On Welfare Reform

It’s easy to say that things need to be different as regards the welfare payment structure in the UK. Anyone could say it and to be honest, the system and the ways in which is it used and most of all the intricate complexities of the system beg for changes.

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So Cameron has got through the easy part there. Reform is overdue.

The details however remain forthcoming. A ‘universal benefit’ of overarching status that will encompass current Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits of various types – but, quite rightly, not Disability Living Allowance which will remain separate – will be merged into one type of system which will, apparently reward additional work undertaken rather than penalise it.

Well, it’s hard to criticise the idea but to use a well-worn cliche’ the devil will be in the detail.

The one thing that is frightening me about this system – although to be fair – it isn’t this system in particular, is the reliance on a fantasy ‘new computer system’ that will ‘just be able to work everything out’. Hmm. Heard that one before.

As for changes in universal benefits such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes – I have no issue with those being more tightly controlled.

There are a couple of difficulties with the agenda that is being presented though apart from the ‘fantasy perfect computer system’ that will know everything.

Firstly, to push people back to work there have to be jobs to push people into.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the government and the right wing press have pushed an agenda and a narrative of ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘malingerers’ into the public perception. This is no doubt going to be a precursor to cuts.

We are, by nature a rather selfish society, looking to our own pockets before the needs of the citizen as a whole. If we see our  next door neighbour who SEEMS to be doing very well on benefits with a nice new plasma TV, we will moan and groan ad infinitum about the base unfairness of it all.

The truth is that no-one knows what is happening in someone elses’ life and household, the choices they might be making and the invisible disabilities they might be facing – but we all seem to become omnipotent when we are able to judge or compare what we, the perfect tax-paying citizen might be doing in comparison.

The Guardian quote Iain Duncan Smith as saying

there is “something fundamentally wrong” with a system that pays 5 million people not to work while immigrants come in to do jobs those on benefit reject: “You’re just replacing one group of unwilling workers with another group of willing workers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

I think this is generally a dangerous narrative and one that needs to be explored and questioned much more fully. There is an assumption that the ‘system’ is paying 5 million people not to work. I’d challenge that assumption. Of that 5 million, I assume that almost all are desperate to find good, dignified employment. Someone does not claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because they don’t WANT to work but because they cannot find work.

Knowing personally a few people who have had to claim, I think that trying to make an assumption that these people are ‘rejecting jobs’ that are then taken by immigrants plays (unsurprisingly) into the narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun. This needs to be challenged. The job centre system needs to be reformed but as long as we treat people who don’t have jobs as quasi-criminals rather than individuals with skills that can be utilised in different ways, we will perpetuate the ‘us and them’ system.

Forcing people into jobs that have no match with their skill-set does not build an effective and strong economy.

There is also an underhand ‘blame’ of immigrants ‘coming in and taking ‘our’ jobs’ that is perfidious in the extreme. Many of these ‘jobs’ that are being ‘stolen’ are taken by citizens of member states of the European Union. It may not be that British people are unwilling to take the jobs but more than our culture values different types of jobs differently or that we do not train sufficiently in certain skill areas.

Helpfully, the Guardian also relates that

Cameron also promised today that unemployed people who refuse work would face tougher benefit sanctions, but gave no details.

That’s a really useful statement, Mr Cameron – but with no details, it is completely valueless.

At the moment, it sounds like empty crowd-pleasing rhetoric and a kick at people who are unable to find work – not because they are ‘being picky’ but because the manufacturing and industrial base of this country was torn apart by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s and because the global credit crash has affected the worldwide economy.

Cameron has picked an easy target and uses crowd-pleasing words. That makes me nervous.

5 thoughts on “On Welfare Reform

  1. So much to agree with here! I was only 12 when “welfare reform” happened in the US, but it was for similar reasons–there was this notion that most people on welfare were cheats, and were living lavish lifestyles on the taxpayer dime. Of course there’s going to be fraud and people who take advantage of any government program, but that really wasn’t the case in the early 90s, and it’s not the case now.

    Welfare reform in the states was supposed to include provisions for job training and placement assistance. A lot of my clients participate in this, but all complain about how they have to sit in a room, literally doing nothing, 9-5 every day. They do it, because it’s the only way they can continue their benefits, but this is the “job training?” Giving everyone an hour a day on the computer to search for jobs? Most people I work with want to work, and would love to get some training or assistance with job placement, but the option isn’t there.

    I got into a…friendly debate with a cop this weekend, who was telling me how he used to patrol the social services building in his precinct, and “everybody” would pull up to claim benefits in BMWs. I’m always amazed at how these people living luxurious lifestyles on welfare are everywhere, and yet none of them come to me for services. Strange.

  2. I think its the “crowd pleasing words” that are the key, suspect they have done a lot of market research into how to put things across and what buttons to press to get people on their side.
    Trouble is when you know people doing very useful jobs who have been made redundant already, and others facing it and suddenly these people go from being “workers” to ….well scroungers, because we have been fed the view that people who dont work are no good… you realise how hollow the “crowd pleasing ” words are.

    Im scared, for other people and for myself as well, think we should all be scared with this lot in charge.
    Wish more people were scared.

  3. socialjerk (I feel a bit mean calling you that!) – obviously, I agree although it’s interesting to hear about the international perspective. As you probably realised by now, that kind of talk gets me really angry. I work with older adults and we have to BEG them to claim the benefits they are entitled to. I have over the past ten years, seen so many people who do not claim what they could because they have been embarrassed by this kind of hype and think that they would be stigmatised if they claim what is rightfully there and as a result really struggle.

    Ruth – I’m also scared and every day, I get more frightened.

  4. Your point is well taken about the “fantasy ‘new computer system'”.
    When dealing with human lives and (often) desperate human situations, you need to use human understanding. Computers should be there to help keep organized, but it’s wrong when they trump the real people who might help.
    Social assistance recipients are such an easy target, aren’t they?

    • Yes, and that’s why I get angry. I don’t have any problem with computer systems per se and to be honest, I am quite happy with the idea of a ‘paperless office’. My cynicism comes from having moved through a number of so-called ‘miracle perfect computer systems which are going to make your life much better’ stuttering and failing badly and creating far more confusion.

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