDA
  2. Describe what’s wrong and what needs to change – develop LDA’s manifesto
  3. Listen to discussion and debate about these ideas
  4. Vote on our policies – making sure people with learning disabilities can’t be out voted
  5. Publish our own ideas, telling other voters and the politicians
  6. Test each party’s manifesto before the election and decide which best support people with learning disabilities
  7. Encourage as many as people to get out and vote

It’s going to be hard work – but we can do it. We’ve got 8 months to make sure people with learning disabilities get their voice heard and can challenge growing injustice.

Why not join us?

At the moment:

You can like our Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/LDAEngland

You can follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LDAEngland

UPDATE

You can now sign up online: www.learningdisabilityalliance.org

Beyond Rights – Citizenship in the Welfare State

The [new 1834] Poor Law treated the claims of the poor, not as an integral part of the rights of the citizen, but as an alternative to them – as claims which could be met only if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the world.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class 

Marshall, and other advocates of citizenship in the welfare state, often focus their arguments on a justification of our socio-economic rights. They are right to propose that it is very helpful to see ourselves as holding such rights; rightly they refuse to treat the welfare system as a privilege – granted by the wealthy or the powerful.

Welfare systems which are not founded on rights are easily corrupted and will not be sustainable over time.

We can see the difference this makes in practice. In the UK when socio-economic rights are treated as universal (e.g. health and pensions) they seem to gain more support and are better protected from cuts. However when socio-economic rights are poorly defined and targeted, when they are treated as privileges that apply to just a few (e.g. benefits and social care) then they are easily undermined and reduced. Hence social care in England is being cut by over 30% between 2010 and 2015 – an unprecedented cut in welfare spending – but hardly noticed by the media or by the general public.

As the welfare state becomes increasing subject to means-testing, targeting and conditionality the whole edifice will become unstable. In particular some groups will be increasingly perceived as outside the pale of citizenship. People with disabilities, the poor, people with mental health problems, recent immigrants and exiles and many other groups are becoming strangers in their own land.

T H Marshall is of course not to blame for this corruption of the welfare state. But may be it was a mistake to define citizenship too narrowly. Rights are important, but being a citizen is about much more than being a right-holder. We can identify several other dimensions to citizenship:

  1. Citizens are contributors to the public good
  2. Citizens have many rights and duties, independent of their relationship to the state
  3. Citizens are equal
  4. Citizens are not paupers
  5. Citizens are free
  6. Citizens build community together
  7. Citizens rule themselves, though genuinely democratic institutions

1. The virtue of contribution

Positive obligations, like the need to pay our taxes, are more likely to go unrecognised if there is no stress on the virtue of contribution as an aspect of citizenship.

2. The limits of public expenditure

Taxation and public expenditure are not the only means for fulfilling our obligations. It is unhelpful to focus only on the role of the state in adjusting incomes or in providing services. We have other rights and other duties.

Citizens are free and yet bound by a web of obligations to themselves, family, friends, neighbours and the institutions of civil society – as well as their obligation to the state. It is important not to treat our rights (including our socio-economic rights) as merely a function of our willingness to pay taxes. It is critical to the ecology of community to understand the proper role of public expenditure and also to understand how other forms of contribution can develop in harmony with our obligation to pay our taxes.

For example, most support for children and adults who need assistance to grow, flourish and live good lives comes from families. When a parent takes care of their own child they are doing something which is important on very many levels. It is hard to see that there is any benefit in encouraging the parent to stop taking care of their child, go to work, just to earn enough money to pay for someone else to take care of their child.

3. The need for equality

Citizenship demands equality, not absolute equality (which is in fact hostile to citizenship), but a reasonable level of income equality. The focus of utilitarian and liberal theory has been to sacrifice equality to productivity. Even those who argue for equality can fall back on broadly utilitarian arguments which, while not false, somewhat miss their target. While it may be true that inequality is costly even for the wealthy it is somewhat peculiar to appeal to plain self-interest to justify greater equality.

Plato in the Laws [V, 744] suggests that the poorest must be guaranteed a minimum and that the richest must have no more than four times that minimum. For, as all champions of citizenship, like Rousseau, note:

…by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.

