'Self-help welfare' - an appeal to self-interest?

By Bernadette Meaden
August 30, 2016

Prior to the 2010 General Election, I heard a man on a radio phone-in asking, "Why should I pay tax and National Insurance so that other people can claim benefits?"

The presenter pointed out that one day he might need to claim benefits himself, but the caller assured him that he was on a very good income and could insure himself privately against unemployment or illness, "so why should he pay for other people's benefits?" I was dismayed, feeling that it was a short step from this caller's position to childless people asking why they should help to fund primary schools, or people with private health insurance asking why they should pay for the NHS. It seemed to go against all the values of social solidarity that make a welfare state possible.

I was reminded of that call when I read that this week Theresa May will chair the first meeting of her social reform cabinet committee, and on the agenda will be proposals to "shift the focus of welfare policy from the cost-cutting approach of George Osborne…to a self-help system."

We are told by those in favour of it that the pressure for a more ‘self-help’ style of welfare is growing. Ryan Shorthouse, of the Conservative think tank Bright Blue, says, “There are a growing number of leading centre-right policymakers inside and outside of government who believe the next stage of welfare reform should be to offer more contributory benefits. The public overwhelmingly believe that it is fair that those who have worked longer – who have put more into the system – deserve more support in testing times.”

Superficially, this may sound fair. But is it? If we say that people who have worked longer "deserve more support in testing times", what happens to a man or woman who is incapacitated by an accident, or diagnosed with a serious illness, in their twenties? What about people born with a disability or illness, which may mean they can never contribute as they would like? What about the teenager with no family, leaving residential care and struggling to find a job? Do we say that they deserve less support because they have paid less in?

This approach would seem to compound the misfortune of the people who have been least fortunate. It undermines the principle of social security, by which we all look after each other, and replaces it with a system of individual security in which we all look after ourselves – if we can. Indeed it would seem to be a financial embodiment of the statement  that, ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ And if we are heading for a welfare system which is no longer to be a collective effort, but an individual one, with each person claiming on the basis of contributions they have personally made, why do we need the state to be involved? Isn't that what private insurers do? This may be a very slippery slope for the welfare state.

It will no doubt be easy to get public support for this approach to welfare, if it is presented by politicians as ‘fair’ and ‘common sense’. But when people are asked to think about the real life application of such policies, and who would be adversely affected, it may not be so clear cut.

In July 2015, a You Gov poll found that 45 per cent of respondents agreed with the general statement that benefits were, “Too high – the amount of money people can claim in benefits is too much, it's too expensive and unfair on taxpayers.'' GIven all the stigmatising propaganda we have been fed regarding benefit claimants, it's perhaps surprising that the numbers agreeing weren't even higher.

However, when people were asked to think about specific groups of people, their attitudes became much more generous. Asked to think about disabled people, only nine per cent felt that too much was spent on them, 28 per cent felt that the amount was about right, and 46 per cent felt that too little was spent on them. This is encouraging, because it suggests that although the idea of a ‘self-help’ welfare system may initially appeal to the self-interest of the healthy and wealthy, if it lacks compassion and generosity, they may reject it.  

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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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.