‘Welfare reforms must focus on the 99.3% of benefit claimants who are in need of financial assistance’ writes Daniel Edmiston.
The effects of welfare reform are often discussed at a level of abstraction. Ideas about fairness and justice permeate our understanding of who should receive what. The purported ‘something for nothing’ culture viscerally opposed by Iain Duncan Smith, is being tackled by a raft of policies to reduce welfare dependency and benefit fraud. This marks a new chapter in Welfare State history – the ‘nothing for something’ culture and the most explicit return yet to Poor Law principles. Meagre benefits that fail to meet even basic human needs are to be paid only if work, training and volunteering obligations are met.
Last Winter I visited Rebecca, a mother of four living in one of the most deprived areas of England. Rebecca’s husband had suddenly left and without any means of financial support, she was forced to apply for a Crisis Loan on a Monday afternoon. By Friday, her claim was rejected. In the meantime, her children were subsisting on free school meals and her 4 month old baby on milk vouchers from a local charity. With no money to heat her house or feed her children, Rebecca was forced to contact the Social Care Emergency Duty Team of her local authority. Her plea for £20 to tide her over the weekend was also rejected. The explanation she received was that unless the children were in ‘immediate danger’, nothing could be done.
At every stage, Rebecca was treated as an unworthy claimant at the begging bowl of the State. Her claims to assistance were legitimate and yet the treatment she received was largely informed by the Coalition’s desire to ‘make it harder to live a life on benefits’. At least with this policy objective, they are succeeding.
I visited Rebecca on the Friday evening. The house was bitterly cold and there was no electricity in the house – the money on the meter had run out. Rebecca’s children were huddled in their coats on the sofa under a blanket and Rebecca was crying. Rebecca’s situation was desperate, but however anecdotal this may be, her case is not rare. This is not a woman that should be characterised as a shirker or indeed a striver. Like so many others, she is just a victim of circumstance, pure and simple. To dichotomise benefit claimants on a principle of desert obscures the severe level of need faced by so many.
The contrast between the political vitriol of welfare dependency and the lived realities of welfare reforms highlights the irony of current policymaking. When DWP itself estimates that 0.7% of benefits are fraudulently claimed, it seems both ignorant and perverse to base welfare policy on this small minority. Surely the direction of policy should be aimed at the 99.3% of people that urgently need financial assistance. The Welfare State was established to support, not punish such people. Nothing about Rebecca’s treatment or situation reflects our collective national identity as a civilised society.
William Beveridge once said “ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens”. The moral dilemma of benefit fraud is irrelevant in the grand scheme of welfare. The political hegemony should take heed and embrace political decision-making based on evidence rather than rhetoric that continues to mislead the general public and the direction of welfare reform.
Daniel Edmiston is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds and a member of the UK Social Policy Association. @daniel_edmiston