Poverty pay: the political elite says this is as good as it gets

First published in International Business Times

Not so long ago support for a minimum wage, much like nationalisation of the railways and unilateral disarmament, marked you out as a state socialist. Today the Living Wage is the new common sense. While there is some opposition from employers, it is striking that the government and the bulk of the political establishment only quibble over the level at which it should be set.

It currently stands at a recommended £7.85 an hour, or £9.15 an hour in London. The National Living Wage, to be introduced by the government in April, will be a little less at £7.20 for over-25s rising to £9 by 2020.

While no-one had heard of zero-hours contracts until recently, taking a laissez-faire or state interventionist stance on the labour market would once have had you fall either side of a clear political divide too. No longer. Today, all are agreed that what amounts to casual working needs more or less regulating.

“Those exclusive zero-hours contracts that left people unable to build decent lives for themselves – we will scrap them.” That wasn’t Red Ed or Corbynomics: that’s David Cameron.

While the critics might want him to go further and ban them outright there is a consensus. The main political parties are opposed to the worst excesses of ‘poverty pay’, and agree that something must be done about it. But is this really such a good thing? It seems to me that this statist meeting of minds is shaped less by the fair-mindedness of the political elite than by the self-imposed limits of our anaemic political culture.

Clueless about solving the bigger problems, and unable to inspire anything but contempt, politicians desperately jostle around for easy headline-grabbing interventions like these. For instance, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has told Premier League football clubs they should pay their staff a Living Wage. “It would,” he says, “be difficult to argue they can’t afford it”.

Meanwhile, Costa has announced it will pay its staff a Living Wage slightly more generous than the national one. But why stop there? Living standards, especially for the poorest, have plummeted in recent times as wages have fallen and prices have risen. Is this really the best they can do?

It is a depressing sign of the times that such gesture politics can be spun as good news. In the absence of capitalist dynamism to raise people’s standard of living, this is all there is. There is no appeal to trickle-down economics anymore: an optimistic if not unreasonable belief that we all benefit as the economy grows.

Baristas are supposed to be happy with their new minimum (sorry, living) wage rather than imagine a world in which they might live like barristers or millionaire footballers. Instead of ambitions for more and better, the adolescent cry of “it’s not fair!” can be heard.

In a recent poll of students by job site Glassdoor, a third thought zero hours contracts were exploitative, a quarter wanted them banned, and over a third of those offered one turned it down.

As Diarmuid Russell at Glassdoor said: “These findings are intriguing, given these contracts allow students to move in and out of the job throughout the year, and potentially pick up hours which fit around studies and holidays.”

Quite – you might expect those who never tire of telling us about their spiralling debts to be a little less picky.

It isn’t just students convinced of their own victimhood. A chef who used to work for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was recently in court having being apprehended by police at a drug dealer’s house. According to his defence lawyer ‘it wasn’t him what did it’ – it was the zero-hours contract he signed with River Cottage. “As a result [he] was suffering from depression and sadly relapsed into heroin use,” it was claimed.

So as well as the notion that the best the poorest can hope for is to be a bit less badly off, is the patronising idea that some of us (chefs and students included) are so fragile that we couldn’t cope with a zero-hours contract anyway. While critics rightly argue that such employers are subsidised by us all in the end as those who work for them have to rely on welfare top-ups to their meagre incomes, this is only part of the problem with the official narrative on poverty pay.

What matters more is that the entire political elite, convinced that the poorest sections of the working class need protecting from the inequities of a flexible labour market, are telling us that this is as good as it gets.

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

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

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