Iain Duncan Smith has resigned. There have been celebrations in some places and tears in others. The media is full of political analysis about how this will affect the internals of the Government and there appears to be a fight underway about how the man will be remembered. Although I have a view I don’t think it is very important. The ideas which have underpinned the welfare reforms of the past 6 years (and some would argue even before that) remain and are very important indeed.
Simplistic portrayal of poverty
Welfare reforms have been built on the idea that the causes of poverty lie firmly within poor families themselves. Personal characteristics such as drug addiction and alcoholism have featured heavily in the government’s analysis of poverty. These make for simple, easy and hugely stigmatising headlines that leave no room for the complexities of real life. These characteristics may be pathways to poverty for some but are also consequences of poverty and for any person affected by them probably a bit of both. Importantly they make up a tiny fraction of the 13 million people experiencing poverty in the UK today.
Worklessness seen as voluntary
Not working is cited as a major cause of poverty, which is also an oversimplified truth. But it is the repeated assertion littering government announcements and policy documents that not working is voluntary that has been most problematic. For example the impact assessment of the benefit cap (which does not affect people who work at least 16hrs a week) states:
“all households taking action to move into work will be unaffected by the changes” and
“households [are] affected by the change if they do not make the choice to move into employment”.
Note that it is assumed that making a choice or taking action will automatically lead to 16hrs work and that those who don’t have work simply have not made that choice. This assumption lacks a grounding in reality for people who are able bodied with no dependants, but crosses the line into offensive when you consider the benefit cap is applied to amongst others people assessed as unfit to work, and single mothers with newborn babies.
Refusing to trust those in poverty
If you view not working as a “lifestyle choice”, or a symptom of the “something for nothing culture” this has huge consequences on how you choose to treat those who are not in work.
Our Rethink Sanctions report outlines how unemployed people are given detailed lists of tasks in their “claimant commitment” with any perceived failure to comply being punished by one or more months without any income. The immediate consequences of punishing millions of people in this way are terrible. But most telling is that the Government believes that people who claim benefits are need to be instructed and threatened in a much more severe manner than any more affluent group of society would ever accept. Claimants complain of immediately being treated with suspicion in what some have called a culture of contempt.
Unemployment is now back to level it was before the 2008 banking crisis. The recession provides a much more convincing explanation for the rise in unemployment post 2008 than a change in the willingness of people to work; just as an improved economy is a better explanation for the fall in unemployment than a reduction in the “something for nothing culture”.
The most obvious flaw in the assertion that poverty is caused by personal characteristics, such as not being willing to work or being addicted to alcohol, is that the majority of families living in poverty don’t have these characteristics. Families struggling to put food on the table are more likely to be in work than out of work, to be in two parent families than single parent families, and will on average drink a lot less than their richer neighbours. In short ordinary families doing as well as could reasonably be expected find themselves living in poverty.
New and radical thinking is available
We believe that all are made in God’s image and that all should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of financial status. Needing support from the benefit system should not mean you are treated with suspicion and should not mean it is assumed you need harsh threats before you will behave reasonably.
The key change needed, irrespective of who is Secretary of State, is to trust those who need the benefit system to behave like ordinary people. Instead of seeing claimants as people who need their lives “turned around”, a Minister could chose instead to see them as experts in poverty. People whose views are important and valuable. People with a real understanding of what a system would need to do to in order to improve their lives. That would lead to truly radical welfare reform.