The myth of the welfare queen

The coalition’s attack on the benefits system appears to be a copy of US policy, and it is single mo

In the past few months, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, have begun a war on poverty that is more about defaming the needy than helping them. Despite high unemployment, the coalition has proposed, among other things, to consolidate the current income benefit programmes into one comprehensive work programme, which will make support contingent on harsher and less realistic requirements. "Do the right thing and we will back you all the way," Cameron said on 20 April, "but fail to take responsibility and the free ride is over." The image conjured is of an able but indolent man. Yet poverty in the UK is just as likely to affect a mother or a child.

More worrying is that the coalition seems to be taking as its model a welfare reform bill passed in America in 1996. Called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRA), the law, through sanctions and benefit limits, removed the last safety net for millions of poor Americans. Because numbers on welfare decreased - from 12.2 million in 1996 to 5.3 million in 2001 - the reform has been hailed as a success, but the economic and ethical intricacies of it are more complicated.

In the US, welfare does not have the larger connotation it does in the UK, where it comprises health care, education and other indicators of social well-being (as an American, I can say we never bothered much with those things). Nor does it refer specifically to unemploy­ment benefits, which offer temporary relief to laid-off workers. Originally called the "mother's pension", welfare began as a programme that provided aid to widows with children. Then, in 1939, the Social Security Act was amended to expand the remit of federal aid, making welfare a more contentious issue. No longer were beneficiaries mostly white widows, but women who had been divorced, had never married, were abandoned, abused or born black.

Many welfare mothers at the time of the reform did, in fact, work, but for decades were characterised by the press and politicians as idle and deceitful. Ronald Reagan would talk about a "welfare queen" who drove her Cadillac from benefit office to benefit office, making false claims. The message was simple and Cameron and Clegg seem to know it well: poverty is due not to embedded social inequalities but to the moral failings of individuals.

Sanction city

This proved popular in mainstream America, where anxieties about race and social mobility are all-pervasive. For 61 years, the US welfare programme, properly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was ill-funded and under threat. In 1996, Bill Clinton dismantled it through the PRA.

The new law concentrated on getting poor women into work, and instituted limits on how long they could get help - no more than two years in a row, and no longer than five years in total. Whereas federal funding increased according to need under AFDC, individual states under the PRA received funds only if they cut their enrolment figures, which they could do by pushing women into "workfare" jobs (for which they do not always receive even the minimum wage) or by cutting them off altogether via sanctions. The law tightened eligibility requirements to extremes: no longer were lone women with children under three exempt from working, nor were children born while their mother was on welfare covered.

Economically, the law made little sense, at least for those at the bottom. By forcing millions of poor women into low-wage work, welfare reform flooded the market and increased competition for even the worst jobs. Companies benefited because workfare programmes offered them desperate workers who could replace better-paid, often union-supported ones. Why pay a janitor $6 an hour when you could get a workfare mother for $1.50? It is not surprising that only 10-20 per cent of those who leave the new welfare system attain an income above the poverty level.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the reform was that it redirected funds which could have helped women become economically independent, through work and education, to programmes that encouraged them to retreat from society and rely on men for economic security. The act channelled millions into promoting marriage to welfare recipients, a move that both George W Bush and Barack Obama expanded through "faith-based" initiatives. As one sceptical caseworker put it in Sharon Hays's 2003 study of welfare reform, Flat Broke With Children, this approach offered far less security: "Their husbands can leave them; their employment experience won't."

But the goal was never about helping women so much as shaming those who strayed from tradition. While many US politicians support the rights of middle-class women to stay home with their children, lone welfare mothers with children over the age of one do not have this option. Nor can they receive aid unless they agree to interact with ex-husbands over child support - a scary prospect for many women.

According to one 1997 study conducted by the McCormack Institute and Centre for Survey Research, which looked at a random sample of welfare recipients in the state of Massachusetts, 65 per cent had been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives. Although the PRA supposedly exempts these women from this rule, it's up to social workers to judge these delicate cases and they have very little incentives to do so, financial or otherwise.

Deep trouble

In pushing their welfare-to-work agenda, Cameron and Clegg have vowed to use the same tactics found in the PRA. On 30 July, Dun­can Smith warned that the benefits system was "on the verge of collapse" and needed reform. An official proposal is due soon, but the coalition has proposed "a new welfare contract" that promises an array of new sanctions. Also following the US, Cameron has suggested that he would spend £1bn on promoting marriage.

If the coalition enacts its plans, the poor will fall into deeper poverty. This will probably be easy to obscure. In the US, because a caseworker's primary job is to lower caseloads - by cutting benefits or discouraging the needy from applying - enrolment numbers have increased by less than 10 per cent since the start of the recession in December 2007. But the need is greater than ever. Child poverty is up. Unemployment has doubled. And food stamp allocation has increased by 40 per cent.

As the US welfare expert Gwendolyn Mink has pointed out, lone mothers have been hit hardest. But the problem isn't that they do not work, as politicians would have us believe. In fact, 83 per cent of them do, though they are still twice as likely to be poor as the general population because of factors such as biases in unemployment relief and wage inequalities. The stark truth is that these mothers and their children are struggling to cope and, given welfare's demise, will continue to do so for some time to come.

Ashley Sayeau

Cutting through the state

In its drive to eliminate the bulk of Britain's £149bn Budget deficit within this parliament, the coalition has targeted welfare spending. Of the £32bn cuts it plans to make above those intended by Labour, £11bn will come from state benefits. In his "emergency Budget", George Osborne announced a series of measures that provoked outrage from Labour and led to accusations that "the Nasty Party" never went away.

From 2011, child benefit will be frozen for three years, the health-in-pregnancy grant will be abolished and the Sure Start maternity grant restricted to the first child. In addition, tax credits will be reduced for families earning more than £40,000, housing benefit will be reformed with a maximum limit of £400 a week, and public-sector pensions will rise in line with the Consumer Prices Index, rather than the generally higher Retail Prices Index.

Conversely, Osborne has left benefits for those over 60 largely untouched. The coalition has maintained its expensive promise to restore the link between pensions and earnings, and has promised to safeguard pensioners' free bus passes, free TV licences and winter fuel payments.

Osborne has since hinted at further reductions in the welfare budget as he seeks to prevent cuts as high as 25 per cent to departments including education, defence and local government.

George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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