Jobseekers aren’t all pathetic victims

Figures released last week by the Department for Work and Pensions show that nearly one in five jobseekers-allowance claimants are currently being sanctioned because they didn’t turn up to an appointment, refused a job, or walked out on one. In 2010/11, 15 per cent of JSA claimants were subject to sanctions. This went up to 16 per cent in 2012/13 and by 2013/14 it was up to 18 per cent – that’s 568,430 out of 3,097,630 claimants.

These figures follow a recent parliamentary inquiry, a slew of reports claiming some of those subject to sanctions have committed suicide, and claims that a harsh, target-setting culture has been put in place, forcing bullied jobcentre staff to sanction benefit claimants unfairly. This is something the government denies. Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, has nevertheless declared that a Labour government wouldn’t impose such cold-hearted targets.

But is it necessarily wrong to exert more pressure on claimants to get them off benefits? Are they all vulnerable victims picked on by the cruel coalition government, as the critics claim? Do they all need more hand-holding or ‘support’ in order to get them job-ready? Or are they just being patronised? I appreciate there are structural reasons why jobs can be hard to come by today. But that doesn’t mean that individuals bear no responsibility for finding work. The new, more robust sanctioning regime may well, as employment minister Esther McVey suggests, be a much-needed kick up the backside for those stuck in a state-dependent rut.

Of course, the sorts of things jobcentre bureaucrats worry over – such as the number of online job searches an IT-illiterate claimant performs in a week – are not going to make much of a difference to claimants’ job prospects. But, still, people who claim benefits are more often than not perfectly capable of finding themselves a job. Dependency on benefits not only wastes people’s potential, but actively undermines their sense of themselves as active and able. It renders them passive and incapable. For superficially sympathetic commentators, reducing claimants to defenceless victims of a not very successful austerity programme, treating them as innocents wrongly punished, is doubly diminishing. Indeed, those opposed to the government’s allegedly cruel welfare reforms are doing more to reduce and enfeeble people than any benefits-basher ever could.

First published in sp!ked

2014: Year of the Poor?

2014 has been the year of the poor. They have been a particularly feckless bunch this year, collecting their food parcels in record numbers and even becoming reality TV stars on Benefits Street. Incapable of cooking their own food or looking after what little money they have, all they have succeeded in doing is being victims of their own addictive lifestyles – wasting their pennies on fancy fruit machines, on cheap supermarket booze, ridiculously expensive payday loans and morbidly-packaged cigarettes. They’re that stupid. But they’re not to blame. They are far too feeble and pathetic for that.

So say the authors of Feeding Britain, a long-awaited report from a cross-party and allegedly poor-friendly parliamentary inquiry into foodbanks. With friends like that who needs enemies? Of course they couch their patronising views in sympathetic sounding language and doll it up as research. Lady Jenkin’s dissing of the poor’s culinary talents at the report’s launch was only unusual for being blunt. In our illiberally-liberal times being openly contemptuous of the lower orders is frowned upon. Even old Tory hard man Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit changed his mind (or his language at least) about the fast food eating hordes reliant on foodbanks after visiting one himself. Perhaps he found that the people who ran it shared some of his anti-poor prejudices but had a kindlier-sounding way of putting it?

At least the old right wingers credited ‘scroungers’ with having enough about them to fiddle the system. Today all they’re expected to do is play their allotted roles as helpless victims of it. It is the most vocal self-appointed defenders of the poor these days who are, so it turns out, anything but. It is the so-called liberals and lefties who in fact hold them in the greatest contempt with their dismissal of the capacities of the least well-off to even tie their own shoelaces without some kind of ‘support’. The exaggerated plight of the poor has become an emotive stand-in where there once might have been a political argument worth having or a political movement with which to engage.

This is not to deny the dire state of the economy or that the poorest are getting poorer still. As a country, we’re worse off than we were at the start of the millennium. The post-war trend of a growing affluence is no more. The very worst off are particularly badly hit with the squeeze between falling incomes and rising prices particularly on paying for rent, fuel and groceries disproportionately affecting those that can least afford it. That isn’t at issue.

What is at issue is the pitying and pitiable response, the assertion that the poor are poor not just because they are materially deprived but because they are lacking in the basic ‘life skills’ (or common sense) that the rest of us take for granted. Which is why foodbanks are increasingly described not just as foodbanks but as ‘foodbanks plus’. They are about not just feeding the poor, but telling them how to live their lives too.

