Over the Easter weekend, the United Reformed Church, The Methodist Church, The Baptist Union and the Church of Scotland were reported to have attacked the Government’s plans to change the benefits system in the UK as harmful to the most vulnerable in society. The report, as contained in the links from the Methoddist Church website is available at the link http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads 2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf
The report looks at 6 myths about poverty and tries to find the truth behind each myth. This is a creditable aim and is in the furtherance of the admirable objective of stopping the comfortable feeling smug about poverty. So let’s look at each of the six myths, quoting directly from the executive summary of the report and see whether they have a basis in fact or not.
‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work The most commonly cited cause of child poverty by churchgoers and the general public alike is that “their parents don’t want to work”. Yet the majority of children in poverty are from working households. In-work poverty is now more common than out of work poverty. It is readily accepted that across the country there are families in which three generations have never worked. Examples of such families have not been found, and the evidence suggests it is unlikely we ever will. How did we come to believe these things?
I do not know how much this is true, because, being self-employed I am not eligible for most state benefits. However, I can comment on the in-work poverty. I have not heard a single complaint from the churches about the failure to use the research of Arthur Laffer to find the optimum tax rates to maximise the tax take, and I can only assume that they are in full agreement with the envy and covetousness that caused the previous government to raise the higher rate of tax only when they had run the British economy into the ground and were sure that they would not be re-elected. I never heard any complaints when the tax credits introduced by Gordon Brown were so legislated that they were available to families with a family income of over £80.000 per annum. I never heard any complaints when the tax credits were paid to people who were already paying Income tax and National Insurance on their pay, so that the marginal rate of tax and loss of benefit was in excess of 70%. When this includes families on housing benefit, the combined rate of taxes and loss of benefits rises to over 94%. So the churches have no problem with a person in a poor household getting the total of £0.37 at minimum wage for working an extra hour. That is really helping to encourage people to earn more.
As for the comment that it is readily accepted that there are three generations who have never worked, I would not accept that, because I do not know of those families. But I can take people to some families where the man in his sixties has not worked since his twenties and his children and grandchildren have never worked. But then, I was brought up on a council estate and I know who knows the dodges, and that is a trait that generally is passed on through the family line.
‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs Churchgoers and the wider public cite addiction as the second most common cause of child poverty. While addiction is devastating for the families and communities touched by it, fewer than 4% of benefit claimants report any form of addiction. How did we come to believe this is such a big factor in the lives of the 13 million people who live in poverty in the UK today?
Where would these folks own up to being criminals? I do not know how one could arrive at a true figure for recreational drug use amongst benefit claimants, unless the state took upon itself the authority to carry out urine and hair sample checks each time a claimant arrived at a social security office to make a claim for benefit, and that would go down a treat with all those who are supporting “claimants’ rights”, but I do know that the effects of recreational drugs and metabolites on aquatic life is noticeable in the present day. I have been told, though I have not checked it out, that there are quantifiable concentrations of cocaine and its metabolites in the Thames in London. Drug use is a problem in British society, but how much of it is disproportionately caused by benefits claimants will require such intrusion into the lives of claimants that it will not be likely to be carried out before we have a totalitarian state.
‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly. Nearly 60% of the UK population agrees that the poor could cope if only they handled their money properly. The experience of living on a low income is one of constant struggle to manage limited resources, with small events having serious consequences. Statistics show that the poorest spend their money carefully, limiting themselves to the essentials. How did we come to believe that poverty was caused by profligacy?
Again accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, my experience has been that young people who are poor, and especially the homeless young people have no clue about looking after themselves. I have seen a hostel for the homeless poor in a city in England where the hostel worker had to teach the young people how to use a washing machine, take them shopping and explain what they needed to buy and then, back at the hostel give lessons in cooking the food. While a disproportionate number of these young people had been in the care of a local authority, the inability to cook anything from scratch was pretty universal and the idea of budgeting was totally foreign to them. Some of these young people had been living on pizzas for the first 10 or so days of their benefit period and starving until they got their next payment. So while this is not a scientific study, there is certainly an element of truth in “Myth 3”
‘They’ are on the fiddle
Over 80% of the UK population believe that “large numbers falsely claim benefits”. Benefit fraud has decreased to historically low levels – the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of. Less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud. The fact is that if everyone claimed and was paid correctly, the welfare system would cost around £18 billion more. So how did we come to see welfare claimants as fraudulent scroungers?
They may not be on the fiddle, but there a number of people for whom life on benefits is preferable to life in work. These are predominantly men who have child support payments to make who will start work and continue until the Child Support Agency catches up with them and then leave or get their employer to finish them to avoid paying child support to the mother of their child. Is this being on the fiddle or not? It is certainly a judgement call.
The benefits system is designed by graduates and they frequently do not grasp the poor standards of literacy and numeracy that some of the poorer people in society, who have not had the benefit of a public school education, are left with as a result of appalling standards of discipline in schools. But this is not to blame teachers. Go into a railway station and you will see posters telling you that to abuse the staff will result in a journey ending in the local police station. Hospitals similarly advise that any signs of aggression towards staff will lead to your being removed by the police, but in schools, the little darlings seem to be able to do as they like and any teacher attempting to restrain the child is likely to be up in front of a magistrate on an assault charge. Maybe we need some heads to take similar action and tell the parents of all children in the first year at their school that any serious misbehaviour from their beloved and s/he will be out of the door. But then the cynic in me wonders if the politicians want state schooling to be so bad that the recipients of benefits cannot in fact fill in the forms to get those benefits to which they are entitled or to work out how much they lose for each extra pound earned.
‘They’ have an easy life
Over half the British public believes benefits are too high and churchgoers tend to agree. Government ministers speak of families opting for benefits as a lifestyle choice. Yet we know that benefits do not meet minimum income standards. They have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years. We know the ill and the unemployed are the people least satisfied and happy with life. Why have we come to believe that large numbers of families would choose this a lifestyle?
I wonder how the researchers “know” that the ill and the unemployed are least satisfied with life. Are they just telling the researcher what they think the researcher wants to hear? Those of us familiar with questionnaires as a means of gathering information are well aware that the manner in which a question is phrased determines the answer you will get from the interviewee in a large number of cases.
‘They’ caused the deficit
The proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years. It is ridiculous to argue, as some have, that increasing welfare spending is responsible for the current deficit. Public debt is a problem but why is it being laid at the feet of the poorest?
The “they” who caused the deficit are most certainly not the poor. The deficit is caused by the government spending beyond its income. The previous Labour administration inherited one of the healthiest public sector accounts there has ever been in this country, and between them, Tony B-Liar (what else can we call him after his dodgy dossier on Iraq) and Gordon B-Ruin (the man who boasted he had abolished boom and bust, presided over the introduction of the Financial Services Authority’s oversight of banks and had a knighthood for Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland) put us in an overspend position after raping pension funds from which the present government did not have the guts to retreat to a balanced budget.
I understand how changes can affect people, though I cannot remember the politician who said that it is one thing to deny a dog a bone, it is another to take the bone from him. We must free up larger social housing units to make homes for families. I wholeheartedly agree with this. But to say that someone is in a house that is too large and cannot find somewhere smaller to go brings me to one of two conclusions. Either the local authority in his area is not doing its job, and if this continues the chief executive should be sacked, or the person does not want to move and is not interested in the alternatives. If he is ill and disabled, I’m sorry to hear that, but if he wants to live in a larger social housing unit than he needs, then he ought to pay the additional cost. Being quite open about it, I do not mind paying a contribution for his needs, but I resent paying for him to live in something that is simply a want and not a need.