The first thing to be said about welfare reform is that there is probably a case for change.
You can’t live on benefits. You’re not supposed to. The hate figures in the tabloids are almost certainly funding their lifestyles from crime rather than welfare. But the way the system is structured means that going on benefits has to be a lifestyle choice, rather than a short-term necessity.
Example: You are one of the UK’s 1.4 million temporary workers. You are a good professional but suddenly the work dries up. The agency says there are no assignments for two weeks. Can you claim JSA for that time? Fuck, no! It’ll take that long to get the forms sent out, never mind collect any money.
Or you get some weird virus and you can’t work for three months. In theory you can apply for incapacity benefit to cover this, but in practice, again, it’ll take at least that long to process your claim. In the words of one CAB adviser, it is ‘a really shit system’.
I know a lone parent. She has a part time job and her own business as well as an ongoing postgraduate degree. She gets some help in terms of housing benefit and tax credit but it’s a struggle. She doesn’t want to be on benefits full time. The kid is great but she can’t spend all day with only a two year old for company. It drives her nuts.
My friend did a calculation to see if she would be better off, financially, if she claimed full time or worked full time.
My travel business went well over the summer; it wasn’t the best it has ever been but I earned plenty to keep us afloat… Imagine my relief in September when XL collapsed and the travel industry started to take a massive downturn – I had my new job to fall back on. The money I earn from the part-time job isn’t really enough, so I have to keep my travel business running alongside it, something I tell myself will be worth it next summer when business improves. As my job at the university falls on Saturdays, I have to pay a childminder a weekend premium to look after Leo. This means get slightly more tax credits to put towards the childcare, but nowhere near enough to cover it. Housing Benefit, however, take this into account as extra income. The end result of a very complicated and tedious scenario is that I am worse off, much worse off than I was before.
I have a horrible feeling I am going to be told that I will be better off financially if I give up work altogether. I really don’t want to have to do this.
The Tory press are all over this issue. A conservative would say that if people are better off on benefits than going to work then we should scrap the welfare state altogether. This is the glaring subtext to most of their attacks on benefit claimants.
Work is not necessarily, in fact not often, a route out of poverty. The progressive approach should be that, since there are always going to be people who genuinely need state assistance, we should concentrate on making work pay rather than slashing benefits to force claimants into dead-end, low-paid, nonunionised service sector jobs.
Is that what this government is doing? It’s hard to say. There are some good ideas. Free therapy for the unemployed is one. Enforced idleness is bad for your mental health. The DWP has lots of positive sounding plans to help people train for job interviews and find voluntary placements to improve their skills but these are always presented as sanctions, rather than opportunities: threats over promise. I wonder why.
Most of the welfare reform legislation was drawn up years ago and doesn’t take the recession into account. Getting people off incapacity benefit is a good idea. As the government always reminds us, the Tories shifted loads of dole claimants onto IB so that the jobless figures wouldn’t look so scary. Again, there is a case for change.
But according to the rules of freemarket evangelism, change must be carried out by private firms working on commission rather than public sector job centres. The Observer got hold of government papers confirming that the policy is absolutely fucked:
A report marked ‘restricted’ revealed how the private companies placed just 6% of incapacity benefit claimants on their books into work, rather than the 26% they had claimed would be possible when they bid for contracts.
I also don’t like the sound of this ‘workfare’ bullshit. JSA is sixty quid per week, working out at £1.73 for a standard 35-hour week. Humanitarian objections aside, this is surely going to put the minimum wage at risk, particularly if we get a Conservative government likely to let it simply ‘wither on the vine’. Contractors cannot compete with what is, effectively, forced labour provided by the state.
The most obvious question: where are the jobs going to come from? Welfare debate is always framed in terms of ‘making a contribution’ to society. But what if no one’s going to pay you for your contribution? What do you do – voluntary work? And if there’s no voluntary positions available – then what? Individuals have their own lives to lead. Everyone has free time that the state is not entitled to. Should we just have people standing in the road all day, filling up potholes, like some version of North Korea?
And even that might not be enough. As Sunder Katwala points out:
The arguments of 1909 were the same ones debated about the ‘broken society’ today. Are the poor to blame for their poverty, or are the causes structural? Would the state crowd out charity, or must a basic minimum be a condition of citizenship? There were Daily Mail campaigns against the costs to the ratepayer and the palatial conditions of the workhouse.
Governments seeking to satisfy the Tory press forget that, by their nature, nothing is ever enough for these people.
Scroungers enjoy roast chicken, caviar and champagne at Gordon Brown’s luxury ‘workhouse’ – on YOUR money