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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain