Niall Cooper: Don’t panic
“Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” Sergeant Jones’ famous refrain would be an apt response to the increasingly strident headlines in recent weeks about the future of the welfare state: “Benefit claimants flooding system”, “The government must reform the welfare state now”, “Welfare needs to be tackled”, “Vile product of welfare UK”.
Battle lines have been drawn between supporters of the government’s huge programme of welfare reform and their opponents. Sadly, very little of the “debate” has featured the real live experiences – let alone the voices – of those who are directly affected.
Instead, it has taken on the form of a classic moral panic – an intense and emotive response to an issue that is alleged to threaten the social order. We’ve seen similar moral panic about single parents, the “rising tide of crime” (even at points when crime rates were falling), asylum seekers, and immigrants in general. In each case, a relatively voiceless and powerless group of people is singled out as the target for public disapproval verging on hate.
The present panic about “expensive, entrenched and inter-generational benefit dependency” is, as with all previous moral panics, accompanied by increasingly value-laden, pejorative language. In the past year, the term “benefit cheat” was used 442 times in national newspapers, whilst the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has spoken of a mass culture of welfare dependency in every speech on benefits he has made in the past 12 months.
Whilst politicians claim to be “responding” to the public mood, public opinion is strongly swayed by the media. A 2012 YouGov poll for the TUC, for example, found that, on average, people think 41 per cent of the welfare budget supports the unemployed – the true amount is 3 per cent – and believe the fraud rate is 27 per cent, as against the government’s estimate of 0.7 per cent.
The tabloids suggest huge chunks of the welfare budget go to overlarge feckless families, where no one has worked for generations. But as The Economist has argued: “Though most of them seem to end up in newspapers, in 2011 there were just 130 families in the country with 10 children claiming at least one out-of-work benefit. Only 8 per cent of benefit claimants have three or more children. What evidence there is suggests that, on average, unemployed people have similar numbers of children to employed people … it is not clear at all that benefits are a significant incentive to have children.”
I’m delighted that this is an issue on which the Free Churches have chosen to take the strongest of stances. According to the Truth and Lies report: “The systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge.”
I’ve recently been re-reading a report the churches produced in 1986 at the height of an earlier moral panic about the future of the welfare state. Not Just for the Poor took a long and considered look at the welfare state, more than 40 years on from its creation in 1945.
One of its strongest points was challenging the notion of welfare dependency: “It is easy to forget that those who have considerable independence still depend on others for their life and well-being. Likewise we can forget, in a divided society, that those who are highly dependent also have their own contribution to make to the welfare of the whole.”
Our interdependence on each other and on God is a profound theological insight – and one which has important implications for the welfare state. It cannot create dependency: we are all interdependent. We depend on schools and hospitals, good roads and impartial policing; we all enjoy or look forward to receiving our state pension.
And as Not Just for the Poor argues, one of the most important reasons for the creation of the welfare state was to avoid the need to be dependent on the charity of the rich and advantaged. “That sort of degrading and sub-human dependence was one of the experiences which the development of the welfare state was meant to destroy.”
And what is the purpose of the welfare state? In the words of David Donnison, one-time chair of the Supplementary Benefits commission: “To keep people out of poverty, people must have an income which enables them to participate in the life of the community… And they must be able to live in a way which ensures, so far as possible, that public officials treat them with the courtesy due to every member of the community.”
In the face of the latest moral panic, we should hold fast to that simple statement of the purpose of the welfare state – as true in 2013 as when first established in 1945.
Niall Cooper is director of Church Action on Poverty and convenor of the Inner Manchester Mission Network of the United Reformed Church
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.
Read more articles by Niall Cooper