Are benefits of benefit?

Is the future of the welfare state “poor, nasty, brutish and short”? To take Thomas Hobbes’ descriptor of humankind and apply it to the welfare state may seem unnecessarily apocalyptic, but it may also be rather apt. I think reform of the welfare system is vital. Whether the current reforms that are starting to come in are the best way ahead is a different matter. But before we get onto that, let’s take a few steps back.

Nearly ten years ago I first realised the scale of the the problems facing any developed countries’ welfare system and then two weeks ago I met the graph of doom. I was in a small seminar at university looking at welfare policy when two numbers made a difference these numbers were 7 and 20. They are the years the average person in the UK was expected to live in retirement in 1945 and 2004 (exact years may have faded in my memory). According to the 2011 census one in six people in the UK are now over 65.

The graph of doom was produced by Barnet Council last year and is now being cited across the country to illustrate the crisis pending for local government funding. By 2022 the cost of adult and child social care will be greater than total local government funding. This means that between now and then they will have less money to do anything else, parks, leisure centres, bin collections and the rest, and from then they will not be able to afford that.

And I know this is not the focus of the benefit reforms that have come into practice this week. But if we think the current reforms are causing upheaval and controversy just wait a few years. It is also why I expect to carry on working beyond my current projected retirement age of 68 and cannot support universal benefits for pensioners such as bus passes, winter fuel credit and free TV licenses.

A further problem in navigating the current debate is that disputes are not about different ways of achieving the same goal, they are marked by significantly different philosophical conceptions of the state – philosophical differences that were overshadowed by the post-war welfare consensus and even as that disintegrated a reluctance to probe beyond a policy level. On one side you have a free market perspective that (usually) supports the welfare state as a safety net, and on the other side a broadly socialist perspective backing wider redistribution.

For some in this latter category lifting the lowest paid workers out of the tax system is not a wholly good thing. When I first came across this opinion it shocked me – surely not paying tax is a good thing, it means you get to keep more of your income and therefore are less reliant on the state? But the point is that by paying tax, and if necessary receiving additional income via state benefits people are brought into a relationship with other people and are not just autonomous individual economic actors. My friend had a point (not one I agree with).

Free marketeers believe that at root taxation is theft. Maybe theft that the victim acquiesces to, but still taking something that belongs to them against their will. What someone has earned or owns should be theirs to keep unless there is a very good reason otherwise. And the more charitable (admittedly most of them) will at least allow that creating a welfare safety net of some sort is a good reason.

These are both fairly extreme positions, and for most their view of the state will lie somewhere in between, and often have aspects of both at different times and be swayed depending on their situation and their view of others. The role of the media in presenting policies and the lives of those impacted therefore also plays a crucial role. It is why, regardless of you position, the report ‘truth and lies about poverty produced by the Methodist, Baptist, URC and Church of Scotland makes essential reading. We have to talk about what really goes on, not what supports our a priori philosophical position.

We also need to watch the language we use. When we talk about welfare dependants we are talking about people. When the BBC runs a cutely times web gimmick to decide which class you are in it puts us in boxes and builds walls rather than tear them down. When we reinforce stereotypes by forcing people into red and blue corners that only encourage them to come out fighting even harder when the bell tolls.

And then a debate about significant welfare changes shifts to whether the cabinet minister in charge of the changes can live on £53 a week. I think those who make decisions which affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society should have an intimate awareness of what their decisions look like in the homes of those they affect. I also think Iain Duncan Smith has done more than most in the past decade to acquaint himself with these very problems.

He dismissed it as a stunt. It was a stunt, but maybe it wasn’t very good politics for him to label it as such. It brought to mind a scene from the final season of the West Wing, Santos has skipped off the campaign trail to fulfil his marine reserve duty, one of the staffers Ned turns to Josh and says: “Half the press is calling it a stunt.” And Josh replies, “Yeah, but all the press is running the footage.” The petition is a stunt, a good stunt, and it makes a good point – but a stunt none the less. Noone is quite sure what the £53 includes or doesn’t include, it would certainly be difficult to live on that amount even if it is after your rent and council tax is paid. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible, or means that Iain Duncan Smith should relent to the wave of pressure building for him to do it for a year.

