Christina Patterson: We can't keep paying people to be poor

It's very very hard for the people who will be poorer. But paying healthy people not to work doesn't help the healthy people

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When a friend of mine had a mastectomy a few weeks ago, she made friends with the woman in the next bed. "So," she said, because she's very polite, and thinks you should make small talk, even when you've just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and lost your breast, and are in what doctors like to call discomfort, "what, when you're not in hospital having operations, do you do?" The woman, she told me, looked confused. "Oh, you mean work," she said, in the end. "Oh no, I don't work. We," she added, gesturing towards the partner who had been plumping up her pillows, "don't work. We have," she said, as if trying to explain something to someone who wasn't very bright, "three children!".

My friend was surprised, but she shouldn't have been. There are five million people in this country who live on benefits, and two million children growing up in homes where no one works. Some of those five million people would love to have a job, but can't get one, some of them don't really fancy it, but have never really tried it, and some of them have never really given the matter a moment's thought. If your parents didn't work, and your friends don't work, and your current boyfriend, who may or may not be the father of one, or some, of your children, doesn't work, you probably wouldn't. People tend to do what other people around them do, which is why upper-class people play polo and middle-class people go to farmers' markets.

Some of the people who don't work may not work because they have a disability or a mental illness that makes it hard to work, and some of them don't work because they don't have any skills, and some of them don't work because where they live there aren't many jobs, or there aren't many jobs they think they can do, or want. But very few people don't work because they're stupid. If you don't work because you know it will be very hard to make ends meet if you do, and that someone else will pay your rent, and feed and clothe your children if you don't, that doesn't make you stupid. It makes you clever.

The trouble is that not working isn't much fun. It's not much fun when you can't pour yourself a nice glass of wine at the end of the day, or at the end of the week, and think: "Phew, thank God that's over!" It's not much fun when all you can think of to do is watch telly. It's boring just doing the same thing all the time, which is why it makes a nice change to have a baby. If you have a job, you might worry about how you're going to pay for the baby's clothes, and food, and childcare, but if you don't have a job, you know that you'll get extra benefits for the baby, and you know that the more babies you have, the more benefits you'll get.

This is what quite a lot of people thought during the New Labour years, when the Government promised to end "child poverty" and brought in extra benefits, and tax credits, to make sure that the children of poor parents weren't, according to a certain, technical definition, poor. And so people without jobs had more children than they had before (15 per cent more, according to a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies), and more children than people who had jobs, which meant that more children didn't really know what a job was.

And the children who didn't really know what a job was saw their parents being bored, and often miserable, and feeling trapped, and they started to feel bored, and miserable, and trapped, too. Sometimes, they were so bored that they decided to join a gang, or steal a car, and then they got in trouble with the police, and then sometimes they were sent away to young offenders' institutes. Sometimes, they started, while they were still teenagers, to have babies of their own.

What this meant was that the group of people who didn't have jobs, and were bored, and also sometimes seriously depressed, or seriously dependent on drugs or alcohol, because actually living on benefits, whatever the Daily Mail may say, isn't a picnic, got bigger. And the bills got much, much bigger, too.

And now the bills are too high. Everyone says the bills are too high. Even the Labour Party, which didn't say anything about the bills when they were paying them, now says that the bills are too high. Even the leader of the Labour Party, who speaks at rallies where people say there shouldn't be any cuts at all, gave a speech on Monday saying that some people on benefits were "just not taking responsibility" and that "the rest of us are left picking up the pieces". He said that his party would reward "contribution, not worklessness". He said that people who worked or who, for example, helped out at a local youth club, would get higher priority on council house waiting lists than those who didn't.

He didn't say what local councils would do about housing the people who didn't help out at a local youth club, who they're not allowed, if they have children, to throw out on the streets. Hedidn't say what he would do to get people into jobs in places where there weren't any jobs, or in places where the jobs were so badly paid that they were currently done by immigrants who could only manage to pay rent by sharing rooms with strangers. He didn't say why he thought people who didn't work weren't "playing by the rules", since they didn't make the rules, and no one had told them they were breaking them. He didn't say, because he didn't need to say, that the rules have changed.

It was clear that the rules had changed on a sunny day a year ago, when George Osborne told the House of Commons, and the country, that the welfare bill had gone up 45 per cent in a decade, and that more children were living in households where nobody had jobs than anywhere else in Europe. And he said that he wanted this to stop. He said that he wanted to change the system so that people on benefits were encouraged to work. He said that he didn't want any household to get more in benefits than the average household wage.

When he said this, a lot of people in the country were very happy, because they didn't like the idea of their taxes paying for people they thought were lazy, and a lot of people on the left were very angry, because they didn't like the idea of poor people becoming poorer, and a lot of people on benefits were very, very scared. Some of the people on benefits were right to be scared, because it meant that some of them would have to move, and many of them would have to look for jobs, and they'd never worked before, and didn't have many skills. And they felt that they were being punished, when they hadn't done anything wrong.

They are being punished, and they haven't done anything wrong, and when Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform Bill becomes law, some people will be poorer, because when you make changes to a very complicated benefit system, some people will always be poorer, though other people won't. It's very, very hard for the people who will be poorer, and very unfair that the rules have changed. It would be hard in a time of boom, when there are lots of jobs, and this is not a time of boom.

But paying healthy people not to work doesn't help the healthy people, or their children, or the people whose taxes are paying for the healthy people's food and clothes and homes. And if you want to make a change – a difficult, painful, imperfect change – what you have to do is make a start.;

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