Welfare can’t be reformed in isolation. It doesn’t exist in isolation

Benefits are about need. Welfare cannot be conditional on value judgments
about the claimant

Share

“I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that. I think that debate needs to be had.”

Yes, that’s George Osborne, joining the mob in linking the tragic case of Mick Philpott to coalition welfare policy.  

There’s plenty about Osborne’s comment that is galling, but one of the most insidious things is the insinuation, so typical of his party, that brave “reformers” like Iain Duncan Smith are the ones who want a debate.

Yet it’s anti-poverty campaigners who have been trying to discuss welfare, in context, since the 1980s, or longer. In fact, it’s those most opposed to Iain Duncan Smith’s sledgehammer of “reforms” who are most radical in debating welfare. Anti-poverty activists have been saying the system is “broken” for decades. And it is. Our welfare system is broken because it’s symptomatic of a society which is broken. Not broken by dependency or idleness, but by inequality. Our society is broken because we have a generation of people raised to believe there is no such thing as society.

It’s understandable that we see the Philpott case and feel frustrated. But if we want our welfare state to pre-empt the work of the criminal justice system, it will be the end of both as we know them. Welfare is about need. It cannot be conditional on value judgments about the claimant.

Plenty of people believe welfare absolutely should be dependent on the worthiness, or perceived worthiness, of the recipient. This is part of that debate we need to have, and win. In a civilised society, the right to feed, house, and clothe yourself and your offspring shouldn’t be conditional. Who is able to make such a complicated value judgment about another person? In cases like Philpott’s it might look easy. But all too often, people decide their neighbour is a “scrounger” because they interpret their behaviour as “anti-social.” And “anti-social” it may be, but that has nothing to do with their need for benefits.

We tend to accept that our economics operate on an amoral level. The welfare state exists within those economics. Whether we look at welfare or wealth accumulation, horrendous people will sometimes profit from each. Taking welfare from those we see as undeserving isn’t a sensible “welfare reform” any more than taxing obnoxious people for being obnoxious would be a sensible tax reform. Reforming welfare is about more than deciding who we can deny it to.

Welfare can’t be reformed in isolation. It doesn’t exist in isolation. If local authorities are forced to cut social services or domestic violence refuges, it’s harder to leave abusive partners. If you tie tax rates to marital status, as some backbench Tories want, you make that problem worse still. If legal aid is cut and the Citizens’ Advice  Bureau is cut, that has  an impact. If you cut and demotivate the police force, that has an impact. If social services are under-resourced, if teachers are undermined and demoralised, all of this will be the opposite of helpful.

Commentators who want to cut the state as an ideological indulgence pretend that cuts can stop crime. But they decry social workers for not stepping in sooner. And, as Sunny Hundal points out, they’re often the first to argue that personal responsibility, not circumstance, is at the root of criminality. Even by their own logic, these people’s arguments don’t hold up. Why do we let such a crucial debate happen on their terms?  

Radical welfare reform isn’t cutting benefits and tax credits while putting people on workfare schemes. What would a radical approach look like? A first step might be to ask: why is it that welfare has to take into account rising living costs, yet wages don’t? Why is it that politicians are happy to make taxpayers cover a rising in-work benefits bill, but are scared to make employers pay a living wage? Why don’t we talk about capping rents, enforcing a living wage, and employing people to build more social housing? When FTSE 100 directors’ salaries can rocket up by 49% in one year, to pretend there’s some inflation-related economic benefit in freezing the minimum wage, when energy and rental prices are already out of control but local economies are starving for demand, seems mad. The more unequal society grows, the less the market can be relied upon to set the prices of essentials like housing or heating. Many can afford these things; the prices inflate. Many cannot. What happens to them?

Until we are courageous enough to address the chaotic and unjust inevitabilities of competitive capitalism; until the Right understand that admitting those inevitabilities and trying to mitigate them is not an attack on social democratic capitalism, it’s the opposite, we should at least have the decency to admit that our welfare spending is a symptom of the economic system we’ve chosen.

The tabloid press likes to call our welfare spending shameful. We shouldn’t be ashamed of having a welfare state but we should be more ashamed of what it represents. The amount we spend on benefits is a measure of how much poverty and inequality we are, as a society, prepared to tolerate. If George Osborne wants to have a “debate” about that, he can be as radical and courageous as he likes.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education require a ...

SEN Teacher - Hull

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for spe...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER WE CAN HELP ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Underground, Overground, over the Irish Sea and clever pigs

John Rentoul
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor