We have yet to feel the full force of the Coalition’s welfare cuts. But we are perhaps now starting to get an inkling of the reaction they will elicit when they finally arrive. One of the puzzling characteristics of much of the discussion of the agenda so far has been the relative absence of effective and vocal opposition. The Coalition has had a relatively easy ride in the press and in Parliament.
The Tories have very successfully pursued a divide and conquer strategy based on deservingness. Consequently a theme dominating the public discussion of welfare cuts is that the Government is right to think that ‘something needs to be done’ about ‘them’ [choose preferred target] – they are clearly taking the rest of us for a ride and are an unjustified drain on resources. This has been perhaps most effective in relation to the restriction of Housing Benefit. The Government has focused on the most egregious examples of the high levels of financial support going to individual households in expensive parts of London in order to justify the restriction of Housing Benefit for hundreds of thousands of poor households.
Housing Benefit is an interesting case. If the argument is that the Housing Benefit system is overgenerous and allows landlords to inflate rents in line with available support – which it is, at least in part – then the issue is a transfer from taxpayer to landlord, rather than taxpayer to tenant. If we accept the premise then the culprit is the landlord, who is playing the system, not the tenant. We should be directing our ire at those landlords who are fleecing us. Yet the tenant has been constructed as the wrongdoer for living in areas where hard working low income households cannot afford to live, and doing so supported by the taxes of those very same hard working households.
This sort of “us and them” strategy allows us to dehumanise “them” and then proceed to impair their standard of living and life chances without feeling too bad about it. It’s a strategy we would fully expect from the Tories. But not from the LibDems. It’s a strategy that rests on a lot of people believing that they’ll always be “us” and never be “them”. If we thought we might end up being one of “them” then we might take a rather different view of the levels of support that should be available to those in need (as John Rawls argued at rather greater length).
Yet, an adverse life event such as long term limiting illness or unemployment can happen to anyone. And in recessionary times more people will inevitably be affected, if only temporarily.
A recent report for the Department of Work and Pensions by Bruce Walker and Pat Niner of Birmingham University makes the point clearly in relation to Housing Benefit (HB) in the private rented sector (PRS). The authors argue that:
“One of the main themes of this research project and report is to compare LIWH [Low Income Working Household] tenants and HB claimants in the PRS. A clear message from the in-depth interviews is that it would be a mistake to see ‘HB claimants’ and ‘low income working families’ as totally distinct categories. Many interviewees had moved between these categories, sometimes several times, so the same household could one day be a LIWH and the next a claimant. Further, where HB is claimed as an in-work benefit, households are essentially both low income working households and claimants at the same time.” (2010, p3)
Hence, among low income households the boundary between “us” and “them” dissolves.
We need to hold on tight to the rationale for social safety nets. They are there for everyone in case they suffer an adverse life event.
Many who are fortunate enough not to have ever experienced what it is like to be one of “them” can empathise. They can recognise the value of an adequate safety net (and arguable the British safety net is barely adequate by international standards) and the dehumanising and divisive effect of inadequate social provision. But in a harsher economic and financial climate these views can be sorely challenged. We need to retain a strong sense of empathy.
If empathy were somewhat more widespread then the idea of large cohorts of benefit recipients receiving tens of thousands of pounds from the taxpayer as a lifestyle choice would be recognised for what it is – a creation of the political right and the right wing media to advance an agenda of vilification.
Most people need to call on social safety nets for limited periods to cope with temporary setbacks. The main reason that the welfare bill has increased dramatically in the last few years is that there are a lot more people claiming, not that it is massively generous. That shouldn’t come as a surprise in a recession.
That isn’t to deny that it is impossible to find people who receive a lot of money in housing benefit. Of course you can. Or that there are not some people who are choosing to live on benefit. Clearly there are. And it isn’t an argument against reform. But it is an argument that those few households who do not take their responsibilities to society seriously should not be used as an excuse for pursuing spiteful policies that inflict great hardship on many who are simply unfortunate.