GIVING CASH TO PEOPLE ON LOW INCOMES is arguably one of the best and most cost-effective investments a government can make. But our UK government distrusts and humiliates those in need of small amounts of cash, whilst dispensing billions to the already wealthy.
At the start of the pandemic huge amounts of public money were, understandably, being spent – but much of it was wasted. There was ‘unusable, overpriced or undelivered’ PPE, Test And Trace which ‘failed on main objectives’, and large-scale fraud on both the furlough scheme and bounce back loans. Much of this cash was handed out with minimal checks, and those who had the personal contact details of Ministers were right at the front of the queue – even if it was far from certain that they could deliver on the lucrative contracts they were awarded.
Now, compare that with a document just issued by the Department for Work and Pensions, giving guidance to local authorities in England on how to operate the Household Support Fund. This fund is to “provide assistance to households most in need…including families with children of all ages, pensioners, and other low income households, particularly those who cannot increase their income through work”. People like Elsie, perhaps, a pensioner who stays on the bus aIl day to avoid heating her home, and whom the Prime Minister was asked about in a recent interview.
The Prime Minister said that Elsie could seek help from her local authority, so perhaps the Household Support Fund was what he had in mind. It is intended to help people with paying for essentials – food, energy, water, even such basic items as soap and sanitary products. It is really a tacit admission by the UK Government that many sick and disabled people, pensioners, and carers are now destitute, unable to afford the basics of life.
That being the case, one would have hoped that obtaining desperately needed cash from this fund would be at least as easy as getting a multi-million pound contract for PPE or a bounce back loan. Sadly, it seems not. Because this Government’s whole approach seems to be based on the assumption that poor people cannot be trusted with cash.
The guidance document tells councils: “vouchers should be used instead of cash where possible as this helps to mitigate the risk of the money being spent by the recipient on things outside of the policy intent.”
So people like Elsie are not to be trusted to use cash in a way the DWP deems acceptable. They cannot be given that respect, or afforded that dignity, in case they spend it on “things outside of the policy intent.” Perhaps Cabinet Minister George Eustice thinks they will fritter it away on Heinz beans, instead of supermarket own brand?
Compare that with the approach to handing out billions in bounce back loans. It is reported that “amid pressure from the Treasury to speed up loan distribution…the banks weren’t allowed, actually were prohibited, from undertaking credit checks,” one senior banking executive said. “But then the trade-off was against a real need to get that money into the economy really quickly.”
The National Audit Office estimates that £17billion worth of these loans will not be paid back. That’s around forty times the amount of money the Government has allocated to help people in England with the cost of living crisis. And as for getting money out into the economy quickly, there is really no better way than giving it to people in poverty, who will spend it because they really need to.
For some people who already had more than enough money, the Treasury over the last couple of years must have looked like a malfunctioning ATM, spewing out cash faster than they could collect it. But for the poorest people, with the hardest lives, Government policy is that cash is something they cannot be trusted with it.
And, though the argument should never even need to be made, there is plenty of evidence to show that when given cash with no strings attached, people on low incomes actually put it to very good use, with great benefits to society, and savings for the public purse. Numerous pilots of Universal Basic Income show this to be the case.
In Ontario, Canada, a Basic Income Pilot found that 85 per cent of participants were buying healthier food, 48 per cent reduced or quit drinking alcohol, and 56 per cent of smokers reduced or quit smoking. Participants reported better mental health, fewer visits to the doctor, increased physical activity, and a more positive outlook.
Take away the relentless stress of financial insecurity and people can begin to live better, healthier lives. But to do that, one has to start by trusting people in need at least as much, if not more, than one trusts wealthy people. And that does not seem to be part of the UK Government’s philosophy.
© 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. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden