Monday, July 28, 2014

When it comes to our welfare system, we’ve lost the plot

As Britain follows the US in tearing up its safety net, the story of social security needs to be retold from the very beginning

protest benefits street
A protest outside the London offices of Love Productions, which made the TV programme Benefits Street.

The rip-roaringly successful 4’s Benefits Street, on Channel 4, is being followed up by Immigrant Street. This a year after the same station’s Benefits Britain 1949 – to middle England’s delight – subjected contemporary welfare claimants to the social security rules of the ration-book years, as applied by real-life bullying bureaucrats with real jobcentre experience. Meanwhile, Channel 5 has developed its own pauper-baiting programme, On Benefits & Proud, and its cousin, Gypsies On Benefits & Proud.

The boom in poverty porn suggests that the left is getting thrashed on social security, and the polling confirms this. There is still support for the general principle of a safety net and a ladder of opportunity, but turn to the practicalities of particular benefits and suspicions about freeloaders rise as jealousies break out in every direction. Listening to voices from across Britain for my book Hard Times, I found not only workers complaining about the unemployed getting an easy ride, but also jobless people grumbling that the low-paid got more help than them nowadays, not to mention striking mutual antipathy between recipients of different benefits.

To see where this debate could lead, glance across the Atlantic. Four decades after Ronald Reagan invoked the “welfare queen”, the nearest thing America had to income support is long abolished. There is charity, and sometimes state and local relief, but many a chronic health condition goes untreated, and penury abounds. The right, however, still refuses to relent. Paul Ryan, the Republican pick for vice-president in 2012, said about Medicaid and food stamps that year: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.” It is remarkable that such language is not being used about cash payments that could be misspent but about programmes to provide food and medicine to poor people in the world’s richest economy.

As the coalition freezes, cuts and applies punitive “sanctions”, we’re heading the same way faster than anyone would have thought possible a few years ago. The only chance of arresting the drift is somehow resetting the whole discussion from first principles.