What is the welfare state for?
A perfectly reasonable question. For William Beveridge, architect of the British welfare state, it was about eradicating "want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness". For him, as for David Cameron this week, the central dilemma was the potential contradiction between two of those "giant evils", namely want and idleness. How do you provide "cradle-to-grave" wrap-around care to banish forever the shocking poverty Beveridge had witnessed during the Great Depression, without encouraging a minority to swing the lead? How do you help the needy without undermining work incentives among the merely slothful?
Centuries beforehand, Scotland had poor laws that attempted to draw the same distinction. A statute of 1579 decreed that "the puyr aiget and impotent personis sould be as necessarlie providit for" and "vagaboundes and strang beggaries" should be "repressit". From 1595 there was even a poor rate levy, called the Buttock Mail.
The 1845 Scottish Poor Law Act, like its English equivalent, relied on the idea of less eligibility: reducing the numbers entitled to support by making unemployment as unpleasant as possible. Increasingly, the system relied on workhouses that were less like refuges than prisons. Of course, many who ended up in them, like pregnant Fanny Robin in Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, were not wastrels at all but merely destitute and luckless. History offers lessons but we don't learn. That's why Mr Cameron's rhetoric about the deserving and undeserving poor can still win him plaudits. It plays upon some primeval anxiety about a feral underclass sunk in poverty by immorality, incorrigibility and idleness.
As public spending tightens, the public mood has hardened against not only the rich but also the poor. So the latest British Attitudes Survey shows that two-thirds think "parents who don't want to work" are to blame for child poverty. Most people support more benefit cuts. Why? Because the public has been persuaded by Tory platitudes and fact-free reporting that "claimant" and "scrounger" are virtually interchangeable. In this new mythology, there is a yawning gap between what Cameron dubs "millions of working-age people sitting at home on benefits" and "those who work hard and do the right thing".
Yes, there is a gigantic gap but it is between caricature and reality. Perhaps the problem is that reality TV shows draw big audiences by depicting the poor as feckless families, swigging strong cider and growing fat on chips as they spend all day on the sofa watching telly. Let's face it, an exhausted cleaner, run ragged by trying to do the best for her children, while rushing between several low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs, is far less entertaining.
Of course, there are skivers who play the system and deserve to be rooted out. Some sort of conditionality for the long-term unemployed is not unreasonable. But let's get things in perspective. Unemployed working-age people on benefits are predominantly the long-term sick and disabled, lone parents with small children and people between jobs. The reality for most low-income families is many movements in and out of low-paid, temporary work. Intergenerational worklessness (several generations of the same family who have never worked) accounts for no more than 1% of claimants. Benefit fraud costs the Treasury an estimated £1.5 billion per year but that is 20 times less than tax avoidance by big companies and the super-rich, according to the TUC. And nearly two-thirds of the poorest people in Britain are in work but can't earn enough to live on. Cutting their housing benefit and tax credits, when rents are rising and nursery costs are astronomical, is more likely to drive them out of work than into it. Mr Cameron may be merely indulging in dog-whistle politics. If not, someone should tell him that we've been trying to draw sharp lines between strivers and skivers for about 500 years. No luck so far.
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