Food stamps: the goverment quietly robs its citizens of the power to spend their own money

An unacceptable infringement of freedom.

This week, the government quietly and fundamentally shifted its treatment of benefit claimants. I’m not talking about yet another cut, but instead the decision that from next month individuals seeking cash loans from their council for a short-term financial crisis will now be issued with food vouchers instead of money.

Vulnerable people who have had money stolen or have had their benefits delayed can currently apply to their council for a short-term loan of up to £50, but 150 councils have now indicated that they will soon be issuing payment cards instead, and these will prevent the holder using the money for alcohol, cigarettes and gambling.

At first glance, this might seem sensible enough. Why should the state be lending money to someone who will drink or gamble that cash away? The reason this short-term lending system exists is to prevent citizens from going hungry when the social safety net fails — and under the new system, that won’t change.

But, the first problem is that if the government’s intention is to nanny benefit claimants and to bar them from spending their money on fags and booze, it won’t work. Anyone with a little determination and half a brain cell will simply swap their food vouchers with a friend in exchange for their contraband. Everyone needs food, after all, and at worst it will simply make drinking and smoking a little more expensive — if your entrepreneurial friend demands £10 of food vouchers for their £8 packet of cigarettes, say.

The second problem is that robbing an individual of the power to spend money as they wish is an unacceptable infringement on a person’s freedom, and it illustrates the contempt with which the government, and many voters, holds benefit claimants. The same could be said of asylum seekers, who are already subjected to a cruel, degrading and restrictive voucher regime.

I’ve found the book Poor Economics one of the most intelligent development books in recent years, and one of its insights is this: faced with limited funds, few humans are 100 per cent strategic in the way they spend their funds. Interfering civil servants (or development economists) might hope that the poor will prioritise their basic nutritional needs above all else, spending only on luxuries once they’re satisfied their family is eating three well-balanced meals a day. But, like anyone else, someone on a restricted income is likely to sacrifice some of their food budget to spend it on such ‘fripperies’ as a TV, a mobile phone, or a bottle of vodka. And frankly, I know I’d rather eat dry toast and sometimes watch the telly than go without entertainment but plenty of hearty stews.

Increase someone’s salary a little, and they are unlikely to spend that extra stipend on high-quality protein and vitamin supplements, and much more likely to treat themselves to a chocolate bar, or a beer, or a lottery ticket.

This might seem like an alien concept to the average Spear’s reader, who is fortunate enough not to have to choose between goods in this way, but most will fondly recall their university years and if these were anything like mine, weeks could go by on a basic diet of beans on toast and pasta when money had been frittered away on bad wine and party dresses. And what student, when slipped a few quid by a kindly relative, would rush out to buy the brazil nuts and Berocca so needed to improve concentration and increase essay-productivity, thus improving future earning potential? 

The point of this is, some people when given an emergency £50 loan will carefully spend it on their food shop, and will try their hardest to buy as sensible a basket of goods as they can to tide them over while they wait for their money to come through. Others will go out, get drunk, and find themselves pestering their friends for food for food, or going hungry, until finally they get their hands on the next cheque. More of us probably fall in the latter camp than the former. 

Far more importantly, it is wrong to rob fully able adults of the ability to make wrong choices, and allowing any government to rob its citizens of autonomy in this way is very dangerous indeed.

This article first appeared on Spears magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).