Beware the spin as the budget approaches

By Bernadette Meaden
June 30, 2015

When the poverty figures were published last week, many people were surprised that they did not show a significant rise. Particularly for people active in their communities, the figures did not seem to reflect the hardship they are seeing.

One factor which may explain this is the way these figures are arrived at. In an excellent blog for Child Poverty Action Group, Megan Jarvie explained that they are largely taken from the Family Resources Survey, which surveys a sample of 20,000 households. This may not be many more people than we would see in a full Wembley Stadium.

"A household is defined as one person living alone or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room or sitting room or dining area."

So, by definition, homeless people, and people living in bedsits, bed and breakfasts, and some hostels etc would seem to be excluded from the survey. We appear to have poverty figures that exclude the poorest, and may not capture the increase in desperate poverty that many communities report.

We do know that the number of families living in temporary accommodation has risen by over three hundred per cent since 2010. And we know that whilst the official figures for homelessnessand rough sleeping have risen, the widely respected Homelessness Monitor suggests that again, many people are not reflected in these headline figures.

So it would appear that much poverty and hardship is not reflected in any of the official figures, and we have no room to be complacent. With £12 billion of further welfare cuts to come, and real concerns about some of the implications of Universal Credit, the latest poverty figures may simply be the calm before the storm.

As the Budget approaches, with expected cuts to various benefits, spin machines are in overdrive trying to convince the public that we still have a large part of the population living a cushy life at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.

The Centre for Policy Studies issued an Economic Bulletin reporting that "51.5 per cent of households still receive more from the state than they pay in tax". Their comment on this was headlined 'Welfare Dependency falls But Still Much Further To Go'.

Now, most people would be forgiven for thinking that this meant that half the households in Britain are getting more in cash benefits, such as child benefit, working tax credits, housing benefit etc, than they pay in tax. That would seem to be the implication of the headlines, and will be the impression many people get.

However, read the actual Bulletin,and you learn that the benefits referred to include 'benefits in kind' which include education and healthcare.

And as Frances O'Grady of the TUC pointed out, "The report's claim that over half of UK households receive more from the state than they pay in taxes is only true if you include retired households – who no longer pay income tax but have contributed to the system all their working lives.

"The number of working-age people who receive more in support is around one in three and the vast majority of these are low-paid families."

As the Budget approaches, the government wants us to accept that the cuts and welfare reforms we have already seen have had a benign effect, and that further cuts are therefore quite reasonable. But to accept this view, we have to ignore the poorest amongst us, and consider half the population 'welfare dependent'.

Perhaps if tax credits are cut, wages will magically rise. Or perhaps if housing benefit is cut, landlords will reduce their rents. But this is unlikely. What is more likely is that poor people will become even poorer. Again.

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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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