George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

It is our youngest that will disproportionately bear the brunt of the lower income cap

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The Independent Online

When George Osborne first introduced a £26,000 a year benefits cap I was working as a community organiser for the unemployed, and saw the poorest people reeling from its impact. One day a man came to see me asking for help filling a form to claim benefits. I read out one of the questions on the form: what kind of work are you looking for, I asked?  Any work, he replied. Then he shifted in his chair, and began to cry.

That experience was not unusual. Every day I met distressed struggling to negotiate a labyrinthine and brutal welfare system. They were unable to quite believe that the government would take away what little they had. Meetings between benefits would turn into group therapy sessions. If this is how bad things are now, what will a reduction of the cap to £20,000 a year mean?

Welfare cuts are overwhelmingly supported by voters who believe that Britain is too generous with social security, so Osborne suffers no reputational damage by taking this radical step. The government argues that the rationale for reducing the cap is to prevent people claiming more in benefits than the average salary. But those earning low wages have their salaries topped up by benefits too. In fact, if the cap was based on average household income rather than workplace earnings of a working family it would sit at £31,500.

While the government is dishonest about its citizen’s circumstances, a further reduction in the benefits cap will make poverty unavoidable for thousands of families. As a judge for the Supreme Court put it in March, “Claimants affected by the cap will, by definition, not receive the sums of money which the state deems necessary for them adequately to house, feed, clothe and warm themselves and their children.”

According to the Children’s Society it is our youngest that will disproportionately bear the brunt of the new, lower income cap.

The implications are especially stark for some of the most vulnerable of all: women and children who have fled domestic violence. If the cap prevents these families from making rent in new housing, they run the risk of being rehoused in temporary accommodation which they must share with ex-offenders – some of whom have been convicted of murdering women.

While espousing pragmatism, the Conservatives paradoxically concoct welfare policies in an alternate reality where people’s incomes can be reduced infinitely without repercussions. 

The Chancellor has a duty to ensure the numbers on the balance sheet make sense. But when the consequence of balancing the books is that one of the richest countries in the world puts thousands of children in poverty, we have a duty to ask the question: who is he balancing the books for?