The good news is that hunger is not ‘stalking’ the streets as that report (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) claimed. A combination of economic crises, welfare changes and a tendency to turn to charity and the state rather than our own families and communities are responsible for the rise in the numbers of people using foodbanks – as I explain elsewhere. But the badly off, and the rest of us for that matter, are being stalked by a political class and charitable sector more interested in changing people’s behaviour than solving society’s problems.

First published in Huffington Post

Turning food banks into a moral weapon

The government’s food-bank strategy will increase state intervention in poor people’s lives.

The launch of Feeding Britain: A Strategy for Zero Hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was rather overshadowed by Lady Jenkin’s disparaging comments about the poor’s lack of knowhow in the kitchen. The report, from the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, of which Jenkin is a member, has much more to say, of course, than simply ‘the poor don’t know how to cook’. According to the report, cooking is only the tip of the iceberg: the poor also can’t handle their money, parent their children, or generally run their own lives without the support of the state and the charity sector, apparently.

Feeding Britain was a long-awaited report from an inquiry set up to investigate the so-called ‘hunger’ problem in the UK. Until very recently, the number of people using food banks was in the low tens of thousands each year. Though rarely acknowledged by today’s critics, there were significant rises in food-bank users under Labour. But it has been under the Lib-Con coalition government that the increases have been most marked. The Trussell Trust, which operates the UK’s biggest network of food banks, suggests that the number of food-bank users now stands at over a million.

Of course, it is hardly surprising, given the recent economic crisis, that the poor have been hit hard over the past few years. From 2004, the postwar trend of ever-rising affluence started to go into reverse, with the standard of living of the poorest sections of society being particularly squeezed. Wages and benefits have not kept pace with increases in the cost of food, fuel and housing. Those in the least well-off decile of the population are now spending 40 per cent of their income on food, fuel and housing, compared to 31 per cent in 2003. Everything costs more when you’re poor, whether it’s a ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone, rates of interest on payday loans, or the pre-pay gas meter. This problem is exacerbated by increasing levels of indebtedness, delays in the payment of benefits, and a stricter regime of sanctions for those deemed not to be seeking work – the biggest reason for referrals to food banks.

What’s interesting is that food banks have been a fixture in the US, Canada and parts of Europe for some time, but the first food bank in the UK didn’t appear until 1999. Why have so many of them sprung up recently? Is it really true that ‘hunger stalks this country’, as the new report claims? Wouldn’t we have noticed our presumably gaunt fellow citizens if this were the case? Is hunger really a ‘simple and devastating fact’ that we must take on trust, as the report insists? There is no robust evidence of people going hungry in the UK, certainly not on the scale claimed. It is inevitable, particularly with the removal of adequate welfare assistance, that referrals to food banks are made opportunistically by job-centre staff, social workers and citizens’ advice centres (among others). But this isn’t necessarily because their clients are, strictly speaking, hungry. And we still don’t even know, despite this inquiry, how many food banks there are beyond the 420 operated by the Trussell Trust.

The report is not without its insights, although they are confined to a preface from the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton. His ‘personal perspective’, ignored throughout the rest of the report, argues persuasively that it is the unsticking of the glue that used to hold society together that explains much of today’s reliance on food banks. It is the absence of a ‘self-help infrastructure’ and ‘natural and vital relationships between people’ that means problems of costly food and expensive heating are ‘exacerbated and heightened’. Sadly, the report (and the bishop) is far too enamoured with the welfare state to recognise that what is responsible for the undermining of these ‘natural’ connections between people is not their reduction to economic transactions; rather, it’s that people have been reduced to passive recipients of state and charitable handouts.

Anyway, says the report, what should really concern us is not the facts and figures or the reasons why, but the urgency of the problem and how to tackle it. Its 77 recommendations institutionalise the role of food banks by sucking them into a ‘Feeding Britain’ network-cum-quango that will reach further into the lives of the poor and ‘vulnerable’. The authors advocate a ‘food bank plus’ model, with food acting as a ‘gateway’ to other interventions, such as counselling for gambling ‘addicts’, smokers and drinkers, and life-skills classes on cooking – these will supposedly ‘boost [people’s] resilience’. The real problem, as far as the authors of the report are concerned, is not really hunger at all; rather, it is that there are people who don’t know what’s good for them, who make the wrong choices and live their lives ‘chaotically’. The message is clear: despite the rhetoric about making people more independent, food-bank users will no longer be able simply to take their food parcel and go.

