Welfare reform and the message it sends

By Bernadette Meaden
February 21, 2015

For a few weeks I’ve been trying to write a general critique of welfare reform, addressing each policy point by point, looking at the assumptions on which it was based, what it aimed to achieve, and the effect it has had in practise. It’s been a disturbing and depressing experience.

Welfare reform seems to have been based on one key assumption. The assumption that benefit claimants, be they unemployed, sick, disabled, or working poor, are likely to be either workshy, dishonest, unmotivated, undisciplined, or all of the above.

Whether you are a middle aged man who has lost his job of thirty years, a school leaver anxious to make a life for yourself, or a single mother struggling to make ends meet, the system now assumes that you need to be harassed and pressured into standing on your own two feet. You are assumed to have no pride, no ambition, no self-respect, you are merely a supplicant who needs to be taught a lesson, either by driving you to a foodbank because you have been sanctioned, or by making you work for less than the minimum wage on a variety of schemes.

What characterises the whole welfare reform project is a lack of respect for anybody who is not making what the government considers a sufficient contribution to the economy. You may be searching for a job whilst caring for a disabled parent, child or partner, looking after grandchildren, genuinely volunteering, or be too ill to do any of those things, but if you’re not seen to be helping Britain to win the ‘global race’ then you’re a burden.

The patronising and disrespectful attitude which lies beneath the policies, usually well concealed with polish and spin, occasionally slips out. Like the moment Esther McVey spoke of getting "kids" into work, when the ‘kid’ being discussed was 24 year old geology graduate Cait Reilly, forced to give up a voluntary position in a museum to work at Poundland for £53 a week Jobseekers Allowance. Ms. Reilly’s offence was to have graduated during a time of austerity, and not have a family business to walk into, as Ms McVey did when she finished her education.

Claimants are treated as naughty children. A jobseeker with a learning disability had to be sanctioned to teach him timekeeping. Foodbank users need to be taught how to budget better. Graduates need to work for their benefits to teach them discipline. Far from helping, this treatment can undermine people’s confidence and self-esteem, making it even harder for them to make a decent life.

For some, it is even worse. They find their treatment at the Jobcentre so stressful and humiliating they drop out of the system altogether, becoming dependent on friends and family, surviving day to day. There are now more than one million people unemployed but not claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, more than ever before. It is a whole new type of government-created social exclusion.

If welfare reform was designed to produce significant savings, it has failed. It has failed because it was based on so many false assumptions.

The assumed malingerers ‘languishing’ on sickness and disability benefits turned out to be genuinely sick and disabled, so even after millions of assessments, the numbers receiving those benefits has barely changed.

The bedroom tax has succeeded only in leaving family homes empty, whilst those unable to downsize get into rent arrears, cut back on food, or face eviction.

The sanctions regime that was supposed to motivate an army of feckless and lazy idlers has simply created poverty, and driven people into jobs so low paid and insecure that they still need to use foodbanks.

However: if welfare reform was designed in the interests of unscrupulous businesses, to create a pool of easily exploited, compliant labour, it has been a success. As the Department for Work and Pensions pressures the unemployed with unpaid workfare and the ever present threat of sanctions, they must accept any job that is offered, no matter how dismal the pay and conditions.

This has supplied the business sector with the ‘flexible workforce’ it has long wanted: a pool of labour that can be turned on and off like a tap, with part time, zero-hours, casual work. And those who are already in work know that this pool of cheap compliant labour is just waiting to take their job if they lose it, so who will ask for a pay rise, or complain about unfair conditions?

In fact, the punitive nature of welfare reform may paradoxically be fuelling the need for more spending on benefits. As wages stagnate or fall, so more workers need to claim tax credits and housing benefit.

Labour has said that if it forms the next government it will abolish the bedroom tax, and pause Universal Credit. What it really needs to do is concede that the whole welfare reform project has been economically futile and socially harmful.

The reality is that the social security budget (excluding pensions) is a symptom of the health of the economy. As a percentage of our GDP it rises in times of recession, and falls during times of prosperity. A rising benefits bill is not a sign that people have become suddenly idle, it is a sign that the economy is failing to provide them with the opportunity to earn a decent living or afford to buy or rent a home.

And let’s not forget that welfare reform is only aimed at one section of society. If you are wealthy, or your parents are wealthy, this will never trouble you.

You may be a tax dodger, you may be a landowner receiving subsidies for your grouse shoot, you may be a banker who has committed any number of misdeeds, but the government will never feel entitled to micro-manage your life and punish you with hunger and destitution as it does with those unfortunate enough to be poor.

You may be highly educated, you may be kind, you may be very ill, you may be desperate simply to have enough money to support a family, but if you are poor, this government does not deem you worthy of respect. That, sadly, is the message I have received from studying welfare reform.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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