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29 September 2014

The Tories know cutting the benefit cap will push children into poverty – they’re doing it anyway

It is very easy to arbitrarily cut benefits rather than do anything about why people might need them.

By Frances Ryan

If you hoped this weekend would produce a sign of the grubbiest politics, what the now ex-Minister for Civil Society did with a fake twenty-something blonde on Twitter was not it. That came from our prime minister – pledging to further squeeze benefits, drowned in the sound of cheering conference crowds and easy votes as children in the next street are going hungry.

The headline was cutting the benefit cap again, now from £26,000 to £23,000. It was joined by the promise to bar anyone aged 18-21 from claiming JSA or housing benefit if they’ve been unemployed for more than six months. If how many children you have or how high the rent is where you live are insignificant detail to the benefit cap, whether your parents are able or willing to keep a roof over your head means nothing to the youth cuts. This is Tory Britain: where rich families – and their government – take care of each other and anyone else is discarded.

When the benefit cap was first brought in last year, I reported for the New Statesman on its impact. Single mothers left with £2.98 per day to pay for food, clothes, heating and electrics for each of her three kids. Victims of domestic violence unable to pay the rent on the cramped, dirty flat they’ve fled to.

No one can claim ignorance. As George Eaton set out today, the Department for Work and Pension’s own figures show the poverty threshold for a non-working family with four children (at least two of whom are teenagers) is £26,566 – £566 above the cap. In short: the government is fully aware this policy will push children into poverty and is planning to do it anyway.

Still, there’s some votes in it for them. Labour, caught between appearing “tougher on welfare” and being an ethical opposition, will be further trapped. 79 per cent of people support the current cap, according to YouGov. 71 per cent of Labour voters. If politics is grabbing onto power by kicking the vulnerable overboard, Cameron and friends are doing well at this game.

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It is very easy to arbitrarily cut benefits rather than do anything about why people might need them. As Claudia Wood at Demos points out, this government’s ongoing efforts to tackle “welfare spending” tellingly exist without any attempt to address the structural causes. 

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The reality of benefits is not widescreen TVs and disposable cash but high rents, low wages and a few coins left to pay for food and heating.  

It may ruin Tory rhetoric on “worklessness” but as anyone with a basic grasp of either social security or housing knows, housing benefit (along with pensions) represents the largest chunk of welfare spending – and almost all new claimants are in work. This is only getting worse. The number of people in work entitled to housing benefit has increased by 86 per cent in the last three years. The division between workers and benefit shirkers that announcements like todays are born from is only real in the mind of Tory MPs and an electorate, caught in zero hours and spiraling rents, exploited by fears and lies.

Taking benefits from families without addressing spiraling rents, childcare, or low wages is the policy equivalent of throwing water on a fire whilst doing nothing about the pile of shredded newspapers and the guy with the box of matches. The thing is, of course, the Conservatives have no desire to put out the fire. They want the building to go up in flames. The welfare cap plays to the myths the Tory press and Party have themselves created: the unemployed are jobless because of their own laziness and the poor, some of them anyway, deserve to be punished.

If children go hungry, that’s collateral damage. Them and a society turning scared and nasty. 800,000 people in this country have experienced verbal abuse because they’re on benefits, charity consortium Who Benefits? found last month. Over 200,000 claimants have been violently assaulted.   

Yes, taking three grand off the already poor is a real vote winner. This is politics with people’s lives. And worst of all, the Tories know it.