Tag Archives: welfare

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2014

Speaking about the government’s proposed benefit cuts on the BBC Sunday Politics show last month, the interim Labour Party leader Harriet Harman announced “We won’t oppose the Welfare Bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap, for example what they brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children”. Why was the main – supposedly left-wing – opposition party refusing to oppose the policies of a hard right Tory Government? Harman explained: “What we’ve got to do is listen to what people around the country said to us and recognise that we didn’t get elected again.”

As it happens 48 Labour MPs defied their party’s three-line whip on the Welfare Bill and opposed the government’s plans to slash benefits from the poorest in society. Of the four Labour leadership hopefuls, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper all followed Harman’s lead and abstained on the proposed bill, while Jeremy Corbyn out right opposed it.

As an aside, Harman’s belief that public opinion sides with the Tories on welfare is arguably misplaced. Writing about the YouGov poll taken two days after Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meaden noted that while a large percentage of people agreed with the general proposition that benefits are “too high”, questions about specific groups highlighted different attitudes. For example, asked about disabled people, 46 percent of respondents felt that too little was spent on them, nine percent felt that too much was spent and 28 percent felt that the amount was about right. Respondents views on what people out of work should receive was evenly split, with no majority saying they get too much. Regarding the cuts in general, 38 percent of those questioned said benefit cuts had gone too far, with just 24 percent saying they had not gone far enough.

However, for arguments sake – and there is plenty of polling evidence to support this conclusion – let’s agree the government’s proposed benefits cuts do have the support of a majority of the people and the public lean to the right when it comes to welfare. Does that mean that all progressives should simply accept this reality and sit back as the Tories decimate the welfare state? It sounds an absurd argument just typing it out but this is exactly what the Labour leadership is arguing.

First, it is important to remember public opinion is not magically created in a vacuum free from social, historical or cultural influence. We have, for example, an often rabid right-leaning national press and poverty porn television programmes like Benefits Streets, How To Get A Council House and, wait for it, Benefits House – Me And My 22 Kids. Cumulatively, all this anti-welfare state propaganda seems to have negatively influenced the public, with a December 2012 YouGov poll finding a huge amount of ignorance when it comes to welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the true figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate it to be 0.7 percent). In addition, on average people thought that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker’s Allowance – more than 30 per cent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive.

Importantly, the poll found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant. “Voters who have a better grasp of how benefits work and what people actually get, oppose the government’s plans. When people learn more about benefits, support moves away from coalition policy”, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said about the survey. This is why it is so important the Labour Party challenge the government’s fact-free narrative on welfare and do not, for example, repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work, as Burnham did during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.

More broadly, did I miss the meeting when we all agreed the right thing to do in the face of a dangerously uninformed public is to follow it slavishly? Luckily throughout history people have stood up to and challenged popular opinion on issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and gay rights – and through years of hard work eventually changed public opinion for the better. For example, in 1975 Ipsos Mori found just 16 percent of Britons thought gay couples should be able to marry. By 2014 – when gay marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland – support had more than quadrupled to 69 percent. Gay people would still be waiting to get married if they followed Harman’s highly conservative political logic. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Surely politics should be about developing and staking out positions that one thinks will improve society and then attempting to persuade people, using evidence and rational argument, to support that position? And if people are ill-informed about an issue, then we should be educating them, not following their ignorant lead.

Returning to the Labour Party, the central question is this: who among the leadership candidates will challenge the dominant right-wing narrative on welfare and shift the debate into the realms of reality and who will blindly follow public opinion into a pit of ignorance?

Correction: Andy Burnham did not “repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work… during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.” He failed to challenge the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work on the BBC Newsnight leadership hustings in June 2015.


The reality of the UK’s ‘generous’ benefit system

The reality of the UK’s ‘generous’ benefit system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
August 2010

With the coalition government sharpening its knives in preparation for what the Institute for Fiscal Studies calls the “longest, deepest, sustained period of cuts to public services since World War II,” it was only a matter of time before the Con-Dems turned their attention to the benefits system.

“Tougher penalties for fraud” and “more prosecutions” were just two of David Cameron’s proposals in his widely reported recent “uncompromising” clampdown on benefit fraud. Predictably the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was amplified and twisted by the Sun into an attack on those who legally live on benefits. “The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants,” the newspaper warned earlier this month. “Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash. They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs – paid for by YOU.”

Underpinning the Sun’s simplistic, hate-filled nonsense is the commonly held belief that the current level of unemployment benefit allows people to live a comfortable life. Even the Guardian, that shining light of British liberalism, is not immune. “He had, he said, a bad back. He wasn’t working and he wasn’t going to try, and nor was she,” said Jenni Russell about her childhood friends who had been living “at other people’s expense” for over 20 years. “The house is full of stuff – flatscreen TVs, Playstations, iPods.”