First published in sp!ked

Foodbanks show how left and right fail the poor

Why are people using foodbanks? Why have their numbers increased from tens of thousands three or four years ago, to hundreds of thousands a couple of years ago, to well over a million just last year? What is going on?

There are all sorts of barriers in the way of getting at the answer. The most obvious being the lack of data or research, at least in the UK. But you wouldn’t know it for all the apparent certainty of those who rail against this phenomenon. There are snobbish attitudes about the food poor people eat; greenish arguments about sustainability and wastefulness and leftish sentiments about the cruelties of ‘austerity’ policies to wade through too.

I think few would disagree that we are all that bit harder-up as a consequence of the recent economic crisis, and some more than others. There has been a longstanding rise in world prices and wages have stagnated (and even declined in real terms). A third of those visiting Trussell Trust foodbanks – a network accounting for 400+ of the 1000+ foodbanks in the UK, and practically the sole source of statistics on foodbank use – do so on account of their low income, the loss of a job or their home, or because they’ve got badly into debt.

Also well documented by the network is the impact of recent changes in the welfare system. Whether it’s sanctions imposed by job centres on those apparently not seeking work; the rise in delays in the payment of benefits; or the impact of various recent reforms from the benefit cap to the hated bedroom tax. This is the orthodox, and not wholly unreasonable, explanation. A combination of recession and jolts to the world economy, compounded by changes in the welfare system, are – on the face of things at least – responsible for bulk of the increasing numbers of people relying on food parcels. So far, so uncontroversial.

Indeed the most outrageous, most dissenting view on the foodbank phenomenon, is held to be the official one. The one subscribed to by Lord Freud – the welfare minister who recently caused outrage by suggesting that the minimum wage is too high for the disabled – and by former ministers Michael Gove, Edwina Currie and – at least until he visited a foodbank – Lord Tebbitt. These are hardly the most popular of Tory figures, at least not with their left-liberal critics. But their arguments are still worth considering, not dismissed out of hand as they have been. For Lord Freud foodbanks are like mountains. People visit the former for much the same reason that mountaineers climb the latter – because they are there.

This doesn’t explain why they’re there, but considering there were foodbanks popping up every week until recently, it is surely fair enough to point to the factor of increased supply as at least a part of the explanation. (Whether it is meeting real latent need is another question.) The others have variously doubted the capacities of the poor to run their own lives and budget effectively. An argument, ironically enough, implicitly endorsed by the Trussell Trust with the recent announcement that they are teaming up with TV money man Martin Lewis to offer their clients financial advice as well as food.

But the difference between the two positions obscures what they have in common. What unites both nominal left and right in this discussion is a complete lack of curiosity as to any wider or deeper dynamics. I seriously doubt whether either of their arguments really tell the whole story.

Society has changed. We are the ‘bowling alone’ generation. People are much less likely to rely on the informal institutions of family, friendship networks or community; and church and trade union even less. While it may be that some experience acute shame and embarrassment in visiting a foodbank, and will do all they can to cope on their own, the cultural inhibitors that would once have led to an expectation of self-reliance are much weakened today. The taboos that were prevalent in traditional working class communities expressed the sense that there was something wrong about people relying on the state or on charity rather than on themselves and each other.

The role of this extended state in our lives – with the charitable sector increasingly playing an important intermediary part –is not regarded with the sort of contempt it should be. Rather it is welcomed as a source of ‘support’ for an ever-expanding category of ‘the vulnerable’ with everything from their material to emotional problems. That, it seems to me, is ultimately responsible for the massive increase in foodbanks and food parcel uptake. Those on the right get this more than those on the left. Being conservatives they are more sensitive to change and its problems. They better understand that a reliance on foodbanks is not just an automatic thing but says something important about the people who use them. But people who use foodbanks are not feckless – well most of them aren’t anyway.

It is widely recognised, and on both sides of the argument, that there has been an outsourcing of responsibility for welfare provision. The government has abolished the social fund under which emergency assistance is centrally administered and devolved this function to local authorities – with a fraction of the money and even this will soon be withdrawn. It is cynically divesting itself of responsibility for supporting those in crisis. Locally too, whether it is job centres ‘signposting’ the jobless to foodbanks or local authorities sucking foodbanks and other charitable schemes into their orbit, much the same is happening. Both are passing on the problem to somebody else.