Rousseau, The Social Contract.

The requirement for relative equality for citizens is based upon the justified belief that high levels of relative inequality distort human relationships and make it harder for people to see each other as equals or to treat each other as equals. It is not so much income equality in itself that is important, rather it is the risk of damaging self-esteem, while inflating pride.

4. Limiting poverty

It is not just relative income equality that is required by citizenship. Citizenship also demands an absolute ban on poverty, in the sense that poverty means a state of need which overtakes the individual’s capacity to function as a free and independent citizen.

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin, The Romance of Rose

Citizenship helps us here in two ways. First it provides another important reason for protecting socio-economic rights, but in a different way. The imperative to end poverty requires that an absolute minimum be set which guarantees the possibility for free and active contribution. Such freedom from poverty becomes the condition which frees us for practical citizenship – not slavery.

As Aristotle says: You could no more make a city out of paupers than out of slaves

Furthermore the question of what constitutes poverty and what, therefore, constitutes the level of income and support necessary to overcome poverty, becomes central to the design of the welfare state.

In the UK at least the design of the welfare state fails to address either poverty or inequality. Public policy-makers have become very relaxed about excessive wealth, and have convinced themselves that excessive wealth fuels productivity – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Moreover poverty is defined relatively, and so is treated as an absolute fact, which can only be mitigated, but not ended. This is an error.

5. The exercise of freedom

Citizens don’t just have rights and responsibilities, they also have freedoms. Citizenship should be a creative engagement with other citizens; and through this engagement new forms of community life evolve. Unfortunately this fact is not recognised in the design of most welfare systems.

While the existence of the welfare state is often defended by means of the rights of citizens it seems like the design of the welfare state is dictated by the needs and interests of the powerful. Often it seems like a new form of aristocratic rule has evolved within the welfare state itself.

The most extreme example of this can be found in the treatment of people with disabilities. Many people find that their lives are dictated by the welfare state: where people live, who people live with, what people do with their time, what people own and earn – everything is fixed by the state. Other groups may have some more freedom, but they still find their experience of the welfare state stigmatising and damaging: receiving benefit payments, negotiating confused bureaucracies and entering crisis before any assistance is received. Even more, universal services, like education, are highly centralised and standardised – not defined by a partnership of teachers and families – but by the political elite.

People with disabilities have led the way in demonstrating that this pattern of state-controlled welfare is unnecessary and inconsistent with citizenship. The battle to convert social work services into reasonable entitlements, under the control of individuals or families, has been being fought since the 1960s and has led to significant improvement in people’s life experiences.

In public policy there is still a resistance to seeing the exercise of freedom as an aspect of citizenship. These ideas are associated with neo-liberalism or the invasion of the market into the public sphere. But for those interesting in defending the welfare state this seems a risky strategy. It should be the defenders of citizenship who seek to extend freedom to citizens, even when this requires increased accountability and flexibility from the welfare state itself.

6. The role of civil society

Another curious lacuna in our thinking about welfare is the limited role given to civil society. And by civil society here I mean all the institutions and forms of community activity that exist in between the family and the state.

There has lately of course been a great focus on privatisation – an increased role being given to commercial bodies to provide welfare services – and this does involve a partial recognition of the role of civil society. But the language and focus of privatisation has again been rooted in liberal and utilitarian models of public policy.

Again advocates of citizenship can again find themselves in a confused and constrained rhetorical space. They may be critical of state welfare, but then they are also fearful of how state welfare slips into being a new partnership between the state and large commercial companies. There is a sense that the elite of state employees are now making common cause with the elite  of commerce. Often these people turn out to be friends, people who went to the same schools and universities and who also know each other socially.

It seems to me that we need to restore for ourselves greater respect for civil society as a distinct space – what some people call ‘the commons’ – the area we all own, together.

On a recent trip to Athens I was struck by the discovery that the ancient agora was marked off from private property by a series of sacred markers. The purpose of these markers was to forbid private ownership and protect the limits of the agora. Also, it was interesting to note that the place of political assembly was not in the agora, but on a hill over-looking the agora. Within the agora people did deals, taught, prayed, sold things – it was a permissive and flexible space – with plenty of commercial elements. But it was a purely public space.

