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Much has been written about how determined the government is to set the working poor against the workless poor. But less attention has been paid to the skill with which Conservative politicians are pushing the buttons of Middle England.
It is dispiriting to see how readily many whose lives are secure and comfortable may have their prejudices confirmed about those who have not had their advantages. I have heard some very unpleasant opinions from professional people about Benefits Street during the last week or so. This readiness to be outraged is particularly disappointing in those whose education might be expected to have equipped them better to weigh probabilities and to understand the complexities and mutualities of the benefit system.
It is – as has been pointed out by many commentators – easy enough to select and edit material so as to present individuals and communities in a manner which will play to a ratings-chasing agenda. There will, no doubt, be some inhabitants of James Turner Street who walk on the wrong side of the law and may have less than pleasant personal habits. There is probably not a street in the country where such individuals are not to be found. But where the manners and mores presented are not what the fancy of the middle class may paint, outrage is more easily fuelled.
All this ready indignation overlooks the statistics on the numbers on Job Seekers' Allowance, the proportion of benefit money paid to the workless and the level of benefit fraud, all of which are much lower than commonly perceived. It also chooses to ignore the true nature and meaning of 'benefits'. And the place to start with a remedy is this: a reminder that most of us receive benefits in some form and that we all benefit from the provision of security for our fellow citizens.
Child allowance, tax relief on mortgages, the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and free health care are universal benefits that almost all of us will receive at some stages of our lives. These are manifestations of what the state values and chooses to support – some would say to subsidise.
Implicit in the offering of these universal goods is an understanding that we are not, nor should we be expected to be, entirely on our own. When people's way is eased a little, they feel themselves as a valued part of a greater whole and are embedded in a sense of our common life. That principle is at the root of all provision made by the state – whether that provision is essential to survival or contributes to what may be termed well-being.
There has been a good deal of mean-spirited comment on the lines of “they have televisions and smart phones.” Of course. A vanishingly small proportion of people – despite Iain Duncan Smith's insistence to the contrary – are born into a changeless state of being on benefits. That they have probably acquired these everyday items at a time when they were in work, paying tax and making National Insurance contributions, is conveniently overlooked. And as anyone who has ever needed to sell any possessions in times of hardship will know, only a very small amount of money can be realised by forgoing them.
In choosing to ignore the fact that many people will move between being contributors and recipients in a time of high unemployment and insecure working conditions, the government utilises a poisonous binary falsehood – you are either a “hard-working person/family” or you are a scrounger who has no right to anything beyond subsistence.
Iain Duncan Smith's piece in the Daily Telegraph (hardly the paper of choice of 'benefit Britain') on 22 January declared “I'll stop Benefits Street Britain”. At least he made no attempt to disguise his government's divisive, mendacious and callous policy towards what used to be called social security. He claims that this will “make the country great again”.
The calculation is that there are votes to be found in milking the self-righteous and blinkered outrage of the better-off by means of a not-so-subliminal suggestion that a perceived diminution in national 'greatness' can be linked with the need for benefits. A very dangerous road is opened if the the well-heeled and influential are united in contempt and even loathing for those whose lives are scarred by deprivation and need.
Most of us mix with people who resemble us in outlook, education and economic status. Where the common experience goes unquestioned, it is not difficult to sow the idea that there is a segment of society so far gone in idleness and dishonesty as to deserve exile from our moral and social communities.
If this is permitted to go unchallenged, the inner life, sensibilities and vulnerabilities of a large group of our fellow citizens is reduced to a caricatured state of feckless and even criminal idleness. By some means never made clear, such people are presented as destroying our economy and national life in a way of which tax dodgers, preachers of division and exploitative employers are entirely innocent. To urge some analysis of this mindset often results in being scorned as a misguided bleeding heart liberal who fails to understand the real nature of the scrounging classes.
Without moral nuance or challenge, whatever government chooses to do in the name of 'fairness' becomes acceptable. This is a good point at which to note that as a result of the outpouring of hatred following Benefit Street, some residents have had to be re-homed and their children moved to schools outside the area.
But it doesn't have to be like this. It is the duty of those among us whom the government assumes to be natural supporters of its 'tough' approach to welfare to point up its inherent logical and ethical flaws. It is surprising how many people who might be expected to know better are unaware that far more of the benefit budget goes in tax credits and housing benefit to the low-paid than is spent in Job Seekers' Allowance.
Remind them that without such expenditure they would find it very difficult to get their children minded, their hair cut or their elderly parents cared for. Suggest to them that the child who is kept (just) clothed and fed by the 'handouts' received by their parents may one day be the paramedic, fire-fighter or police officer who saves their life.
Above all, never cease to speak out for the essential mutuality of our common life. We are all our brothers' keepers and to be seduced from knowledge of this into a spiteful and uncritical begrudgery is to be made complicit in a grave failure of ethical obligation.
© 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: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet