Debate about 'scroungers' and 'hard-working people' ignores the facts about poverty in the UK, says Julia Unwin.
The last month has been dominated by the parliamentary debate about welfare reform, and it has been tempting to see this as – finally – a big and public debate about poverty.
The polls tell us that people are furious about welfare scroungers. Hard-working people feel they are subsidising people on welfare who live in luxury. Again and again we are told that reforming welfare is the way to end poverty. And our parliamentarians both reflect and feed those views.
If we see it in these simple terms, though, we are missing the point. We know that the current system of welfare does trap people. It erodes their dignity, restricts their choices, and keeps them in poverty, dramatically reducing their capacity to develop, change and take opportunities. But we also know that a very high percentage of the 'welfare bill' goes to people who work (although the overwhelming majority goes to people of pension age). In a very real sense the welfare budget benefits landlords charging extortionate rents, because they can, and employers paying minimal, erratic and unreliable wages, because they can. Many landlords and employers are massively dependent on benefits. Without benefits they would really struggle.
And yet the public and political discourse denies this. It automatically equates benefit recipients with idleness. It ignores the fact that half of all poor children come from working families. It ignores the contribution unpaid carers make to society. It allows poor people to be blamed for an expensive, creaky and inappropriate system of welfare, and ignores the nature of the jobs market, and the operation of the housing market, which together keep people in poverty. And instead of blaming policy and practice for poverty, it lays all the blame at the door of people who are living lives of real complexity, challenge and hardship.
In the 21st century we need a new social contract that recognises that we are all mutually dependent citizens, and that just as the solution to poverty has never been found in the welfare benefits system, so too it can never be found in a single, simple solution. Affordable childcare and jobs that offer real hope of progression to ensure a lasting route out of poverty are essential elements of any anti-poverty strategy.
The current economic crisis challenges us all: for those moving between poorly paid and unreliable work, and life without work, the stakes are particularly high, and the risks catastrophic. We help no one if we are blinded to this reality and instead start to believe that uninformed anecdote, generalised abuse of people in poverty and superficially simple, crowd-pleasing interventions are the answer. Current high levels of poverty are simply too dangerous for that.