Without such spaces – agoras – we cannot exercise our citizenship. It would be interesting to explore the consequences of a more spatial approach to public policy and citizenship.

7. The role of government

The other striking feature of the the citizen in the welfare state today is how undemocratic the system has become. Three things are striking:

  • The modern welfare state tends to be centralised, and – at least in the UK – has become increasingly centralised over time.
  • The welfare state is subject to bureaucratic and regulatory control – it is not accountable through democratic, market or communal processes.
  • The party political system is increasingly distorting the proper functions of the welfare state for narrow electoral reasons and to pander to key electoral groups.

In other words we are not citizens, in charge of our own government, we are consumers of welfare services designed and delivered by political elites.

This was precisely the end that G K Chesterton foresaw in his keen intellectual battles with the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw. While Shaw argued that the state, and its elites, were the inevitable guardians and managers of the welfare state Chesterton argued that this would leave ordinary citizens disempowered, without rights and property:

It is characteristic of his [G B Shaw] school, of his age. The morality he represents is above all the morality of negations. Just as it says you must not drink wine at all as the only solution to a few people drinking too much; just as it would say you must not touch meat or smoke tobacco at all.

Let us always remember, therefore, that when Mr Shaw says he can persuade all men to give up the sentiment of Private Property, it is in exactly the same hopeful spirit that he says he will get all of you to give up meat, tobacco, beer, and vast number of other things.

G K Chesterton, Do We Agree? 

Chesterton’s point is all the more powerful today, when the UK stands as the country with the greatest level of debt per head. We don’t own property, we are burdened by debt – one of the oldest routes to slavery.

Finally

Of course we may prefer slavery, debt, consumerism and passivity, instead of citizenship. Citizenship may seem like hard work. But we will find that, without citizenship, the welfare state we come to rely on will become increasingly less reliable.

Why Austerity is a Lie (updated)

[I updated this blog in November 2013 with more recent data and graphs.]

I find the repeated use of the word austerity very annoying. It implies that what is happening in the UK today is unfortunate – but somewhat accidental – like an act of God. But what we face is not austerity, it is a targeted assault on the rights of disabled people and people in poverty. The targeting takes at least 3 forms:

First the primary economic problem has been created by debt. But not everybody’s debt is equal. It is the debt of the home owner that is the most powerful cause of the economic crisis in the UK. And this debt is the logical counter-part to the enormous economic bubble in house prices that has made some people very wealthy, put others in deep housing debt and left others outside the house ownership system altogether. As the economist Lester Thurow pointed out many years ago – inflation is always a form of theft. The problems we face are rooted in inequalities of wealth and the irrationalities of greed which nobody wants to talk about.

This graphic shows the impact of reducing the base rate of interest down to 0.5 – an extraordinary annual subsidy to the better off:

Second the government’s response to this problem has primarily been to avoid letting the economic house price bubble burst. The worst political outcome is perceived to be that those people in housing debt should have to pay what they owe and that those inflated house prices should tumble. Hence these debtors are subsidised by pumping money into the banks that have made these bad loans and by trying to sustain an incredibly low interest rate – one that is killing the value of savings. The government hopes to pay for this subsidy to home owners and financiers by cutting back on public expenditure elsewhere. We are responding to a problem caused by inequality by increasing the level of inequality.

Here is the housing bubble – a 360% increase in house prices in just 11 years:

However, thirdly, the government faces the further risk that those important swing voters (most of whom are home owners) will also react negatively to seeing ‘popular’ welfare services cut. Hence the services that must be targeted for cutting are those that are just for the poor and disabled people. These are the unpopular, unknown or stigmatised public services – benefits, social care and vital community services for women and families. So, those who did not cause our problems must pay for their solution.

I have recently done another analysis of this:

  • 42% of all cuts fall on the 20% of the population who are poor
  • 27% of all cuts fall on the 8% of the population who have a disability
  • 17% of all cuts fall on the 2% of the population with severe disabilities

This calculation does not even take account of inflation or the impact of increased taxes, like VAT and social care charges, that also target the poorest.

