Monday, 13 June 2011

The Undeserving Poor

A horrible concept, redolent of a bygone age, and one which I thought had gone the way of covered piano legs and child chimney sweeps. For a start, who determines which of us is "undeserving"? It's a very subjective thing, and I'm not sure I would want the responsibility of turning someone away as "undeserving" only to find they had come to harm. Even for a hardened atheist such as myself, the phrase "there but for the grace of God go I" still informs much of my opinion-forming. Bad luck, bad choices, stupidity, ignorance, fate all play a part in how life turns out for us

But it seems the concept is back. Now I can accept this from the Tories - their world view has always been that anyone can succeed and if you don't it's down to a flaw in your personality. An easy, if stupid, conclusion to come to if you either have 'made it' or happen to be a self-made aristocrat who's never wanted for anything material, and with a network of advantage behind you from cradle to grave. 

More worrying is that it's creeping into Labour thinking as well. Yes, there are hard-working, low-paid people who are financially worse off than those on benefits; and yes, there are (a small number) of families who seem to relish their long-term joblessness and  reliance on state benefits. But the latter group, by far the smallest proportion of those living on benefits, could be classed as The Ungracious Poor - those who, having been given support from the state (and therefore their fellow citizens), proceed to rub our noses in it. It's infuriating for those of us who pay our way, but are they really 'undeserving'? Selfish, thoughtless, maybe, but are they any worse that the champagne-guzzling traders or bankers who wave wads of cash at protesting nurses, who are also not 'paying their way' because they have accountants who can minimise their tax bills? 

In proving that Labour understands the "squeezed middle",  let's also stand up for those who life has kicked in the teeth. Ed Milliband may be talking about: 

"some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work - but didn't"

But what the majority will hear is "all those on benefits". Unless you've had to survive on benefits, you have no idea how tough it is. It's not that benefits are too high, but that wages for most of the working population are too low. And what about those who are unable to work through disability? Better people than me have written at length on the daily battles of living with disability in today's culture. And of those who, despite debilitating conditions, continue to try and work and contribute and fulfil "their duty to each other"? The insidious drip-drip-drip of public discourse (encouraged by the tabloid press) is that all benefit recipients are scroungers, despite the fact that we are all one piece of bad luck/judgement away from ill health or unemployment.

And even those families with multi-generational worklessness that we're all supposed to vilify because they 'take' from hard-working ordinary people's taxes? Is no-one querying why, after successive Tory and Labour governments have made it increasingly difficult to get unemployment benefits (regular interviews, training schemes, sanctions for refusing 'suitable' employment), such families remain unemployable? Seemingly, we have been content to allow them to remain outside the mainstream world of work - that seems to me a massive dereliction of duty on our part. Are they 'undeserving' or are we 'uncaring'? 

So before we formulate any policies on welfare reform, let's first change the culture - no-one is "undeserving", and if public opinion believes that some are, then we should be challenging public opinion, not feeding it. I'm all in favour of being part of "the party of the grafters", but I'd also like the grafters to acknowledge that the vast majority of benefits claimants would love to be able to graft, and that we are all potential 'benefits scroungers.'

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