Those of a leftish bent are right to be suspicious of this and to see it as a bad thing. Widespread foodbank use does not, whatever apologists might think, constitute a flourishing of the government’s ‘big society’ idea. But, importantly, it’s not even that the buck is stopping with foodbank clients either. The anti-poor rhetoric that the leftish complain about is actually quite restrained or on the margins of officialdom and always met with outrage. On the contrary, it is self-styled radicals and the foodbank industry itself who are busily portraying the poor, however sympathetically, as pathetic, passive creatures and as such ensuring that those in receipt of food parcels are deemed to have no responsibility for meeting their own needs either. The outsourcing is wholesale.

So for the ‘radicals’, who claim that the real foodbank problem is one of ‘structures’, the poor and vulnerable (a distinction is seldom made) are at the mercy of the impersonal forces of neoliberalism. Similarly, for the often church-run foodbanks, the poor are hopelessly caught up in cycles of poverty, suffering from mental health problems and various other multiple needs from which they must be rescued. Indeed the Trussell Trust describe their foodbank service as being about ‘more than food’ for this very reason. This not only begs the question ‘is food the real problem here?’ but it also makes you wonder who exactly is doing the victimising.

First published in politics.co.uk

Eno, Gaza and the Politics of Long-Distance Emoting

I don’t usually write about international relations. Or about music for that matter. My thing is social policy, whether its welfare, health and social care, housing or education; the Big Society (wherever that went) or nudging (which is ever present). Another favourite, if that’s not too inappropriate a way of putting it, is vulnerable children. Or, rather, the way in which certain children’s charities – we all know who they are – seem to like nothing more than to exploit our anxieties about our children and our suspicions of our fellow adults. All done with a dubious use of research and statistics, and vile adverts featuring supposedly bruised and battered children, to create the impression of widespread child abuse. Which there isn’t. So outraged was I by one of my musical heroes – and another by association – for using that same approach for gaining sympathy and support, that I felt as compelled as he to make my feelings known on a subject about which I hope I know just a little more. Though that, apparently, wouldn’t be difficult.

In the seventies and eighties David Byrne and Brian Eno practically reinvented popular music with their avant-garde takes on the genre, playing critical roles in the development of everything from world music and ambient to sampling. That was after they had taken on tired rock clichés with their respective legendary bands: Byrne as the nervy WASPish lead singer of Talking Heads, and Eno as the professorial cross-dresser who so upstaged the other Bryan in Roxy Music. But more recently they have conspired to create something that could only disappoint this long-time fan of their work. I don’t refer to Eno’s collaboration with the unbearably awful Coldplay; or to the fact that Byrne is as likely to be found these days designing bicycle racks as making groundbreaking music. (They are actually rather lovely.)

No, it is their politics, or ‘beyond politics’ as Eno puts it, and their uncharacteristic eagerness to jump on the Israel-bashing bandwagon, that really grates. Even if, assuming the latest ceasefire holds, the bombardment of Gaza looks to be coming to an end. Thankfully. In a letter to his American friends – including and initiallly published by Byrne on his website under the title ‘Gaza and the loss of civilization’, and latterly in The Independent – Eno despairs at an America that he thinks should be doing more to save Palestinian children from Israeli bombs. The reference to horrific images of children where an argument should be is not only shamelessly emotive and dangerously simple-minded, but it is a cynical way of encouraging the mighty Western powers to throw their weight around too. All under the cover of a peacable intent with regards the Palestinians who also, as it happens, are portrayed as vulnerable and child-like in their helpless suffering. With government ministers resigning, and trade embargos against Israel being considered, one wonders if these one-time rock stars just miss the limelight a little too much to care about the consequences of their pontificating on things about which they know not much. While Byrne, at least, has the good sense to acknowledge that ‘no one has the moral high ground’ on Gaza, Eno has no such reservations only – astonishingly, given his very public statement on the matter – admitting his ignorance: ‘I really don’t get it and I wish I did.’

Not that his lack of understanding matters much. His outburst is not about Israelis or Palestinians, it’s about people like him. And the fact that he doesn’t recognise, as he puts it, this America in his no doubt duly flattered ‘compassionate, broadminded, creative, eclectic, tolerant and generous’ friends across the water. Eno is not only nauseatingly self-aggrandising on behalf of this once trailblazing set. The letter is the political equivalent of post-Punk Byrne renouncing his opposition to lengthy guitar solos; and legendary producer Eno working with the likes of Coldplay. (Okay, so he already did that.) It is that slavish in its adherence to the wrong-headedly commonplace. It is also, ironically enough, an example of the dangerous combination of emoting, cluelessness and self-important meddling that keeps their respective countries recklessly posturing about such far-away conflicts too.

First published in Huffington Post