Budget 2015: Why do we call social security payments 'benefits'? They are a right, not a reward

Discussions around welfare simultaneously demonise those who rely on social security and fetishize the ‘hard working family’

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We’ve become so used to the term ‘benefits’, we can’t see how misleading and dangerous it is. It’s misleading because in any other context, ‘benefit’ means advantage or profit; something extra; a special payment or gift, perhaps to reward good behaviour. It’s dangerous because when we frame social securities in this way, we move away from seeing them as basic rights and start talking about them as bounteous rewards. And consequently, we have paved the well-trodden path for discussions about incentives, who deserves what and who doesn’t.

Unlike the term ‘benefits’ would have people believe, social security is not an extra payment or reward. It just about plugs the gaps between low wages and high rents; between fragile spouts of precarious labour driven by zero hours contracts and flimsy freelance culture; between times of stability when, for indefinite periods, illnesses that are impossible to predict or manage take hold of your life.

Let’s start calling benefits what they truly are: social insurance. We’re already halfway there. When we pay into the social security system, we call it ‘national insurance’. So when we take out, why aren’t we calling it insurance payout?

Gradually, this framing of social security has led us to a place where the government believe that people should increasingly “work” in exchange for the state support that’s just about keeping them off the streets. It’s got us to a place where ministers proposing to slash government assistance for sick and disabled people frame their measures as an “incentive”, rather than a shove towards destitution.

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Discussions around welfare simultaneously demonise those who rely on social security and fetishize the ‘hard working family’, not realising that these two groups are increasingly one and the same: thousands of working families are reliant on local housing allowance and child tax credits to maintain a basic standard of living. And while we’re on the topic, what happened to those hard working families whose income was decimated by sweeping public sector cuts? Where do they fit into this vicious blame game?

Social security is the bedrock of a civilised society. Yet by referring to it as a bonus that’s now become a ‘burden’ or a ‘bill’ that can no longer be paid, the government have created a sophisticated euphemism that’s helping them dismantle our welfare system and deny people their humanity all in one blow.

If we look at it honestly, our so-called ‘benefits bill’ is symptomatic of huge structural failures – like our desperate housing shortage and pitifully low minimum wage - that make our society so unequal. If the government wanted to truly – rather than superficially – reduce the cost of people reliant on welfare, they would tackle these problems, rather than rip out the social safety net from beneath those of us who need it.

The fact that our government is choosing the latter course of action proves that austerity really is an ideological choice, and that those who endorse it fundamentally do not believe the state should support the very people that, in many cases, it has already failed.

Osborne’s welfare cuts are devastating on two levels: for those who will be directly impacted by cuts, and for the overall framework of our social safety net. If we have any chance of resisting this overhaul of the welfare state, we must start seeing ‘benefits’ as rights, rather than rewards.

Hindsight may well prove me wrong: as we edge closer toward Osborne’s ideal, shrunken state, the far-from-perfect social security system we have today really will look like a bonus in comparison to what’s left of it in a few years’ time.