Expert Comment: Searching for the mythical ‘scroungers’Monday 15 June 2015
The current Conservative government is planning to make cuts of £12 billion over the next 5 years. Dr Joe Greener discusses what these cuts really mean for UK citizens as the Tories search for the mythical ‘scroungers’ in what promises to be another brutal round of cuts to welfare spending.
There is a falsehood that has permeated many aspects of British politics and culture. It is the fable that we, the ‘hard working’ majority, have been paying for a malingering and workshy minority who live out of the public purse. These people, we are told, can’t be bothered to work – it is easier for them to claim benefits from the state than to find a job. This class of skivers, shirkers and dodgers, it is often insinuated, need to be forced back to work if the national debt is to ever be tackled. The notion that there is a class of morally defective dependents has been perpetuated by the mainstream media, such as in TV programmes like Channel 4’s Benefits Street, and politicians alike. Tackling this out-of-control welfare spending, we are told, is also a key strategy in getting the UK economy back on track.
However, the truth about what the welfare state is and who it benefits is not often fully explained in mainstream political debate. John Hills’ recent book ‘Good Times, Bad Times the Welfare Myth of Them and Us’ is already a minor classic despite its recent publication date. Hills’ rigorous statistical analysis reveals that welfare spending is far more complex than most people think. Welfare spending, to many, means unemployment benefit, (fraudulently claimed) disability/long term sickness benefits and other forms of assistance that goes to people who are out of work. In reality, the vast majority of welfare expenditure goes on education, housing, social care, pensions and cash payments to people who are in, not out of, paid employment. In fact, out-of-work cash transfers, that is money paid directly to people who are either unemployed or are out of work due to sickness and disability, makes up under £1 out of every £12.50 spent on welfare. Even more surprising for some people to learn, is that if all UK state spending is examined, out-of-work cash transfers is less than the money paid toward in-work benefits (such as tax credits and child benefit).
Another fabrication commonly perpetuated by the establishment is that users of the welfare system are out of work over the long term. The reality is that most people who become unemployed find a job within two months and 95% of people who claim jobseekers do not receive it for more than six months. A reflection of the misleading and deceptive picture of welfare that has been promoted, on average people belief that 27% of benefits are claimed fraudulently which is 50 times higher than the Department of Work and Pensions own estimates.
Poverty is something that many of us experience for parts of our life. Even if we look at children, most children who experience poverty do not stay consistently residing in poverty over the longer term. Their parents might find new more lucrative employment, get promotions, change relationships, as well as finding it easier to return to high paying work when their children are old enough for school. If we explore people’s life trajectories we find that many people move in and out of poverty as their family and employment statuses change – there are good times and bad times. Admittedly, because of social class hierarchies, some people are more at risk of poverty than others, but the welfare state offers a system of social protection which benefits everyone, not only the poor.
The UK is facing unprecedented cuts to the welfare budget in the next five years with the Tory government proposing a £12 billion reduction. This will likely impact on all of us, whether in/out of work or in/out of poverty. It will attack our education provision, our child and social care systems and benefits which currently help top up the wages of working people. It is not an attack on the imaginary class of shirkers, skivers and scroungers – it is an attack on all of us.
How exactly the Tory policy will attempt to make further cuts in welfare policy whilst simultaneously maintaining the idea that these attacks are only on the undeserving is not yet clear. But some brutal reforms are currently being proposed including forcing single parents back to work when their children are three rather than five, increasing bedroom tax payments for certain social housing residents, taxing disability benefits, removing younger people’s entitlement to any sort of social protection and even abolishing maternity pay altogether. It is hard to see how these will not be bad times.