But how much money do the unemployed receive from the state? According to the Department of Work and Pensions Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person over 25 is £65.45 a week. Those under 25 receive just £51.85. Of course this doesn’t include housing benefit or assistance with council tax, but how many people could pay all their bills, food, transport and leisure activities on just £65.45 a week? Certainly not former employment minister Tony McNulty, who admitted last year he wouldn’t be able to make ends meet if he lived on unemployment benefit, then £60.50 a week. His salary at the time was £104,050.

“Debts are inevitable,” Rev Paul Nicolson tells me when I ask him about the consequences of living on unemployment benefit. As the Director of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, a charity that works with Britain’s most financially vulnerable citizens, Nicolson argues that the current level of unemployment benefit has a strong negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of those unlucky enough to live on it. “Poor maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy increases the risks of permanent developmental brain disorder, poor cognitive ability and even cerebral palsy in children,” he says. “How can unemployed women buy a healthy diet and other necessities of life when their income after rent and tax is £65.45 a week and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income food standard is £44.34 a week?”

Nicolson is referring to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) annually updated and well-respected “minimum income standard.” Based on what members of the public think people need to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living, last month JRF calculated the minimum income standard to be £175.34 a week for a single adult, excluding rent and childcare.

It hasn’t always been like this. According to Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, “when unemployment benefit started in 1912 it was seven shillings a week – about 22 per cent of average male earnings in manufacturing.” Today, because successive governments have tied benefits to the price index while real earnings have increased, Bradshaw points out that unemployment benefit is just 10.5 per cent of average earnings. His conclusions are backed up by JRF report Should Adult Benefit for Unemployment Now Be Raised? which highlights how “relative to the average level of consumption” unemployment benefit today “is only worth half what it was 30 years ago.”

And as with many other social indicators, Britain also trails behind the rest of western Europe in terms of unemployment benefit. According to 2006 statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the most up-to-date figures readily available – Britain is far behind Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in terms of the replacement rates for a single person living on unemployment benefits.

With no unions, powerful voices or mainstream newspapers defending their interests, the unemployed are particularly vulnerable to government and media attacks on their already precarious situation. Progressive individuals and organisations therefore have two key tasks to carry out – first, to defend the current level of unemployment benefit from the coalition’s immediate clampdown. Second, to fight for a significant increase in the level of unemployment benefit, so those who are unfortunate enough to be out of work are able to live a healthy life and participate fully in society.

Busting the myths about welfare

Busting the myths about welfare
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
June 2012

The idea that a generous welfare state reduces people’s work ethic is so ingrained in British political culture it has become axiomatic. So commonsensical in this view that many readers will no doubt be scratching their heads wondering why I just stated the bleedin’ obvious. For example, 69 percent of respondents in a January YouGov poll agreed that “Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency”. Similarly, a survey last year by the respected NatCen Social Research found 54 percent of respondents believed that unemployment benefits were too high and discouraged the unemployed from finding work. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith seems to stand with public opinion on this issue, warning recently that a 5.2 percent increase in unemployment benefits would make it less likely the unemployed would seek work.

But what if I was to tell you the evidence suggests the exact opposite is true?

I am referring to the very important but largely ignored research titled ‘Has welfare made us lazy? Employment commitment in different welfare states’ included in the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey. The author, Ingrid Esser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University, compares the generosity of the welfare state with employment commitment in 13 industrialised nations. Her conclusion? “Employment commitment is decidedly stronger within more generous welfare states”. She goes on to say “work morale cannot be described as being undermined by generous welfare states today. Social benefits do not appear to have made people lazy… it appears to be quite possible to maintain strong work morale within a generous welfare state.” Furthermore, she notes the few studies that were conducted prior to her research “have either found no clear relationship between employment commitment and welfare provision, or have found stronger employment commitment in countries known to have more generous welfare states.”

Not that you would know any of this from reading our supposedly progressive media. A quick search of the websites of The Guardian, Independent and BBC bring up zero mentions of Esser or her myth-shattering study.

For those sceptics who are thinking ‘work commitment’ is a vague term to define and measure, how about using employment statistics instead? As the level of benefits paid to the unemployed in the UK are among the lowest in Europe, the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument suggests the UK will have a corresponding low level of unemployment. In contrast, Sweden, Norway and Finland have the most generous welfare states in Europe and therefore should have higher levels of unemployment. Eurostat figures show the reverse to be correct. In January 2012 the UK’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, while Sweden and Finland’s was 7.6 percent and Norway’s was 3.2 percent.

