The politics behind the welfare myths

By Bernadette Meaden
December 3, 2012

Radio 4’s extended programme on Welfare failed to challenge some of the myths surrounding the subject, but paradoxically, later that same day, BBC4 television screened a brilliant documentary which laid bare the politics behind these myths, and the reason they have been so heavily promoted.

The programme focused on 740 Park Avenue in New York, an apartment building which is home to numerous billionaires. Although it was about the US, the parallels with the UK were striking.

The film showed how for the first part of the twentieth century, the lives of the working classes improved steadily, with rising living standards and a welfare safety net. As the economy grew, living standards rose for everybody, not just for the rich.

This progress continued steadily until, sometime in the 1970’s, super-rich individuals and corporations, who by paying their fair share in taxes and fair wages helped to make this possible, suddenly decided, ‘Enough is enough.’

The bankers, financiers and captains of industry grew tired of having any restraint on how much wealth they could accumulate. Why should they pay towards schools, hospitals, and public services? They stopped seeing themselves as part of society, or having any obligation towards society, and decided to revolt.

It was, in a very real sense, the beginning of a class war, and billionaires have devoted massive resources to fighting it. They have brought about a system which now ensures that society’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, relentlessly being sucked up towards the top tier of the social order.

A stark example of this is the Wal-Mart corporation, parent company of Asda. The Walton family which owns this has seen its wealth grow so exponentially that they now have as much wealth as the bottom 48.8 million Americans combined, but are still pushing for tax breaks. Meanwhile, many of their employees in the US are paid so little they qualify for food stamps.

Here in the UK, ‘[t]he general work force’s share of the gross national product has shrunk by 12 per cent since the mid seventies.’

The rich achieved this by becoming active in politics, but not in a visible, upfront way. Behind the scenes they funded the politicians who would deliver the kind of low tax, small state, anti-union, survival of the fittest society they desired. They also funded a host of think tanks that promoted economic theories and policies which would be favourable to their interests, and pressure groups that would shape public opinion. Whereas in the US the super-rich funded the tax-hating Tea Party, and then claimed it was a spontaneous grassroots movement, here in the UK the Taxpayers Alliance claims to speak for all taxpayers, whilst many suspect it really represents the interests of the very rich.

It’s not surprising that the US and UK have developed along parallel lines. Starting with Thatcher’s affinity with Reagan, there have been strong links between right-wing political circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Several current Cabinet members were part of the now defunct Atlantic Bridge organisation, and many of their policies have been inspired by US programmes like Workfare.

In order to make ever higher profits, corporations need workers around the world to be competing with each other for jobs, creating a downward spiral in wages and conditions. The only real obstacle to this is the trades unions, so it was thought essential that they be weakened, if not destroyed.

Public sector unions, representing workers who do vital jobs in society, tend to be the most powerful, so particular energy has been devoted to weakening or destroying them. This was done, on both sides of the Atlantic, by outsourcing jobs to the private sector wherever possible, and by portraying public sector workers as having a better deal than their private sector counterparts, thus fueling resentment against them. Solidarity among the working class was thus gradually destroyed; divide and rule was the secret to success for the billionaire classes.

To ensure that the ever-growing wealth gap did not result in resentment of the rich, the middle classes had to be persuaded that they were being squeezed because of the poor, who are leeching off society. So, the poor in the US and the UK have been demonised and portrayed as the cause of all our woes. The meagre safety net in the US was said to be ‘a hammock’ in which people could lie back and relax, whereas in reality it was providing food stamps and the bare minimum for survival. Here in the UK, living on benefits has been described as a lifestyle choice, and a cushy one at that, but if that’s so, why are we seeing such a rise in the need for food banks?

Significant numbers of the middle and even the working class have now been persuaded that if they are struggling, it’s because of those below them in the income scale, not because of a system designed to ensure that wealth is scooped up towards the top tier of society. Whilst the super-rich enjoy a banquet, the rest of society fights over the crumbs.

Meanwhile the rich in Park Avenue, or Canary Wharf, who caused the crisis but have not suffered any of the consequences, must be sitting back and watching with an immense feeling of satisfaction.

Even after the biggest financial crash in history, the super rich are determined not to share their wealth, no matter who suffers.

Just this week, the CEOs of American corporations like Goldman Sachs have been redoubling their efforts to cut their taxes and cut welfare. They have, barnstormed the media, making the case that the only way to cut the deficit is to severely scale back social safety-net programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- which would disproportionately impact the poor and the elderly.

As part of their push, they are advocating a "territorial tax system" that would exempt their companies' foreign profits from taxation, netting them about $134 billion in tax savings.’

Meanwhile, in the UK, the Taxpayers Alliance is looking to hire extra staff and says it has ‘ambitious plans to grow and drive the policy debate on key fiscal issues in 2013’.

Perhaps we should be preparing for the return of the workhouse.

The material effects of all this are bad enough, with growing poverty. But it is also a moral and spiritual problem, as the relentless propaganda against the poor is eroding our sense of the common good, and our responsibility to our neighbour.

This was illustrated horribly at one election hustings in the US where candidates were asked what should happen to a hypothetical man in a coma if his medical insurance ran out. Before any politician could respond, some in the audience started shouting ‘Switch him off, Switch him off.’

In the UK there is a growing trend for the sick and disabled, who have been particularly targeted for benefit cuts, to be abused as scroungers. The unemployed are treated with no respect, as anyone made redundant is transformed from ‘striver’ to ‘scrounger’ overnight.

If you wish to really understand what is happening in politics, and how we got where we are today, I strongly recommend you view this documentary. I only wish the makers of ‘The State of Welfare’ had watched it before they made their programme: it might have been very different.


© 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. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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