Problems with welfare don’t make sense in isolation

My title’s so vague that it might look like I’m being ironic: but, in all honesty, I have a lot of sympathy with unemployed people struggling to explain away their position to angry workers. As ridiculous as it might sound that unemployed people can get benefits worth more than the wages of those in a 9-5 job, no solution should involve a policy of systematic impoverishment. Taking away the money from the people who need it most is not the answer we need.

The BBC is currently showing a very strange series hosted by The Apprentice stars Nick and Margaret, “We Pay Your Benefits”. It’s effectively an hours worth of zoo commentary during which four working and four unemployed people compete to appear the least privileged. It’s a sad state of affairs when people just judge their moral puritanism by their poverty. I had hoped that we had escaped that – but no, of course. We’re all still bloody peasants.

Readers in the UK can watch it online; otherwise, here’s a relatively fun attack on it.

As Nick says, the welfare problem is indeed a visceral one. Supporters of every party, in every district – except perhaps self-professed Marxists and a few of the middle-class Guardian clique – have a “problem” with welfare payouts to scroungers and layabouts. That only 10% of the welfare bill goes to the unemployed – its recent spiraling, we’re told, being entirely unrelated to the economic crisis – is lost and buried under anger.

If people are getting paid more for not working – if, for a moment, we neglect the disabled – then it’s not the fault of those without a job. Wanting to soak more people in poverty out of bitterness is as nonsensical as it is nasty and impractical. It’s the equivalent of getting drunk because you’re in a bad mood/depressed by the mess your life is already in. Social polarisation following the Washington consensus has concentrated money, even if there’s more around. You’re not going to get it back by snatching away claimants’ cigarettes.

I’ll merrily admit, like anyone else, that I have no idea how such a system would look: but before any serious debate about the work-wealth correlation can be had we have to remove some of the inevitable class distinctions that we’ve rebuilt for ourselves – Americanised class, that is, in which bourgeois “equality of opportunity” has given the illusion of economic liberty, but which in reality has become only the “right to exploit others for profit“.

That joke I once heard sums it up pretty well:

A student writing his thesis is asked about his subject. “The survival of the American class system,” he replies to a confused reception.

“I didn’t know there was a class system in America.”

“That’s how it survives.”

That’s precisely why hostility to welfare “generosity” has become so broad and embittered – the government is introducing news tests and regulations because although they might be poor, vulnerable and liked or perhaps envied, arrogant and detested, welfare claimants do exist; and, above all, they are a target that can be shot even in an age of utmost intellectual bankruptcy.


3 Comments on “Problems with welfare don’t make sense in isolation”

  1. Some very good points here. I watched the first episode and took notes for my next post. I am trying to get myself to watch the second one but my blood boils when I think about this shameless manipulation. How did they chose the “scroungers”? Apple-addict and £20 a week darts’ night? Oh please – this is not the reality for most of us. If anybody thinks it’s so great being on benefits, they can join me any time they want to.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks – I definitely agree with what you say on their selection. The trouble is that the BBC knew from the outset that it would have to appear to be vaguely objective (with Nick and Margaret clearly acting as Devil’s advocate at staged intervals) but the entire underpinning of the programme is based on the presumption that claimaints of welfare need investigating. As Lucy Mangan pointed out, there were virtually no facts, no details, no questions of representation – all it serves to do is either confirm prejudices and other existing opinions.

      Do let me know if you write anything about it!

  2. […] does nothing to hide the fact that the British electorate are finally giving in their most base and selfish instincts, and that party political officials can only jump to capitalise upon […]

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