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Friday, September 04, 2009

The Welfare State seen through the bottom of a glass

Watching Benefit Busters on Channel Four, I can't help but wonder what William Beveridge and other architects of the Welfare State would have made of such hopelessness amid such apparent plenty: the rooms full of unemployed teenagers amusing themselves on mobile phones, looking up jobs on the internet and then buying fast food on the way home. It would have badly shaken his faith in the idea that the state should help people back to their feet, this apparent emergence of a group of people who, on being assured that somebody is standing behind them when they fall, fall all the more readily.

The programme is about the government's attempts to get the long-term unemployed back into work by paying private companies to sort the malingerers from the unfortunate. I don't know who to feel most sorry for: the people with genuine sickness issues, the staff whose job it is galvanise the "demotivated" or Kieran, who claims a bad back sustained in a post-clubbing balcony climb makes it impossible for him to do anything much outside watching daytime TV. None of us are in a position to say whether he's shamming or not. What's abundantly clear is that he has persuaded himself that the world owes him a living.

I don't side with right or left over what to do about this. The withdrawal of benefits is not going to turn the shameless into useful members of society. Similarly throwing more money at the problem isn't going to solve it either. And the emergence of a million NEETs doesn't say much for the effectiveness of "education, education, education" in bringing about a change in the long term.

At the same time idleness is costing the state a head-spinning amount. I can't get my head around government spending but I do occasionally try to look at it in terms of beer. There's somebody I see regularly who hasn't worked for twenty years. There was no doubt a time when they could have done. That time is passed. I assume they're living on benefits. I see them in the morning on their way to the shop to buy four cans of Special Brew. In the late afternoon I see them going back for another four. I calculate this person drinks 56 cans a week, which adds up to nearly three thousand cans a year, and in the absence of any other means of support I have to assume that this beer is paid for by the public purse. I make that £3,750 a year on Carlsberg Special. That's a lot, of course, but that's not the most worrying thing.

What causes me to take a grip on a firm surface is the realisation that the average male living in the North West of England earns £21,100 per annum and pays £3,670 a year in tax. Therefore this person's tax would not be enough to pay for the beer that the government is buying for my neighbour. Something's got to give.