The cuts are represented in the following graph:

 

 

You do not need a good understanding of economics to see the madness and injustice of this approach. Inevitably, saving money by targeting the poorest with more taxes and by reducing their incomes is not going to work – they have very little money to steal – and ultimately this policy will only lead to other expensive social problems. But long-term logic is a luxury for politicians who are just desperate to win the next election – at any cost.

Another way of identifying the real meaning of our current situation is to remember the marketing maxim – if your product has a weakness then pretend that it is a strength and positively promote it. So we have the rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ and the ‘welfare lifestyle’. Politicians invert reality and distort truth in order to fabricate reality into a more electorally satisfactory form. Or, as Joseph Goebbels supposedly put it: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. [Interestingly this quote is probably not authentic; and it certainly seems implausible that Goebbels would reveal his own strategy – nevertheless his strategy was certainly effective – for a time.]

Of course, if austerity were just some kind of accidental or shared social problem – not a politically designed strategy that targets the most vulnerable – then our response would also be very different. If we were simply making up for some accidental shortfall in the public purse then we could either (a) increase those taxes that fell equally on everyone (e.g. income tax) or (b) reduce the cost of public services by asking everyone to take a small pay cut. It is interesting to notice that the groups that benefit from this targeting strategy are not only the better off – they also include many who are in the middle and who are being encouraged to blame the poor for poverty.

One of the challenges for those of us in the Campaign for a Fair Society is to try and get people to understand that the unfairness of these cuts lies not so much in their severity but more in the way that they target those with the least ability to defend themselves. It is for this reason I think we should all refuse to use a word like austerity. We must not allow language to be used to distort reality – we must underline the choices that are being made by our political leaders. Even if this means that people will also have to accept that many of the problems we face are very much of our own making.

So instead of cuts, austerity, the recession or other misleading terms – remember – what we face is the targeting of disabled people, the targeting of the poor, and the purposeful creation of greater inequality.

You can read more on how cuts target disabled people in our latest report – A Fair Society?

What’s Wrong with Welfare Dependency?

Discussions about dependency and welfare dependency are full of illogicality and moral confusion.

Within the political system the term ‘welfare dependency’ has become code for a bad thing which is damaging the social fabric and the moral character of the poor. Everyone seems to be against welfare dependency. But what is wrong with dependency?

A dependency – in this context – is a need for help, from another person. Its opposite would be independence. But is dependency bad and independence good? Obviously not. If we do not need each other then we do not belong. If we could live without love, support, education and assistance we would be living in a bubble. As Aristotle puts it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be a beast or a god. He is no part of a state.  (Politics 1.2)

So need for others – dependency in this first sense – is not bad, it is good.

Of course there are many ways in which we can get help. It is not the needing of help that is the problem, it is the threat of powerlessness, slavery or abuse which can make dependency risky.

Some dependencies are secured by love. Children need parents, and their shared love acts to keep that need safe. Loving parents protect, nurture and support their child to develop. Although, as we know, even something as beautiful and as important as family love can become damaged or twisted.

Some dependencies are secured by justice. Our rights, private property and the law, act to ensure that we are not taken advantage of in our dealings with others. Civil society is full of institutions that, at their best, enable us to get what we need, without being harmed or abused.

However injustice, inequality and poverty always seem to develop in every society. It is poverty that creates the most toxic dependencies. If I cannot secure what I need then I become dependent on others in a way that seems to guarantee abuse – begging, slavery, exploitation and oppression.

It is for this reason that modern societies have developed welfare systems. Their purpose is to create systems of mutual assistance that enable people to avoid toxic dependency on others and to replace it with a healthy welfare dependency. Welfare systems create healthy dependencies when:

  • People are enabled to get enough to meet their needs – not too little, not too much
  • People get what they need as a matter of right – not by charity
  • People are treated with dignity and respect at every stage – not stigmatised or treated as less worthy

The problem with welfare in the UK, therefore, is not that it creates dependency. Dependency is good and inevitable. The problem is that the system is badly designed. It is certainly less toxic than a system with no welfare provision – which creates abject poverty and corrosive dependencies and beggary. But it is more toxic than an effective system of universal, guaranteed income security – ideally provided through an integrated tax and benefit system with no visible stigma.

