I was struck by the juxtaposition of two items on the BBC lunchtime news yesterday. The first was announcing the introduction of the cap on welfare for an individual or family, and the second was about a report published by the Resolution Foundation claiming that lower income working families can no longer live in areas covering a third of Britain because they cannot afford the rent.
The news made no apparent connection between these two stories, although later editions made more of a link. But for me the link is obvious. Creating an arbitrary limit on how much benefit can be paid is fighting the wrong fire. It is a money-saving exercise to reduce the amount of money spent on benefits, but addresses only the symptom and not the cause. The most significant portion of benefits paid is in covering housing costs, and the huge rises in rents means that the benefit bill will continue to rise. What is really needed is to deal with the chronic shortage of affordable housing and tackle rocketing rents.
Capping welfare is the solution when the problem is viewed as an escalating bill which needs to be managed. It fails to recognise that people are involved, that people live in communities with their families and friends, they have bills to pay and obligations to meet. Yes, if housing benefit no longer keeps pace with rising rents, then eventually market forces will bring rents down, and never mind the human cost and misery in the process. Recognising the connection between these two stories, the lack of affordable housing and rising welfare costs, suggests different solutions, and ones which take into account the impact on people’s lives.