If Only Welfare Really Was An Election Issue

The opponents of welfare reform are outraged that 1 in 5 ‘jobseekers’ are sanctioned because they are not, er, seeking a job. They are beside themselves that these same people consequently make up a large part of the alleged million plus hungrily queuing up for food parcels. That a post-election Tory government would find cuts of £12 billion to the welfare budget hasn’t gone down well either. Not least because this would include removing benefit entitlements from young people, i.e. those (ironically enough) with the keenest sense of their own entitlement.

There are claims and counter-claims. The Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus, with their tougher approach to sanctioning, are accused of targeting ‘the vulnerable’. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the claims made about hunger ‘stalking’ our streets are more than a little exaggerated. The introduction of Universal Credit has met with much criticism about the expense of the computer system needed to implement it. But the patronising view of its critics has not merited comment. This is despite their being opposed to monthly payments, regarding those claiming it to be incapable of looking after their money for more than a week at a time. And state-dependent social landlords complaining that they will be bankrupted by rent arrears if benefit is paid direct to their tenants rather than to them.

The so-called Bedroom Tax deserves all the criticism it gets. Forcing people out of subsidised social housing into the increasingly expensive private rental sector needlessly disrupts people’s lives and increases the housing benefit bill too. People with disabilities have complained that they use their ‘spare’ room for essential equipment; separated parents whose children come to stay find themselves targeted; as do, say the victim feminists, the ‘vulnerable’ women supposedly forced to move back in with their abusive partners. But how helpful is it to turn policy failure into a story about its victims? These stories may be true up to a point, but wallowing in them has not done anything to address the underlying housing crisis. If the critics of the removal of the spare room subsidy spent less time emoting and more time calling for lots of houses to be built, there might just be fewer claimants to pity in the first place. But that wouldn’t do would it? I suspect the leftish opponents of welfare reform get more out of pitying the poor, than the poor get out of being pitied. I haven’t even mentioned the furore over those on sickness and disability benefits undergoing work capability assessments. The carry-on is even more mawkish.

It’s not that some people aren’t vulnerable. Getting old or having a particular condition can be inhibiting and quite literally disabling for some. But individuals needn’t be defined by it as welfare reform critics seem determined to do. There used to be a belief that, with the right support, such obstacles needn’t stand in the way of somebody playing a full part in wider society. It was no accident that the women’s’ and disability rights movements of the past were determined to gain access to the workplace not to benefits. That this is no longer the case tells us something important about the sense of incapacity on the part of those who might in the past have fought for something more than ever greater dependency on the state. Indeed today’s leftish campaigners and commentators for all their fuss about welfare reform, are apparently unmoved by the social costs of welfare itself. While it has been said that the welfare issue ‘looms large’ in the election debate, there has been no discussion at all about the profound impact of idleness on people’s lives. Such talk would no doubt be considered offensive to the feelings of those affected. Opponents of reform are more likely to be heard worrying that young people are ‘disengaging’ with the welfare system under the threat of sanctions. As if this were a bad thing.

If only welfare really was an election issue. It is time that the supposed beneficiaries of benefits were allowed some dignity and control over their own lives. By sparing claimants any blame for the situation they find themselves in, or describing them as vulnerable victims of forces beyond their control; they are also denied any responsibility for getting themselves out of it or any scope for overcoming difficulties in their lives. The fatalism implied by such a narrative is paralysing. Their capacity to move on, put bad times behind them, or just get a job is denied from the outset. It is the social costs of the welfare system and the culture it instills, not the impact of the attempts to change it, which should be most troubling for those with a genuine concern for those dependent on it. There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in the critics of welfare reform projecting their prejudices onto the welfare poor. Indeed it is the response of those who find the reforms so objectionable that, if anything, compounds the deadening effect of welfarism on claimants and onto the communities of which they are a part.

First published in Huffington Post

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