If we are to avoid further savage attacks on the poor – in the name of reduced welfare dependency – we need to move to a universal system to which we would then all feel connected.

The Poor Cannot Afford the Generosity of the Powerful

Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Angerson’s ideals came to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years’ loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, lino and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings from one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

From Independent People by Halldor Laxness

In this excellent book by the Icelandic Noble Prize Winner we are told the story of one man, Bjartur, a sheep farmer and crofter, who fights for his independence. All through the book he refuses charity and he refuses to get enmeshed in debt. He is suspicious of his betters and all their grand ideas to improve his life.

But finally things go too well. The First World War drives up the price of mutton and the growing cooperative movement in Iceland sweeps away the merchants and seems to offer cheap loans and grants – all to bring benefits to the farmer. So Bjartur relents, he takes a loan, he builds a house and – when the economy changes – he loses everything.

Laxness reflects on this terrible paradox – only the rich can afford to take risk accepting all these kind offers – partly because only the rich are insured against the problems that arise when things fall apart.

Today we see the same phenomenon. We are now living an age of austerity where the recent economic bubble has burst. But the price of that bubble cannot be paid by the banks – for they are too important to fail. The price cannot paid by home owners or the middle-classes – despite the fact that over-inflation in house values was at the root of the economic crisis – for their votes are too important to politicians for them to be allowed to suffer.

So who must suffer? It turns out that the poor and people with disabilities – while not responsible for the crisis – must pay the price for it.

The Good, Bad & Ugly of Welfare Reform

The Welfare Reform Bill is the most radical reform of the tax-benefit system since Beveridge. It is a mixture of the good, the bad and the very ugly.

At its best it recognizes the problem. It recognizes that the current system creates fears, burdens, taxes and bureaucracy for the very people who need the most support. This marks a break-through admission by the political system.

Unfortunately the solutions proposed are poorly designed. Universal Credit aims to provide a framework for integrating tax and benefits in order to engineer the required incentives. However this system will lead to increased confusion and uncertainty, especially as the necessary information technology systems are lacking.

The second proposal is to abandon Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replace it with a more restricted benefit – Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This is despite the fact that DLA has been a highly successful benefit, subject to no significant abuse, creating no disincentives to work, and is vitally important to many disabled people.

What is truly ugly about these reforms is the way in which they are being used to drive down the cost of benefits. The government’s intention is to cut benefits by £18 billion, 20% of the whole budget. This will only increase income inequality in the UK, already the third most unequal developed country in the world.

There is a real problem in the benefit system; but these mean-spirited proposals are not the right solution. Instead we need both positive incentives and real securities.

This article was originally published in The House Magazine on the 19th January 2012.

The Rich need the Poor

The Scotsman reported on 3rd February 2012:

High-earning migrants and promising student entrepreneurs will find it easier to work in Britain as the coalition aims to ensure only “the right people are coming here”, the Immigration Minister has said. Damian Green, a Conservative MP, said middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers would be kept out as the coalition seeks only migrants who “add to the quality of life in Britain.”

When politicians tell us that the only immigrants that will be welcome are those who will make a positive contribution and then goes on to exclude ‘middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers’ I am left wondering:

Does Damian Green believe that the millions of existing citizens in the UK who are middle managers, manual workers (I will drop the term ‘unskilled’ as nobody is unskilled) and people who rely on benefits (and there goes another tale) don’t add to the quality of life in Britain?

Together these groups represent more than half of the UK population. So, on this basis, Damian Green believes that most people in the UK don’t add to the quality of life. I hate to think where he would put disabled people or people with poor health.

The prevalent philosophical belief – rampant in all political parties – is in meritocracy: that the best should rule. They are the best (in their own heads at least) and the rest of us should be grateful for the great efforts they make on our behalf. In their imaginings: they contribute, we take.

Of course we are left with the paradox faced by all meritocrats – they need us to rule over and they need us to do all the things they think are beneath them. At its worst such thinking leads to eugenics – and we are certainly slipping down that slope.

I am reminded of a thought by someone much wiser, Rebbe Shmelke, who said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

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