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The austerity apocalypse

GEORGE Osborne labours under the impression that when he sneers, the world sneers with him.

He has no sense that his pursed little mouth is doing anything odd. The Chancellor believes, apparently, that it is perfectly normal to leak contempt while treating criticism like a bad smell. Osborne has it in his head that in this, as in all things, he is an ordinary chap.

The sneer speaks volumes, though. It gave us chapter and verse on Wednesday when Osborne was delivering one of his little talks on original sin, sometimes known as the act of claiming benefits. The words said: "I think people getting ready to go out to work, they are frustrated that they pay their taxes, that they work long hours and a lot of that money, frankly too much of that money, goes into a welfare system that supports out-of-worklessness." The sneer said: "And who in their right mind could disagree with that?"

It's a fine new compound, though, this "out-of-worklessness", and quite a mouthful to attempt – try it at home – while sneering. You presume the Chancellor was trying to describe the state we might call "fecklessjoblessness". He wasn't just talking about unemployment. He was adding: "Feck 'em."

But why would he not? He had just spoken of honest people who labour long and hard for inadequate rewards. The Chancellor reckons a lot of those people resent coughing up for welfare. He might be right; his party had better hope so. Remind me, though: where did Osborne acquire his intimate knowledge of the travails endured by working folk?

It would be a naked piece of class warfare to say that the Chancellor has never done a day's toil in his life. You need go no further than Wikipedia for a reminder that after St Paul's School (£9822 a term for boarders at the moment) and Oxford, Osborne was employed for several long weeks typing the details of dead souls, Gogol style, into an NHS computer. He then folded towels for Selfridges for a week before failing an audition at The Times. George has been at the sharp end.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that the Chancellor joined the Conservative research department at the age of 23 and has remained within the bosom of the party ever since. Anything the baronet's son has to say about the world, about work, industry, economics, or the welfare state is based, inescapably, on something he might have read, heard or misheard. And most of those to whom Osborne speaks have led lives just like his.

He contends, nevertheless, that all working-age benefits, including tax credits and child benefit, can only go up by 1% a year – less than half the rate of inflation – for the next three years. He is imposing a cut, in other words, that will be worth £3.75 billion a year to the Treasury, in addition to all the previously announced cuts and freezes. Osborne says this is necessary to bring down the budget deficit. But he claims also to be protecting the "strivers" who will, he believes, support him.

It's a simple enough argument: Working people foot the bill for all the welfare spongers. Amid a slump that eludes a patented Osborne solution, this is unfair and unsustainable. There is a clash, as the Chancellor would have it, between the interests and needs of those who struggle to pay their way and those – for this is common knowledge – who don't bother.

At the risk of a good old British sneer, we could try a few facts. According to Home Truths, a study published in October by the National Housing Federation, one million earners will be dependent on welfare by the next election just to be able to afford their rents. That's "earners". In May of this year, the figure was 903,440, double what it was in 2008, but rents are rising all the time. To repeat: These are earners.

Scroungers, meanwhile, come in all shapes and sizes. John Park, about to step down as Labour MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, has campaigned long and hard for the imposition of a living wage in private firms contracted to public organisations. This is partly because 28% of workers – that word again – engaged in the Scottish private sector earn less than £7.20 an hour, partly because six out of 10 children in our country belong to families enduring the grisly contradiction known as in-work poverty.

The richest 10% in Scotland – those quaking in their boots because of Osborne – have incomes equal to the earnings of the poorest 50%. In 2009-10, meanwhile, it was found that 57% of children in poverty had at least one parent in work.

Of working adults, 17% are stuck in relative poverty – defined as having a household income of less than 60% of contemporary median household income. Across Scotland, 29% of children are simply poor, while in the UK as a whole 1.4 million working households suffer marginal effective tax rates – the poverty trap – of over 70%.

Osborne's government wants you to believe that work is the answer to all ills. It would be if wages were fair and enough jobs existed. Oxfam claims, however, that four million of the 13.5 million poor in Britain are in work, of sorts. Meanwhile, the Child Poverty Action Group points out that a couple with two kids would need to find 58 hours of work a week on the minimum wage – if work could be had – simply to be out of poverty by a few pennies.

In its report Monitoring Poverty And Social Exclusion 2011, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation came up with nuggets for Osborne to sneer over. As things stand – which is to say, before the next round of cuts – out-of-work benefits cover 60% of the minimum income standard for couples with children, and 40% for single adults. The standard is not some lefty's wish-list, either. It is calculated simply by asking ordinary members of the public what they think is "an essential minimum standard of living".

Benefits are already a scandal. Zero-hours contracts are spreading like a plague. One million workers, by the latest estimate, are stuck in part-time jobs while praying for more hours. Meanwhile, Starbucks donates a mere £10 million of its "non-existent" profits and expects a round of applause.

One last set of numbers, while the eyes of Osborne and his sort glaze over. The Trussell Trust has 172 food banks in the UK, with another 91 in development, generally in partnership with churches. It's nothing fancy: three days of basic emergency food on referral by a professional is the best you can hope for.

Last year, the trust fed 128,687 people. This year, since April alone, 110,000 have been helped. No-one doubts that a figure of 200,000 will be reached by the year's end, or that 16% of claimants will be young adults enduring delays and "problems" with the benefits system. It has something to do, apparently, with out-of-worklessness.

There are chancers in every corner of life, in every street, in every workplace and dole office. Some of them are in the House of Commons, too, arranging their invoices. Where welfare is concerned, most of the hardened cases don't bother to make a pretence of their frauds. That distinguishes them from the great mass of people driven into poverty. But it also makes them more honest than the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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