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.

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'.

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

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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