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.


  1. You're correct that the old right v left certainties, i.e. "people on benefit are all scroungers" versus "people on benefit are all victims of capitalism" just don't help. I don't have the slightest idea what the answer is though.

  2. There is this statistic, which I think prompted the programme to be made, which says that this year, for the first time, more is going to be paid out in benefits than is going to be collected by income tax.

    Carlsberg Special Brew Man will also be looking for the NHS to help him out when his liver packs up too.

  3. It is all very complex, I was reading a report of strategies for getting so called "NEETS" back into the system recently. The measures laid out seemed all well and good but they all seemed to be preparing the kids involved for world that didn't exist (a far nicer place than the world most of us live in).
    No where in the document did it say anything along the lines of "you may have to turn up to work on time" etc.

    We need to be humane but honest with people and the numbers of unemployed are going to swell sadly

  4. The problem is that the welfare state was built on the concept of mutuality and relied on the idea of strong peer pressure towards values of thrift, self-help, and work. Now those peer pressures have largely disappeared, the whole system has become deeply corrupting in some places and entrenches poverty.

    I haven't got the slightest idea what do about it either. I don't want to live with poverty levels like in the US - which would result from a wholesale abandonment of the welfare state. But it seems that the answer is not Government - we need some modern day equivalent to the life-boys, the scouts, the churches, to lift spirits and aspirations in these places. My favourite fact about Beveridge is that he had a bracing stone-cold bath every morning at 6.00am. I don't think he'd have much time for sleeping in till noon.

  5. I don't think we should run away with the idea that benefits that enormously generous- remember that the weekly rate for Jobseekers Allowance is £60.50 a week (less if you are under 25)- it is difficult to survive on that for any great period of time. Reportedly one of the reasons that the number people on disability benefits has increased is that in arrears where the traditional industries have collapsed since the 80s and there is little prospect that a certain type of person will work again Doctors have been willing to sign people off as a humane act rather than letting people subsist on unemployment benefit.

    Another thing to remember is that in all societies and at all times there have been groups of people who have struggled to fit in at a workplace-it is tempting to think this is a new phenomenon but it isn't. I have no proof of this but I wonder if these days workplaces are less forgiving, less willing to tolerate oddballs. I have some anecdotal evidence that this might be the case (someone I know with learning disabilities being forced out of his job with a supermarket. Will he ever work again?)

    In practical terms it should be made easier to move from benefits to work. Much work these days is temporary or short term, but say you are on JSA and renting a flat, with the rent covered by housing benefit. Say you do 3 or 4 weeks work. Your JSA stops, which means your housing benefit stops, you may not get paid for the work you do for a month, so you have no money and the landlord is demanding the rent. When the work stops it takes weeks of months for you benefits to be sorted out again, and by that time you could be on the streets. It is understandable that people don't think it worth the hassle. It is in some ways counter intuitive but I am increasingly convinced that the idea of universal benefit is a good idea. It will never happen though.

  6. As J S Mill pointed out when the Liberals were beginning work on the welfare state; Rights and Duties are two sides of the same coin.

    A lot of people seem to forget about the duties, but like most people, I have no idea for a solution.

    We just have to hope that there are more people working in the North West of England than spend their days drinking Carlsberg...

  7. It's not a problem unique to England.

    Here in Ireland I recently experienced the following (paraphrased) conversation. Sitting in a pub waiting to play some songs at an open mic night I chatted with another of the performers. He's a poet. He even looks the part - long hair, beard and laid back. I said I'd be going on first or second because I had to leave and get up early the next morning as my wife had just gone back to work (now that the kids were a litle older) and we were both up at 6. The usual conversation around the state of the nation followed.

    I mentioned that we had found ourselves with less takehome pay than a year ago, not starving but worrying a little about paying our bills.

    The poet said he was doing ok. He was getting his rent allowance which covered the rent on his flat, he got the dole which gave him enough to feed himself, clothe himself and have a couple of pints, a medical card which gave him free GP and prescription. It was great because he was able to spend the day "chilling" and writing his poetry.

    His poetry wasn't that good... and next morning I wondered who the mug was.

    Somewhere in there is a lesson. I'm not sure what it is.

  8. Here's a thought.

    There are some people, no matter how you deal with them, who are just plain idle.

    I have a little part-time job and see them at work.

    And I wonder if it would be no more expensive to allow them to be idle on the state as they do not contribute much to the job; in fact they can create more work for the rest.

    You are correct. The Right and Left arguments are superfluous. It's just an aspect of humanity and th challenge is how to deal with it without causing undue problems or incurring undue costs.

    Society should maybe take a leaf out of these people's books and spend less effort (time and money) trying to think of solutions.