The real scandal of welfare

In their campaign to build support for welfare reforms, ministers have frequently said that the main cause of child poverty is worklessness.

Note the use of that word ‘worklessness’, with its vague connotations of laziness, rather than the word 'unemployment', which is something we usually feel the government has some responsibility for.

If only parents would get a job, they suggest, their children wouldn’t be in poverty. But now a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that having a working parent in today’s economy does not protect a child from poverty.

Some jobs just pay too little for one or even two working parents to provide for their children, no matter how hard they work. That is the real scandal: not benefit scrounging, not laziness, but low pay and naked economic injustice.

Similarly, the sick and disabled are portrayed as a major burden to the economy. Thanks to the NHS and ongoing progress in medical science, many more babies born sick or disabled now survive, when they would previously have died in childhood. I was born with complex congenital heart disease, and am one of the first generation to survive into adulthood. At my last clinic appointment the consultant said as far as he was aware, I was the oldest living patient with my condition. This government seems to want to make me feel guilty about that. Perhaps I should have had the decency to die young and stop being a burden.

For many people in these circumstances, staying reasonably well and out of hospital is a full time job, but they are now being made to feel that if they are not in paid employment they have to justify their very existence. Their survival, which should be celebrated, now seems to be viewed as a selfish indulgence.

Many of the cuts have been justified by stories of a ballooning welfare budget that is out of control and devouring our national wealth. But as a percentage of our GDP, welfare spending was 8.1 per cent in 1970, reached a high of 11.2 per cent in 1984, and when the coalition took office, was a comparatively modest 7.3 per cent. So much for an out of control, unaffordable welfare budget.

The cuts, it would seem, have more to with ideology - specifically the long-held belief in a small state. They do not spring from economic necessity. And rather than collude with the Government, the Opposition should start defending the people in society who are least able to defend themselves.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement.

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