I’m getting increasingly fed up with the way in which the debate about social security cuts is being framed by those two stereotyped figures: ‘the striver’ and ‘the skiver’ (substitute ‘shirker’ or ‘scrounger’ according to taste). Strivers stand for people who do paid work; skivers people of working age who don’t.
The main line of argument emerging among those who oppose benefit cuts seems to be that they are in fact hitting many ‘strivers’. People often forget that many low income workers receive state support through various benefits and tax credits; these too will be cut in real terms. As Polly Toynbee puts it eloquently in today’s Guardian: ‘These cuts fall on many more people in work than out of work, not the workshy but those rising at 4am to clean offices on the minimum wage, but still earning too little to keep food on the table for their children’. It’s a good point, which needs to be made.
But isn’t there a danger that this important argument could at the same time be feeding the idea that the out-of-work are all skivers and scroungers? They are not. Most of them are ‘strivers’ too. As striving appears to have become synonymous with working, I checked its dictionary meaning. The one that best fits the bill is ‘to make one’s way with effort’. Well generally people living on benefit are making their way with considerable effort. It may be the effort of seeking work or of doing their best by their children. It may be the effort of simply trying to get by on benefits, which will be considerably more challenging, particularly for mothers as the managers of poverty, as they are cut in real terms. Moreover, the division of the world into ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ ignores the fact that at the bottom of today’s insecure labour market many people are frequently moving in and out of work. So even if such labels did bear any relationship to working and not-working, we would not be talking about two discrete groups as the labels imply.
Do you agree that it’s time to stop using divisive labels such as these, which demonise and stigmatise many people who are claiming benefits through no fault of their own?