WE all know the scenario.
"It's not fair," storms the child who has lost the argument. "Life's not fair", counters the parent who has lost patience. It's a Pavlovian response but equally prompted by the knowledge that, sooner or later, the reality that life isn't fair must be accepted.
The last fortnight has given two extreme examples. Paralympian athletes have provided a glorious demonstration of how bloody-minded determination can kick adversity in the teeth. The increasing number of people being referred to food banks for an emergency supply of soup and cereals is evidence that in many families poverty is not relative but real.
It is not mawkish to suggest that at a time of general belt-tightening the Paralympics have prompted a widespread re-assessing of priorities. Will that be powerful enough to change attitudes to benefits for those suffering from less visible psychiatric conditions and long-term illness? Should poverty be included among such debilitating burdens?
The report of more Scots depending on food banks brought some censorious comment about spending beyond one's means. But these supplicants are only one bill away from disaster. They need a job but in times of high unemployment they most urgently need a financial bridge.
If the original vision of welfare provision as a safety net has become a confusing cat's cradle, it is largely because complexity has been added in the pursuit of fairness.
A desire to meet genuine need while ensuring that those who can work have a financial incentive to do so unites Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. The one-time "red" Ed has floated the idea of predistribution. Its premise is that instead of trying to give the low-paid a leg-up through tax credit¸ it is better to ensure they are paid enough to live on and provide for their children. As with Mr Duncan Smith's reform of the benefits system, with Universal Credit to be implemented a year from now, the basic premise is to make work pay. Its flaw is that more pay may mean fewer jobs. Much of the current welfare failure is the result of applying a middle-class solution to the messy problems of life on the margin. The template simply doesn't fit a household budget with no spare money for regular savings. If the washing machine breaks down, it means imposing on neighbours then a payday loan to buy another.
Mr Duncan Smith's good intentions may founder because of insufficient funding. Complexity not only adds to administrative costs but fails people who need help but are defeated by the process. The increasing caseload of Citizens Advice is testament to that, so its concerns that making the Universal Credit system "digital by default" will exclude more than 20 million people with no computer access or expertise should be heeded. That means maintaining libraries with computer access and basic computer courses.
Children of struggling families deserve special attention. Here Mr Duncan Smith's and Mr Miliband's ideas should come together. The Work and Pensions Secretary's unease at children growing with the idea of unemployment being the norm is shared by many. It is Mr Miliband's clumsy term, predistribution, however, which could be the key to a more ambitious, more satisfying life.
Disadvantage is evident by the time children start school. Investing in good quality nursery education will narrow the gap. Put the money into better school dinners and children will get at least one nutritious meal a day, improving their chances of learning. Extend the school day and parents who cannot afford childcare are more likely to be able to work.
If the cap on benefits is to stop "spongers" there is both political and financial logic to spending more on services to improve the chances of the next generation. Life's not fair: disability, divorce, death, illness, redundancy can all turn daily living into a struggle. Welfare should be a help not an additional hurdle that reduces self-esteem even further.
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