For those of us who believe that social security (aka welfare) has a vital role to play in preventing and alleviating poverty and in providing a degree of economic security in these insecure times, the last few weeks have been disheartening. I’ve just caught up with the latest British Social Attitudes Survey . It shows public support for social security – especially for unemployed people – is low and has not followed the usual pattern in recessions, when support has tended to grow as more people are touched – either directly or indirectly – by unemployment. Over three-fifths now believe that unemployment benefits are too high and over half that lower benefits would encourage people to stand on their own two feet. These are about double the proportions holding such views a couple of decades ago. Yet during this period the rules designed to ensure that people able to undertake paid work do so have become tougher and have been extended to more groups.
From comments posted on earlier blogs, I suspect many of you might share these views. If so I would be interested to know why and whether your views have changed in recent years in line with those of the general public. My own theory, supported by some public opinion analysts, is that a contributory factor has been the position taken by my own party when in power. If even Labour ministers constantly go on about ‘welfare dependency’ is it surprising if the idea that receipt of benefit equals dependency has become the conventional wisdom? I have yet to see the research that supports the thesis of a widespread dependency culture.
The backdrop this week has of course been the Chancellor’s speech in which he signalled a further £10bn in social security cuts on top of the £18bn already planned, leading to a flood of ‘scrounger’, ‘workshy’ headlines. I’m sure I will return to this subject but it’s worth remembering that a single person on jobseeker’s allowance receives only £71 a week and that during the many years when earnings went up faster than prices the value of the benefit fell further and further behind average living standards. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) put it, ‘if the Treasury simply adapts the [benefit uprating] system to whatever saves it the most money at the time, its message to the country’s worst off families will be clear: “heads I win, tails you lose”’.
Last month the JRF, together with the Child Poverty Action Group, published research showing that a two-child family where the adults are unemployed receives £193.71 less than their needs, as judged by members of the public. The kind of cuts signalled by the Chancellor can only spell more poverty and hardship.