As hot-button political issues go, welfare reform isn’t a whole lot of naughty fun. It’s not as exciting as Lady Gaga’s meat purse, or William Hague’s room-sharing arrangements, or what particular piece of priggery the pope has stuck up his cassock today. For those who rely on state benefits to live, however, it happens to matter a great deal that the Liberal Democrat leader has just articulated his support for the coalition’s plans to smash up and sell off what little remains of the welfare state and call it progress.
“A fair society is not one in which money is simply transferred by the central state from one group to another,” Nick Clegg wrote in an article for The Times this week. “Welfare needs to become an engine of mobility… rather than a giant cheque written by the state to compensate the poor for their predicament.” This is the closest any modern politician has come to accurately describing the state of benefits distribution in this country – because, of course, “compensate the poor for their predicament” is precisely what the welfare state really has needed to do, for over 25 years.
In principle, I agree with Nick: of course welfare shouldn’t just be a leaky bandage stemming the flow of wealth and opportunity away from the poor and towards the rich and middle-aged who already have enough to eat, meaningful work, safe places to live. In any decent society, welfare should be no more than a safety net to catch the few who are unlucky enough to fall through the cracks in the system. Unfortunately, on that particular scale, we have not lived in a decent society for some time.
The deputy Prime Minister claims to believe that welfare should be an “engine” of social mobility. Engines need infrastructure to work, though, and it just so happens that two generations of ruthless neoliberal policymaking have torn the infrastructure of social mobility right out of this country. Without a set of wheels attached, an engine on its own doesn’t get you very far, A culture of secure, decently-paid long-term employment, adequate social housing, free, fair access to universities for those who aspire to work with their heads, training and jobs in industry for those who aspire to work with their hands, and a decent system of social care for those of us too unwell to do either: these are the handholds that previous generations could count on to help them struggle on when times got tough.
Today, instead of all that, we’ve got welfare. Not much welfare, of course, not enough to give anyone entirely reliant on state support anything approaching a reasonable standard of living: the basic rate of benefits has halved in real terms since the 1970s, and is now far below the £14,500 that most consider the minimum acceptable yearly income. Living on benefits, for most people, is about living in cramped, dispiriting accommodation, scraping by on £60 a week, choosing between eating three meals a day and getting the bus to an interview for a minimum-wage job you’re extremely unlikely to be offered. The anxiety of poverty prevents most of those who live on benefits from having the time and energy to complain, whilst those in a position to make themselves heard usually have sexier, snazzier social issues to sound off about. Unfortunately, the belaboured welfare state has become a flimsy modesty slip for a crisis in work and social care that will soon affect everyone, whether or not we’re benefit-scrounging scum.
The collapse in the support system for people with mental health difficulties is an important case in point. Residential care for people too unwell to support themselves was a founding principle of the NHS, but between 1950 and 1980 the available beds in dedicated mental hospitals halved, despite a booming population. For Thatcher, the asylums were simply too expensive to maintain, and valid complaints about coercion and forced treatment in mental hospitals were used to legitimise the closure and sale of the asylums, replacing them with a scheme called, rather euphemistically, “Care in the Community”.
The new system is working wonderfully, apart from the “care” and “community” aspects. In practice, spending on mental health is so low that most people with moderate to severe mental health difficulties, including hundreds of thousands who would in previous generations have been cared for in hospital, are left to survive on state handouts. Mark Brown, mental health educator and editor of One in Four, Britain’s lifestyle magazine for people with mental health difficulties, told me that: “For many people with mental health difficulties, benefits replace, some would say imperfectly, the medical or charitable support that those people would have received in previous decades.”
“To decide for reasons of budget that benefits need to be cut is the equivalent of taking away those services,” said Brown, who lived on benefits himself for many years. “Disability means you have to work harder to get on, and in such volatile times, where even those with the best of resources find themselves insecure, it is appalling that those who start with a social deficit should risk losing even the most basic support.”
These are some of the people who the deputy Prime Minister wants to encourage to “aspire” to “make their lives better” by providing “work incentives” – which is a delicate way of saying “we’re going to make you so cripplingly, stomach-churningly poor that you’ll take any job, even if you’re not well enough to do it, and if you can’t find work in the current climate, it’s your bloody fault, you filthy layabout. Now, pull your socks up and say thank you.”
To paraphrase an old adage, giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish are both perfectly fair ways of keeping your proverbial poor person fed, especially if you’re prepared to invest in such vital pieces of infrastructure as the proverbial fishing-rod. What you can’t do is kick your proverbial hungry pauper into the river and expect him to come up with a platter of salmon en croute in his mouth. That’s more or less what the coalition is suggesting when it talks feebly about “work incentives”.
The world no-one wants to say in this situation is “poverty”, and the reason nobody in the cabinet wants to say it is that sounds hypocritical coming out of the mouths of millionaires. Poor people and people with mental health difficulties have not been anyone’s target voters for a long time, but with in-work poverty soaring and little infrastructure in place to care for the sick, the disabled and the long-term unemployed, the coalition’s proposed welfare reforms will worsen the lives of millions, and make Britain a colder, crueller place to live. The cuts won’t work, and it’s time for anyone who cares at all about social justice to take a stand.