I think Iain Duncan Smith would acknowledge it would be difficult to live on that amount, but maybe he would say it should be that way. Maybe he wants the benefits system structured to discourage reliance and encourage people to find other ways to pay their bills. Of course that’s not an easy route in a economy where jobs are scarce and living costs rising fast, but I think it should still be our intent.

There’s one other big hurdle in understanding the contours of the current debate about benefits. The tension between long term goals and short term necessities. The long term goals are reforming our welfare systems to make them affordable for a population that is getting older and costing more to look after, and doing so at a time of continued high unemployment and stagnant economic growth. The short term necessities recognises the financial difficulties many people are in and prioritises meeting those needs.

While many may object to specifics in policy changes, the philosophical differences come to the fore when considering whether a system should remove people out of the benefit system altogether or provide support towards a more equitable distribution of resources. Personally I think in an ideal system no one paying tax should receive benefits and vice versa, and I think the Universal Credit – in its intent – is a way of moving toward such a system without too steep a cliff edge. But then I am at heart an advocate of the free market.

I also recognise that making changes to the welfare system comes at a real cost and people will suffer because of changes made, and I do not think that is a price worth paying. It is why I back the principle of the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy, I think if the state is providing for your housing needs it should only provide for what is necessary. And yet of course it is not that easy, there are not enough smaller properties available, and there are various other wrinkles in the policy that mean it looks pernicious.

Each policy has similar good intents and harmful consequences. The challenge in contemplating the policies is deciding whether the end to which they serve is justified, and then whether the means by which they are achieved is acceptable.

And what for the role of the church in all this? I believe the church should stand on the side of the poorest. I believe it should care for the vulnerable and advocate for their cause. I believe it should be a place of refuge and a speaker of truth. I also believe it should look for good where it can and not slander without cause. It should be quick to care and slow to judge – and that applies to both politicians and those in poverty.

The church should be a witness of a better way. A way that does not get caught in the tramlines of party political campaigns. A way that is wary of easy answers, a way that sees charity as irresistible and politics as necessary.

I’ve heard Christians argue in recent days that their faith backs redistribution and private property rights. And I can consider the cases on both sides. I can look to the Old Testament and the New and see points on both sides. I can see generosity and communal living and a God who gave a people their land.

I also see the temptation to walk away from the debate. Because it is too much. Too aggressive, too difficult to put reasoned arguments that might upset, arguments that might inflame, arguments that might have little to do with what I want to say. But that is the case in most things that matter. And we need to find a way to accept we see things differently, and sometimes want different things but that doesn’t mean we should vilify those we oppose.

I’ve spent the best part of the last week in the company of my niece, she’s not quite two but plenty able to show her own mind. When she wants to stick the blue rocket sticker on the grass and not in the sky. When she wants to wear the pink coat that doesn’t fit her any more. Sometimes you accept that things don’t quite work out how you like, I wasn’t going to pick an argument over a rocket about to destroy Peppa Pig’s house. But sometimes it is worth fighting for what you think is right. We need wisdom to know which and grace to do so in a way that enlightens and does not condemn.

I don’t think the future of the welfare state is necessarily “poor, nasty, brutish and short”, but I think we need to try harder than ever to make sure the way we talk about it isn’t.

2 thoughts on “Are benefits of benefit?

  1. Thanks Danny, thoughtful blog. One question which you skimmed the surface on at the end was the role of the church in all of this… on the side of the poorest, yes. However, when the rubber hits the road, how do you define who the poorest are, and more importantly, how far do you go in helping them? Again, your politics informs your actions. Do you do enough to just help them get by, or do you display abundant generosity? I can think of arguments for both (biblical and otherwise), but I don’t know which way to go on it.

    I’m put in mind of the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, and the disciples pointed out that the cost of it could have helped a heap of people, but Jesus rebuked them. On the other hand, given a finite amount of resources – and the current climate – the practical side of me is thinking… surely it’s better to help more people?

    However long one theorises, I think the answer still starts with getting out and doing something…

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