The benefit cap, the political Trojan horse of welfare reform

By Bernadette Meaden
August 13, 2015

Of all welfare reform policies, the benefit cap has resonated most strongly with the public, and gained most support from across the political spectrum. As a headline policy it has been easy to explain and to promote. When politicians asked, 'why should people get more on benefits than others get by working?', people tended to agree. Why should they?

But what if the people hit by the benefit cap are in fact unable to work, are in fact the very people the welfare state was set up to support, and who are now being penalised for circumstances beyond their control? What if even the reasonable-sounding benefit cap, having acted as a sort of Trojan horse to sell welfare reform to the public, is in fact a rather nasty stick with which to beat the most disadvantaged?

Sam Ashton of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust looked at the breakdown of benefit cap figures recently released by the DWP and wrote, 'Shockingly this reveals that 85 per cent of those households capped in May 2015, or 19,125 claimants, were in receipt of a benefit which meant they aren’t currently expected to work.'

Only 15 per cent were claiming Jobseekers Allowance, and therefore deemed able to work. The remainder fell into three categories; they were either on ESA, so too ill or disabled to work, or single parents with very young children, or carers. The first group should not be under pressure to work. Nobody in the latter two groups can realistically be expected to work unless the government first provides adequate childcare and adult social care, which is expensive.

Nevertheless the benefit cap has been, in political terms, a brilliantly successful policy. It encouraged 'hardworking taxpayers' on low or average incomes to feel resentful towards non-working people on benefits, who were portrayed as not only getting something for nothing, but getting even more than people who were working very hard, often in vital but unpleasant jobs.

It was rarely pointed out that these workers were probably also reliant on benefits like Housing Benefit or Working Tax Credits to make ends meet. The simplistic perceived fairness of the cap, and the resentment it fostered towards those who were not working, helped create the climate which allowed all other welfare reforms to be accepted.

In a bitter irony, this has now come back to bite those hardworking taxpayers, as cuts to working tax credits and other benefits will soon hit them hard. First they came for the 'scroungers', and I did not speak out, because I was not a scrounger...

Meanwhile, plans to lower the benefit cap further will hit even more disadvantaged people, most of whom are unable to change their circumstances except by moving home to a cheaper area. As Dawn Foster recently reported, "At the moment, only certain parts of London are unaffordable to a two-child family receiving benefits in a two-bedroom flat. However, after the benefit cap is reduced to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), the same family will find half of England is off limits."

For people unable to work, large parts of the country will become no-go areas, and they will necessarily be concentrated into poorer areas where housing costs are lower. The social consequences can only be imagined.

So now we know that only a small minority of adults hit by the benefit cap will be able to improve their circumstances by getting a job. The remainder – the sick, disabled, the children of lone parents, the carers – appear to be being punished for the sake of it. We face the prospect of hundreds of thousands of children either being uprooted and moved to cheaper areas, or falling into ever greater poverty, reliant on foodbanks and probably having their future prospects damaged as a consequence. This will have costs for society – and all to save a negligible sum of money in the grand scheme of things.

The benefit cap, an emblematic policy of welfare reform, needs to be exposed as being like most other welfare reform policies. Not a way of restoring fairness, but a way of making life much harder for those who are already struggling. It may be sold as being fair and reasonable, but it is in fact callous and rather nasty.

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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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