Will the benefit system eventually be of no benefit at all?

Here’s the latest scary idea from the Government – if you’re not earning enough, you should get your benefits cut. And you thought that the benefit system was there to help people who didn’t earn enough! How silly! If you’re not earning enough, you should work harder and do more hours so that you don’t need to be on benefits, and if you don’t, then the Government will sanction you so that you don’t receive your benefits anyway!


How does anyone think this is an appropriate idea? Consider that we are in an economic climate where a quarter of those working part-time already want to work more hours but can’t, and where there are already 45 applicants for each low-skilled job and on average 85 applicants for graduate jobs. Job security is disappearing, being replaced by zero-hours contracts, making life unpredictable and precarious as shown by this article, which appeared in the same edition of the Guardian as the item about benefit sanctions.


The whole philosophy seems to be back-to-front, and ideas driven only by the desire to cut costs. Clearly there is no scope for a limitless welfare bill. But the premise here seems to be to invent new rules so that fewer people qualify for payments, instead of changing the circumstances of the people so that fewer people need payments. It’s obvious which is easier, but is it right or just? Do questions of rightness or justice even matter, as long as money is saved? Only if those who lose their benefits can be adjudged as being to blame. As soon as we look through the lens of the needs of those in receipt of benefits, where work is scarce, childcare expensive, elderly parents needy, and systems designed to catch you out, then casting people adrift seems harder to justify.


And yet people are already having payments cut but seem to cope. Does this suggest that the Government is right, that stopping people’s money is a spur to getting a job or finding more work. If there really are not enough jobs, hours or job-security out there, how are people managing? There are other things which fill the gap, some good and some not. I would suggest that Wonga’s increasing profits are not co-incidental. But neither is the rise in people being fed by food banks. I am inspired by the way churches and other groups have stepped into the breach to meet the needs of the hungry and totally supportive of the work they do, but does the very presence of food banks enable to the Government to carry out cuts and abdicate responsibility for its citizens? Are food banks, in fact, guilty of collusion? (see the blog I linked to in my previous post)


While people are hungry, I believe food banks should remain open. But those of us who are not prepared to let people go hungry should not stop there. There are some specific issues which we could campaign on, like the introduction of a living wage and the scaling back of zero-hours contracts. If large, profitable companies paid a living wage, then salaries would not need to be topped up by tax credits, or the new universal credit, which would also mean that profits would not longer be built on hidden Government subsidy. We could also campaign for better regulation of the pay-day loan industry, to protect those need this kind of credit.


I also think we need to think about the bigger picture. What are the values which we want to form the foundation of our society? I’d like to see a society where the needs of people are not subordinate to the appetites of big business or government economic policy. Where we value justice, freedom and equality above money, status and power. A society which works together for the common good rather than the needs of the individual. There’s more about what this might involve here, and I’m still thinking about where the church fits into this conversation. Watch this space!!



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