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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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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