Social security, bearing reality, and 'the lies that comfort cruel men'

By Jill Segger
February 11, 2013

TS Eliot warned us: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” The incapacity may manifest as a readiness to believe what suits us rather than what is truthful. It is a tendency shamelessly exploited by power.

Much has been written about the intent of this government to divide the working poor from the workless poor and the comfortable from everyone else. The malice and falsity of “strivers and skivers”; the vindictive interpretation placed upon closed curtains and the conflation of illness, poor educational performance and unemployment with 'problem families' has now been joined by indignation that social housing tenants should be so depraved as to want a spare bedroom at the taxpayers' expense.

All this spite works only where people permit it to do so. It takes root where there is a readiness to become indignant at perceived and unexamined slights. It thrives on an assumption that the outrage will be shared and will go unquestioned. It utilises extreme cases in support of its argument and declines to place a value on the genuine needs, capacities and dignity of the individual.

Following debate on the 'bedroom tax' last week, I received a comment which encapsulates so many of these tendencies. It cited people living alone in four-bedroomed houses and asked why those who had "not contributed to society" should be so placed when others have had to save.

It seems highly unlikely that there will be many social housing tenants in such extreme conditions of under-occupancy. But by making this the crux of a question, the issue of tenants with one spare room is conveniently sidestepped. Arguably even more critical to an understanding of the mutuality without which society cannot cohere, are the multiple assumptions made about how one contributes to that society. On the monetary level, which is the principal preoccupation of most objectors, the fallacy is that benefit recipients do not work and never have. In 2010 and 2011, 93 per cent of new claims for housing benefit were made by people who were in employment.

Strident claims in the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have recently fed us the idea that “four million people in Britain have have never worked in their lives.” However, the Office of National Statistics reveals that 1.9 million of these are students and the majority of the other two million are disabled, carers and home- makers. There are searching questions to be asked as to why outrage-inducing headlines attract more attention than facts.

Those who are currently unemployed will probably have worked for many years, making the same contributions via tax and National Insurance as people who pride themselves on their 'striver' status. Misfortune, in the form of redundancy, sickness, injury or bereavement can happen to anyone. By shifting the terminology from 'social security' via 'benefits' to 'handouts', the reciprocal nature of our common insurance has been obscured.

Then there is the contribution made by people who care for sick or disabled family members. It is dispiriting to find that so many have been suckered into believing that value is only measured in pounds and pence and the associated status. This is the delusion which ultimately made possible the deformity of care and compassion exposed at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust.

The reality to which so many seem resistant, is that assistance in need is not a threat and that compassion does not take bread off the tables of the more fortunate. If we have sufficient, however hard we have worked for it, and however anxious we may be about our economic prospects, let us not be grudging towards those for whom times are harder.

I'll close with a lesser poet than Eliot, but one who had a similar finger on the damage that is done to our common life by suspicion and lack of discernment. GK Chesterton warned that “the swords of scorn divide” and prayed for deliverance “from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.”


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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