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The myth of the "welfare scrounger"

A little noticed piece of DWP research shows that four out of five claimants spent at least three quarters of the past four years off unemployment benefit.

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

In its effort to save money on the working age welfare bill, the government has used some bold imagery. The Chancellor is fond of saying, "where is the fairness...for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?" And the Prime Minister has talked of the benefits bill "sky-rocketing" while "generations languish on the dole and dependency". The benefit scrounger is the bogeyman of British politics, stalking the corridors of Westminster.

In the real world, it’s pretty hard to find families that have never worked, let alone generations of people on the dole. But as well as being political cover for the public spending squeeze, this rhetoric reflects an apparent hardening of public attitudes. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that in 2011 54 per cent of people thought that if benefits were lower people would "learn to stand on their own two feet", more than double the 26 per cent who felt that way just 20 years earlier. It appears that the idea of dependency is almost synonymous with the dole in many people’s minds. As a result, moves to erode benefits, through things like the 1 per cent up-rating plan, garner widespread public support.

Into this rhetorical maelstrom, was last week released a fascinating – and little noticed - piece of research by the Department for Work and Pensions on the benefit histories of dole recipients. It’s a precious piece of evidence in an argument that tends to be fuelled by anecdote, prejudice and fear (on all sides). And it rather undermines the picture that our welfare system is awash with people taking advantage of its 'something for nothing' deal.

The analysis looks at the benefit claims history, going back four years, of people who made a claim for unemployment benefit in 2010-11. For a sample group of 32-33 year olds who claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in 2010-11, 40 per cent of them had not made a claim before in that period. Sixty three per cent had spent no more than six months of the previous four years on JSA. And almost four out of five claimants had spent at least three quarters of the past four years off the dole. The idea that these claimants are 'trapped' in a 'dependency culture' is absurd.

What all this implies is that the overwhelming majority of people who claim unemployment benefit each year spend at least three-quarters of their time in work. And for 40 per cent of claimants, the need to claim JSA clearly comes as quite a shock since they have no recent history of having done so before. But you would never tell that from the tone of the debate. Only a small minority of adults – 11 per cent of claimants in 2010-11 – have a history of spending more than half of recent years on the dole.

The government is right to want to take action to help that 11 per cent achieve sustainable employment rather than spending half their time on the dole. But when four out of five claimants draw benefits for an unemployment spell that is obviously an unfortunate aberration, it’s clear that the excoriating rhetoric isn’t based in reality. If all claimants are to be labelled 'scroungers', then today’s striver is tomorrow’s scrounger – and that could be any of us. It’s worth remembering that the next time we hear a welfare squeeze being justified by a pervasive 'culture of dependency'.