Humanising Welfare Reform

Earlier today I was reading a piece about the financial crisis which argued that part of the problem with the financial system is a greater reliance on the technology, quants and trading over distance. There are fewer regular face to face meetings with counterparts in the market. This led to an erosion of trust and a sense of mutual obligation.  Market actors were tempted to pursue the incentives they faced to put one over on others – or to act fraudulently – because they weren’t doing it to people they knew. It’s not going to hurt anyone, but it may make me rich(er). Just playing with numbers on a screen. Impersonal.

The argument is plausible, given the work in economic sociology and cultural economy on the role of trust and social norms in successful market functioning. Perhaps rehumanising the market is a necessary step to remoralising it.

It seems to me that there is a parallel here with the current programme of government welfare reform, particularly in relation to the reform of Incapacity Benefit.

In the context of austerity the policy focus is upon curbing the budget. The strategy is to tighten the eligibility criteria and make the route to access benefits harder to negotiate. I have written about this before.

Today newspapers published reports drawing on work by Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill at Sheffield Hallam University which sought to produce independent estimates of the impacts of the reform. Beatty and Fothergill highlight the fact that the numbers involved are big. They estimate that 800,000 people will lose their entitlement to Incapacity Benefit. It is likely that there will be nearly 300,000 additional claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance, while nearly 600,000 people are likely to drop out of the benefit system entirely. That’s getting towards a million additional people looking for work. At a time when the labour market is already fragile and unemployment high. As Beatty and Fothergill observe:

The loss of entitlement is entirely the result of new benefit rules. It does not necessarily indicate that the health problems or disabilities that previously gave entitlement are anything other than genuine.

Few of these people will be work-ready and well prepared to compete in a buyers’ market.

When we’re dealing with numbers on this scale it can be dehumanising. The government talks in terms of the hundreds of millions of pounds that will be saved from the budget as if that is a good thing by definition. It is a good thing if we are talking about removing benefits from those who are not entitled to them. If there are thousands of people who are receiving assistance when they are not eligible then dealing with that would increase the legitimacy of the system. It is a bad thing if we are removing vital assistance from those who genuinely need it – simply by denying that they do. To perpetrate policy change that, when looked at dispassionately, would appear nothing other than spiteful, it is useful to construct a discourse of scrounging, of exploitation of the hard-working taxpayer, of widespread abuse of the system. Whether or not there is evidence of such systemic abuse is irrelevant. The discourse helps the mass of people – those who neither rely on the benefit nor have members of their family that do – view the reform as justified. Altogether less troubling to the conscience.

So it is important here also to rehumanise the debate. Lest we forget.

Sue Marsh, of the brilliant Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog, popped up on Channel4 this evening to make an articulate and impassioned plea for valuing welfare safety nets, whether or not you are a current beneficiary. The whole point about risks around illness and disability is that no one is immune. Sue has been making that case on her blog for a while now, as she is witnessing first-hand and through correspondents the sorts of negative impacts new systems of appraisal and exclusion are having. It was good to bring it to a broader audience.  If you did not see the brief programme then I would encourage you to watch it here.

Sue is articulate in making the case. But not all of those who will be subject to these reforms are well-placed to make representations on their own behalf. Today saw an absolutely shocking report in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of the case of Mark and Helen, a couple from Bedworth, who appear to have died after entering a suicide pact following an extended period living hand to mouth. It appeared that Helen had been deemed by the Job Centre to be incapable of work, but she had not been assessed for Incapacity Benefit.

The pair made the 6 mile round trip into Coventry weekly. The Telegraph reports that they then:

made a broth from the weekly handouts of vegetables given to them at the Coventry soup kitchen and lived on it for the entire week … They cooked the food on a single gas ring and kept the produce outside as they did not have a fridge.

There is no doubt a significant back story to this case. But, on the face of it, it appears that here is  a couple who had fallen through the gaps in the safety net and ended up living in conditions that should shame anyone who would like to consider Britain a civilised country.

It is not clear that this situation arose because of the cuts to welfare benefits and frontline services that are a consequence of the Government’s austerity programme. Let’s assume that it didn’t. So with a level of resource that the government has deemed unacceptably lavish this situation still arose. What chance that it will happen once those resources are pared back further and the safety nets are even more threadbare?

There is a deficit to deal with. No argument. But in trying to address those big scary numbers we must remember to rehumanise the finances and the economics. To fully grasp the effects on people’s lives of what is being proposed. Then maybe the strategies for dealing with the deficit would look rather different.

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