The 2015 Project: Welfare, the dirtiest word in British politics?

Chris Johnes is the Director of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme. This blog is part of The 2015 Project – NCVO’s member consultation on the big issues in the lead up to the 2015 election.

Welfare has become one of the dirtiest words in British politics. It’s portrayed as a cost that decent hard working people pay to prop up people who supposedly can’t be bothered to provide for themselves.

This is the story that the Chancellor told the 2012 Conservative Party Conference in his famous “closed curtains” speech before announcing the Welfare Upratings Bill capping benefit rises. In this he is on similar ground to the appeal by Labour’s Liam Byrne to being on the side of “hard working families”.

And of course politicians know why they’re doing this. Long term public support for social security spending on those not working has been in decline for two decades and is most obvious among the youngest – despite very high levels of youth unemployment. Stigmatising those they are about to hit with cuts is seen as an essential part of securing wider political legitimacy for changes in spending, an approach supported with gusto – and often clear collusion – by elements of the press. However two things have gone seriously wrong with the simple politically convenient analysis that welfare cuts penalise a small, undeserving, group at the bottom of society.

Firstly the numbers of people affected, albeit to varying degrees, is very large. One estimate found that the impact of the Welfare Uprating Bill (limiting increases to 1%) will be 2.5 million households without someone in work (who will lose an average of £215 per year in 2015-16), while seven million households with someone in work will lose an average of £165 per year.  This is the product of an increasingly fragmented economy; fragmented in terms of what jobs pay, where more and more jobs only provide enough to live on if wages are topped up by tax credits, and fragmented geographically where well paid jobs are in desperately short supply in many more peripheral areas.

The second has been the wider shocks to living standards from rocketing price rises. As incomes, from both wages and benefits have risen slowly and not at all, the prices of essentials – food, fuel, housing, transport and childcare – have risen far faster than the headline rate of inflation.  The numbers of people who are financially vulnerable has increased dramatically – including many who are in work – and the levels of vulnerability have worsened – as the huge increase in the use of foodbanks shows.

(Photo credit: Lydia Goldblatt/Oxfam)

This fragmentation is the product of deeply unequal opportunities and creates deeply polarised understanding of how the economy and our society are functioning with decision makers increasingly ignorant of the realities of life for millions of the people they rule over.

In this context building a consensus that social security is a critical part of a modern functioning economy (especially one with flexible labour markets) becomes increasingly hard to achieve while the demonization of those at the bottom becomes, for some, second nature.

And if the political assumptions are hardly in line with the reality of life for much of the working population where are public attitudes?

Arguably almost as confused as the politicians. Whilst social attitudes to welfare remain broadly hostile (though there are some limited signs of that hostility bottoming out) the numbers of people volunteering in foodbanks to support the poorest are climbing rapidly as 3 new foodbanks open every week, whilst even traditionally conservative media outlets provide sympathetic coverage of stories showing how austerity is hurting people.

So at least there is a semblance of recognition that poverty is a growing problem – among the public, among the media and more erratically among politicians. Our concern is that how poverty is perceived remain entangled in false divisions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ and understandings of the causes and solutions of poverty bounded by individualistic, silver bullets which often confuse symptoms with causes.

We in the third sector have played a key role in building that understanding. And as things move on, and in all probability continue to deteriorate we need to continue to play that role. To bear witness to what is happening, to provide clear evidence of impact, to give voice to people experiencing the poverty that is coming from severe austerity and to suggest alternatives.

For alternatives there must be. In political debates there is a reluctance to recognise how the social security system plays a role in tackling poverty and how changes to it can worsen poverty – despite what is increasingly clear and brutal evidence.

Simultaneously any proposals about how we go forward must also recognise the limitations in welfare. We have gone through a decade where the welfare system was, (along with attempts to raise education standards)  almost the only tool used to tackle poverty  – through tax credits, through extensive support to housing benefit and support to childcare. Although some gains were made they were unsustainable in the face of wider structural changes in the labour market, in the UK’s economic geography, the growth of the deficit and in the prices of essential goods.

Social security remains a key element of both providing a safety net and of tackling poverty. However we can’t assume that simply making welfare payments is going to be sufficient. We need a comprehensive approach to tackling poverty which looks at pay levels, at the way markets for essentials are working, and the availability of employment opportunities so the economy does more of the heavy lifting in terms of creating the sort of society we need.

Such an approach is more likely to provide a sustainable way of living for people struggling on low incomes, recognising the varied reasons why people are struggling and expanding opportunities for them to work their way out of poverty.

Tell NCVO your ideas for the future on welfare – we’d love to hear from you.

For more information on NCVO’s election work see Election 2015: And so the election campaign begins…


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