The problem with the ‘welfare makes people lazy’ argument is that it is based on a narrow rational economic model of behaviour. This assumes people make rational and informed choices about whether to work or not, when there is considerable evidence to suggest many people have a poor knowledge of the complex benefits system. More importantly, it presumes that money is the primary motivation for work. Esser’s research strongly suggests factors beyond the purely financial are far more influential – such as whether there is any suitable work available, the level of support and training people get from the state and the affordability of childcare. A good illustration of these non-financial factors is contained in Karen Rowlingson’s and Stephen McKay’s 2002 book Lone Parent Families: Gender, Class and the State. The two sociologists note that while “It is common for those on the political right to argue that lone parenthood has risen because women have access to relatively high rates of benefits” the experience of the USA and Sweden contradict this popular view: “The USA has the highest level of lone parenthood in the Western world but its level of social assistance is among the lowest” whereas “Sweden has the largest proportion of lone parents in paid work but the benefit replacement rate is also the highest.”

As well as the negative effects on physical health, it is clear a stingy welfare state can also have a deleterious effect on an individual’s psychological wellbeing. “If people feel like the welfare state demeans them and signifies failure they will experience low personal worth and react against the system that oppresses them”, the left-wing Labour Representation Committee notes. “It is therefore entirely logical that more conditionality, more stigma, and a low financial reward will decrease work morale.”

With Job Seekers Allowance currently set at a depressingly low £71 per week for a single person over 25 and public support for the welfare state dipping, these arguments are very important to have – and win. Because we will only be able to raise unemployment benefits to an adequate living standard, build a more generous welfare state, and create a more humane society, if we nail, once and for all, the myth that a more generous welfare state makes people lazy.

The ‘Better Off On Benefits’ Lie

The ‘Better Off On Benefits’ Lie
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2014

Attempting to justify their cuts to the welfare state, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Chancellor George Osborne have both argued that people are often better off on benefits than they are in work.

However, to paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, there is one tiny flaw with this assertion – it’s bollocks.

Chris Goulden, the Head of Poverty at Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), recently noted that the ‘better off on welfare’ claim is one of the most persistent myths about poverty in the UK: “While in some extreme cases, it may be true, the social security system, combined with the National Minimum Wage policy, is designed specifically to make sure you get more money in a job than if you’re out of work.” Goulden then goes on to do the actual sums, showing how a single person over 25 is better off working full-time on the minimum wage than being on benefits, as is a family of four (two adults and two children) with one of the adults working full-time on the minimum wage. Save The Children, CLASS thinktank and Turn2us, a charity helping the financially vulnerable, all agree this dangerous myth has no basis in fact. Citing the Government’s own figures along with data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have gone one step further. Informed by their members working in job centres, PCS are so sure the Government isn’t telling the truth that they issued a challenge to Duncan Smith to prove that anyone is better off on benefits than in work. They are, as far as I am aware, still waiting for a reply.

Several tricks are used by those who assert people are often better off on benefits. They often falsely compare all of the income of a family on benefits with some of the income of a family in work. It is rarely mentioned, for example, that many in low-paid work are entitled to some housing benefit and child tax credit. Comparing the income of a non-working family with children with the income of a working family without children is another sleight of hand used. Finally, the myth ignores the rather obvious point that those in work have the possibility of increasing their income (pay rise, promotion, switching jobs etc.), something that is not an option for those on benefits.

This ongoing confusion about the financial reality of being on benefits is the result of an ideologically driven campaign of disinformation and demonization – led by the political establishment and amplified by the corporate media. Frustratingly, many other myths about welfare feed off this mass ignorance and also feed in to the idea people are often worse off in work than on benefits.

One popular assumption is that unemployment benefits are too generous. In reality, since 1979 unemployment benefit has halved relative to the average wage. And compared to the rest of Europe the UK has one of the lowest replacement rates (the ratio of unemployment benefits a worker receives relative to the worker’s last gross earning) in Western Europe.

Duncan Smith’s assertion that there are three generations of families who have never worked is also often repeated. However, a JRF study was unable to find any such families. In another study two economists analysing the Labour Force Survey found only 0.3% of families had two generations that had never worked.

Finally, many believe there are lots of large families on benefits, many of whom have children to get more benefits. In contrast, the evidence shows families with five or more children account for just 1% of out-of-work benefit claims. Moreover, Save The Children point out that “rather than living ‘lavish’ lifestyles, out-of-work families with three or more children are less likely to be able to afford a basic standard of living” than smaller families. This is because “it is clear that the amount of extra support provided to families who have an additional child doesn’t sufficiently meet their additional financial needs.”

Referring to the pejorative language used by the Department of Work and Pensions, Child Poverty Action Group argue “it is very much linked to the fact they’ve got a major programme of cuts to social security under way, and are seeking a narrative to justify this.” With polls showing broad support for the Coalition’s benefit cuts, the public’s ongoing ignorance works perfectly for Government. “Voters least able to give accurate answers about benefits are the most likely to back the government’s policy on cutting benefits”, noted the Trade Union Congress about a 2012 poll looking into the public’s knowledge of the benefits system.

So next time you hear a politician, commentator or friend assert that people are often better off on benefits than in work, challenge them to show you exactly how. The answer will surprise them – and hopefully change their view of those unfortunate enough to be dependent on out-of-work benefits.