Earlier this week the coalition government introduced a £500-a-week cap on benefits with aims to reduce the number of people receiving excess money. Predictably this cap has been talked about for a whole host of reasons, statistics have been thrown around, many have come out in outrage and David Cameron has even managed to tweet a fake Ian Duncan Smith account. Yet it still seems hard to determine what it really means for us. So the basic idea seems to make sense – they’ve cut benefits to ensure that money received in tax can go as far as possible. However I don’t think it’s really as clean cut as this.
Okay, the idea that people on JSA can afford a Sky box or flashy holidays when many working people cannot does seem a bit absurd. Certainly I would class these sorts of items as a luxury which people invest in if they have the money. Yet for most of us technology is an important way in which we can gain information about the world, a way to keep up with current affairs and culture which otherwise might be difficult.
In addition we expect now to be able to have a choice about what we consume and what we don’t. Perhaps the idea of a Welfare State is to give people a lifestyle where they can afford to choose what to spend their money on, and who are we to judge? The problem isn’t really that if people want the item they shouldn’t save their benefits, it’s that some people actually get enough to buy these products in excess. Indeed some people would argue that having even the savings to buy luxury goods means they are getting too much in benefits.
I think it is a fine line, one which is almost impossible to get right with the cost of living varying hugely across the UK. But if you’re earning £26,000 a year on benefits and the living wage averages at around £17,000 something is not quite right.
Mark Hoban, the Tory minister for work, claimed that the £500-a-week ban would be too much for those living in less prosperous areas. Of course it is a flaw of the system if people are earning more than the average working wage in that area. The idea of the Welfare State should be to help those in need, not to be an alternative for people who don’t want to work. In fact a programme on BBC One this week showed one person who thought he was ‘too good’ to work on a shop floor because he had a degree and thus was happy to live off benefits. This does not seem right and I think we should be trying to foster an attitude of work as much as we can, getting people to aspire and achieve.
However, it isn’t as simple as that. Some people can’t just get on, often through no fault of their own. If you have a large family to support or if you’re a single parent life becomes a lot harder and £17,000 doesn’t seem like enough. Indeed it is often hard to imagine living a life where you need to think about every penny. Perhaps then it would make sense to raise the national minimum wage – to make work a more viable living option.
Certainly benefits are not the only things that need to change. If people are really expected to enter the world of work, especially in this climate, they may need more support than a simple money incentive. Some form of education or childcare schemes seem like a good start. A benefits cap ultimately does not change the underlying issues and is most likely to disproportionally hit single parents, who receive an even lower £350-a-week. Although employment is rising there is still a way to go and benefits are just a start.