Nothing great about the welfare state

In The Welfare of Nations, the decade-later follow-up to his The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew – former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – takes us on a tour of the world’s welfare states.

It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan. He argues that the welfare state undermines old values and ‘crowds out’ both our inner resourcefulness and our sense of duty to one another – including our own families. Instead of aspiring to be self-reliant, the welfare state makes us self-absorbed. People aren’t encouraged to exercise responsibility anymore; instead, they are handed a plethora of ‘rights’. Welfare states ‘have diminished our civilisation’, Bartholomew concludes.

The welfare state has always been a problematic entity, from its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s cynical ‘state socialism’– built as much to placate the increasingly politically active masses as to attend to their welfare – to the vast systems maintaining millions of economically inactive citizens across the world today. The welfare state, as its advocates contend, always promises a better society, with higher levels of equality, but, as Bartholomew counters, it also tends to foster unemployment, ‘broken families’ and social isolation.

Some versions of the welfare state are better than others. Wealthy Switzerland has a low unemployment rate despite generous social insurance-based benefits. But, at the same time, the Swiss state imposes tough conditions: there’s no minimum wage and workers can be fired on the spot. Sweden’s benefit system is generous, too, but if you can’t afford the rent on a property, you have to move out.

In the UK, matters are equally complex. For instance, shared-ownership schemes, ‘affordable housing’ and planning regulations contribute to distinctly unaffordable house prices. Indeed, housing costs have risen from 10 per cent of average UK household income in 1947 to over 25 per cent. For the poorest sections of society, it is worse still. This is despite the fact that the state subsidises dysfunctional, workless households on bleak public housing estates.

And what of state education? Nearly one-in-five children in OECD countries is functionally illiterate. The best performing advanced countries have autonomous schools, ‘high stakes’ exams, quality teachers and a culture of discipline and hard work. Compare that to the US, where you can’t get rid of bad unionised teachers in the state schools.

Bartholomew convincingly argues that state schools’ ‘shameful’ inadequacy, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, breeds inequality. He fears that the success of the free- and charter-school movement is at risk, too, from ‘creeping government control’. Bartholomew is upfront about his own old-fashioned conservative views. He’s a kind of evidence-based Peter Hitchens, using ‘bundles of academic studies’ to show what he suspected of the welfare state all along. The care of ‘strangers’, he argues, is bad for children and aged parents alike, and damages the social fabric. Over half of Swedish children are born to unmarried mothers, whereas the family in Italy, he says approvingly, is ‘the main source of welfare’, with charity-run ‘family houses’ (no flats or benefits) for single mothers. At a time when Conservatives aren’t really very conservative, it takes Bartholomew to ask important questions about social change.

Again, southern Europe offers a useful contrast to the situation in northern Europe. Over half of single people aged 65 or over in Italy, Portugal and Spain live with their children. Just three per cent of single Danes do. Should individual autonomy trump the burden of caring for children and family members? What role should the state play? UK social workers are office-based, writes Bartholomew, and contracted care workers follow ‘rules rather than doing things from an impulse of loving care’.

By 2050 over a third of the European population will be aged over 60. Even though the age at which people are eligible for pensions is increasing, state pensions can’t be sustained, says Bartholomew. In Poland, Greece and Italy, pensions account for more than a quarter of public spending. The UK spends nine per cent of its national income on healthcare, the US an insurance-fuelled 18 per cent, and Singapore just five per cent (though Singapore has to put twice that into ‘personal’ health-savings accounts). ‘Wealth leads to better healthcare’, says Bartholomew, but the monopolistic UK system, despite the NHS’s officially cherished status, is one of the worst of the advanced countries for health outcomes, including, for example, cancer-survival rates. ‘Obamacare’ notwithstanding, millions of uninsured Americans – neither poor enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare – struggle to pay for healthcare.

Democracies, says Bartholomew, are susceptible to the fantasy that welfare states can solve our problems without consequence or cost. This is despite US public spending increasing from seven per cent of GDP in 1900 to 41 per cent of GDP in 2011. In 2012, France revealed that public spending accounted for 57 per cent of its GDP.

But it’s Bartholomew’s critique of the wider welfare culture, rather than his carps at benefits systems, which provides an important corrective to what can be a narrow and mean-spirited discussion. He also offers practical solutions: let’s increase housing supply but abolish public housing; let’s have a system of ‘co-payment’ for healthcare between state and individual; let’s allow schools and hospitals to compete in markets; and let’s give individuals the opportunity to save and insure themselves to pay for social-care needs and pensions (albeit through Singapore-style compulsory bank accounts).

So what do we do with the welfare state? As Bartholomew puts it, the welfare state, rather than capitalism or communism, was ‘the ultimate victor of the turmoil of the twentieth century’. But Bartholomew makes clear that this is a hollow victory with many millions left idle and communities undermined. So yes, let’s cut the welfare state down to size and stop infantilising its dependants. But we also need to get more ambitious than Bartholomew allows. He thinks it’s too late to get our freedoms back and argues for a minimal ‘welfare’ state only. But why stop there? If the architects of the welfare state have anything to teach us, it is to be bolder in our visions.

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