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

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

Foodbanks Bad, Welfare State Good?

I’ve written a lot – some might say too much – about foodbanks of late. One of the things I’ve been most struck by in reading the commentary and discussion about these sort-of permanent soup kitchens is the sharp distinction drawn between foodbanks and the welfare state. Critics, no doubt rightly, accuse the government of abdicating responsibility for the poorest of the poor; and expecting the charity sector, in the shape of the foodbank, to take up the slack. It is demeaning, they argue, to stand in line for a food parcel. But is it really any less demeaning to stand in a not dissimilar line at the door of a job centre or welfare office. Don’t both turn people into state dependents (or ‘extended state’ dependents if we are to acknowledge the extent to which the voluntary sector is already funded by, and itself dependent upon, the state)? What makes one unspeakably awful and the other okay?

As anybody that knows anything about foodbanks will tell you, the rise in their number is largely down to the fact that one (the food parcel) has replaced the other (the benefit payment). Some people who would previously have stood in line to collect the latter are – as a consequence of sanctions, a delay, reduction or change in eligibility to their benefits – instead collecting their charitable parcel instead. While a cash payment is, of course, preferable to a parcel, the associated stigma is surely only a matter of degree and the circumstances that brought one there indistinguishable. It is highly unlikely to have anything to do with a sudden onset of starvation because this isn’t, in most instances, new need. The parcel recipient isn’t, for the most part, any more hungry than they were before, despite what you might have heard.

You see, for the critics of foodbanks the state – in this case, the welfare state – is regarded as an entirely benign force for good in people’s lives; and not something from which they should be parted. The demeaning experience of dependency is, they assume, either peculiar to the stigma that comes from using foodbanks; or, in the case of benefits dependency, a myth maintained by nasty right wingers intent on blaming so-called skivers and scroungers for their misfortune. The truth, in fact, is that the reform of the welfare state, far from making savings in this supposed age of austerity, and for all the mock outrage of its critics, is actually a fairly feeble (and largely failed) attempt to make it work a little less badly. Because such is the dependency implicit in the workings of the welfare state – akin to that of the charity sector on the state – that the government estimates that £1.4 billion a year is being paid out to just nearly half of Employment Support Allowance claimants alone on account of their mental health problems. That it is now trying to compel the estimated 260,000 claimants with untreated depression and anxiety to seek treatment in a desperate attempt to shake-off some of its more longstanding dependees is at least understandable.

I’m not one to blame dependents for their dependency but neither am I in the business of divesting individuals of responsibility for themselves either. So the problem of welfare dependency is a direct consequence of the interventions of welfarist policies, programmes and professionals into people’s lives; and not – as some of welfare’s critics will have you believe – something that can be blamed on its supposed beneficiaries. Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised if some live up to those feckless caricatures as a consequence. And both the advocates and critics of welfare tend to be too narrow in their understanding of what dependency is and isn’t. The failure to get to grips with the crippling social and moral problem that is dependency is about more than welfare dependency in this narrow benefits sense. The expansive and therapeutic logic of welfarism is such that not only our welfare but our very ‘wellbeing’ is now deemed the business of the state.

According to David Boyle, independent reviewer of public services, people have been turned into clients of the state by welfarism. We, or they, have become a ‘grateful, passive multitude’ to whom things are done by the state, whether it is the benefits system, the NHS or the way social care is ‘delivered’, doing the doing. The welfare state, he says, is ‘over-professionalised; dismissive and suspicious of the neighbourhood networks which had underpinned people’s lives for generations; undermining informal advice and support; [and] allowing the ties of mutual support to atrophy.’ For instance, the searching for top-down, state-led, managerial solutions to problems that are to do with relationships between people, and the intangibles of care and compassion in our institutions and our communities is to undermine the ‘informality’ and ‘mutuality’ on which they are built. So the recent announcement that there will be a tougher regime of inspections – and the threat of ‘special measures’ – in our old people’s homes as well as our hospitals to protect older and disabled people from the horrors visited on patients at Mid Staffordshire Hospital and elsewhere, points to this wider problem of dependency.

The origins of a number of today’s social problems are in the experience of officious interference in previously informally managed areas of our lives. Whether it’s the smoking ban and so-called healthy living campaigns that affect us all in one way or another; or those communities where a reliance on the state has become so ingrained that the riotous consequences have recently been inflicted by their own offspring – welfare dependency is a problem that itself needs solving. It cannot also be the solution to those self-same problems. This is not to say that dependency in itself is a bad thing. It is who, or rather what, one is dependent on that matters. Indeed we would do better to foster the interdependence of the relationships that make up the informal spheres of family, community and society at large – apart from and independent of the state. Whether it’s the treatment of the elderly, the self-respect of the poor or simply because given the opportunity most of us are pretty robust and self-reliant, and able to make our own decisions about how we live our lives, it is only by the state not stepping in all the time that we have a hope of solving those problems.

First published in Huffington Post