A controversial, but vital, debate
by Claudia Wood
Ever since the Government announced its programme of welfare reform, we at Demos have done a great deal of work on changing attitudes to the welfare state. We have looked at the impact of austerity on disabled people and investigated how middle-earners could be better served by our welfare system. We are currently pursuing research on the squeezed middle’s experience of the benefits system and the reasons behind changing generational attitudes to welfare.
This week, as part of a wider project exploring some of the ethical dilemmas of new technology, we released the findings of a survey in which we asked just over 2000 members of the public whether they thought the Government should monitor or control what people spend their social care personal budgets and their benefits on.
The survey revealed that the majority (59 per cent) agreed the government should control people's benefit spending, and when we asked which groups should have their spending controlled, 87 per cent identified at least one social group.
I find the polling deeply concerning. Don't get me wrong - I expect the majority of people would agree that benefits (or indeed, any income) shouldn't be spent on illegal items such as weapons or drugs. I also think many would agree that for those with mental illness or those with a history of substance abuse, oversight on their benefits spending is best for them. Whether this is best achieved through the heavy hand of government control or through the lighter touch of key workers and social workers already supporting these groups is a different question.
However, where I begin to worry is when 33 per cent of the public single out those claiming disability benefits, and 27 per cent the long term unemployed as candidates for benefit controls.
To me, this is a clear sign that we are falling head-long into a damaging ‘them and us’ culture when it comes to the welfare state. ‘Them’ is the scroungers, the feckless, shameless families that squander the money that the ‘us’ provides – the hard working taxpayer.
And it is the Government, through the media, which is directly encouraging these attitudes in order to justify sweeping cuts to a range of benefits (and in particular, those linked to disability and employment). This has prompted a changing view of the welfare state – from a social insurance scheme (where the same people pay in as take out) to a form of charity (where the taxpayer pays for the workshy). This erroneous view ignores the fact that the majority of benefits claimants have contributed, and justifies the reduction and greater control of what ‘recipients’ of welfare get.
The public's growing resentment, I feel, is also fuelled by the government dismantling the last vestiges of the contributory principle – meaning that those who do pay in seem to get very little. A man who has worked for 30 years, and has a stroke, will only receive a year's worth of sickness benefit if he has a wife who works before he is pushed on to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which he will then only receive for 6 months before he is left to his own devices.
He might still be very ill and unable to work, but that's all he gets for his 30 years of service. Is it any wonder that people in this position think it ‘unfair’ that those with no savings and no partner in work can get Job Seeker's allowance indefinitely until they find a job? And that ‘their’ contributions shouldn't buy this person a bottle of wine?
The polling demonstrates that the Government strategy to harden attitudes towards benefits claimants, to ease the passing of sweeping welfare cuts, is working. By suggesting these results justify the government's policy is confusing cause and effect.
Nonetheless, for the welfare state to survive, it has to have broad public support. We cannot ignore these findings, and other indicators (such as the BSAS) which suggests our perception of the welfare state is changing. Instead, we must confront and explore this attitudinal shift, and discuss what we should do about it.
On Monday evening, we discussed this in Manchester at Labour party conference, and we’ll be doing the same at the Conservatives’ conference in Birmingham. We hope to continue the discussion and bring some light to this controversial, but vital, debate.