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Further slashing of welfare is on the cards for Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn statement on the economy today. What is being portrayed as growing public hostility towards benefit claimants is being used as the justification for further measures that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
"Public misinformation" would be a more accurate term. First, government ministers, including the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, have embarked on a systematic campaign to allege or imply that a huge number of people receiving welfare are workless, feckless, dishonest and trapped. This message has been reinforced by the Whitehall emphasis on "strivers not skivers" and a huge tabloid-led media assault based on talking-up, exaggerating and distorting stories of "scroungers".
In fact, most claimants are the working poor; the great majority of the jobless want work but cannot get it in a shrinking employment market beset by austerity-fuelled recessionary pressures and cuts; benefit fraud is (contrary to public perception) very small, not least when compared to the billions lost through tax dodging; huge sums of benefit money still go unclaimed by those who need it; and the vast majority who claim benefits are / have been / will be contributing to the economy in paid and unpaid ways, through taxation and and National Insurance contributions.
The second dimension of the propaganda war is the "we're all in it together" one. The concept has remained embedded in the narrative the government and its allies sustain, even if the actual slogan is not used so much these days.
In reality it is rather evident that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat cabinet worth at least £17.5 million between them are not going to be feeling the pressures of the squeeze they are imposing in nearly the same way as estate families or those on low incomes for example. It feels painfully obvious to point this out, but many media commentators, who themselves are not in low income brackets and are not reliant on benefit support, frequently miss it.
Likewise, the BBC missed a crucial part of the true story this morning, when the Radio 4 'Today' programme, while rightly pointing out that the Daily Mail's 'squeezed middle' is something of a myth, equated the burden of cuts as being felt by "the wealthiest 10 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the population" alike.
This is nonsense. The truth is that those at the bottom of the heap are being crushed by the way the government is deliberately choosing to allocate the debt burden -- as further welfare cuts today will illustrate.
By contrast, as Charles Saatchi, a committed Conservative, pointed out in an article in the London Evening Standard yesterday: "You can be sure of one unfailing rule. When the global economy is in bleak recession, someone is making a stupendous fortune."
For this reason, the small cuts imposed on the most well off are nothing as compared to the resources they deploy and maintain, while for those on low or no incomes public spending and welfare cuts can be a matter of reduced life-expectancy, reduced well-being, damaged mental health, homelessness, joblessnes and family breakdown. To equate the two is to make the same mistake as those in an earlier era who avowed that "the law is just because it imposes the same punishment for stealing bread on a baron as on a pauper".
Meanwhile, back in the real world of 'skiving': the Treasury is refusing to name and shame firms paying little or no tax. Companies like Starbucks are cutting paid lunch hours and sick leave from low paid employees. An Atos boss has been given a £1million bonus as a reward for his company taking money off disabled people. Underpaid tax due to fraud or aggressive tax avoidance amounts to £32.3 billion (2010/11) compared with what the government argues are "overpaid benefits" of some £3 billion. But none of this is what those who condemn "scroungers" are referring to, it seems.
A recent Demos study found that some disabled people, many of whom are also in the lowest income brackets, are already as much as £2,000 a year worse off as a result of welfare cuts, with the worst reductions yet to happen.
When the government announces its cuts today and tells us we must "all pull together", remember also the story of Jane Brooker-Wood, relayed in a comment on The Independent newspaper website on 3 December 2012. She wrote:
I'm disabled (Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis) and can't find employment because of my symptoms (can't walk properly, no balance, no coordination, lack of fine motor skills, impaired cognitive function, incontinence, etc.), so have been self-employed for just over a year. The work I do is poorly paid, but allows me to work from home so that I don't put other people out or make myself sicker. And I feel like 'I'm doing something', however much of a back step it is from previous national posts i've held. I receive Working Tax Credits and just about muddle through. And I've only just found out that with the new Universal Credit they will assume that I'm earning at least the minimum wage x 35 hours pw (£216.35). In actual fact I earn about £30pw - the allowable deductions for phone, internet, heat and light = leaving me with no income. I survive on Working Tax Credits. Under the new Universal Credit rules I will have nothing to live on at all. Nothing. And who will employ me when there are no jobs and able bodied people are out of work? No one."
* The politics behind the welfare myths, by Bernadette Meaden. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17525
* News and comment on welfare: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/4552
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.Tweet