David Cameron has recently suggested that certain welfare payments, such as jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit, may be withdrawn from 18-25 year olds who are not “earning or learning”. The Prime Minister claimed that “the best way out of poverty is work”; a reductive statement due to the fact that most people in poverty in the UK are in work.
At the heart of Cameron’s speech was another reductive element: a focus on “contribution”. He described the UK’s welfare system as “unusual” in Europe because it “pays out before you pay into it”. Such rhetoric ignores the fact that at some point in the future most young people will “contribute” in the form of taxation. It also creates a narrative which portrays welfare recipients as lazy. Cameron’s reference to young people leaving home and having welfare as a “lifestyle choice” characterises youth unemployment as the beginning of a life of avoiding work. Gavin Smart, Director of Policy and Practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing, refutes this vision:
“The most recent figures show that the fastest-growing part of the housing benefit caseload is from tenants in work- this has grown by 95 per cent in the last three years- more than twice the rate of unemployment”.
Smart’s comments confirm that it is not a case of fecklessness but one of people working but still struggling to make ends meet. The Thatcher government’s reforms to Board and Lodging Allowance demonstrate that current plans to remove housing benefit from under-25’s will worsen this situation. Prior to the creation of housing benefit, young people in hotels, hostels and similar accommodation claimed Board and Lodgings Allowance. In 1985, Thatcher’s administration capped the level of allowance and removed it after eight weeks in cities such as London for under-26’s. A 1998 report by Crisis discovered that these reforms were “undoubtedly a factor in the continued rise of single homelessness throughout the 1990’s”.
The government, however, assumes that many 18-25 year olds can live with their parents. David Cameron claims that those who do not have this option, such as children of abusive parents, will be protected. However, considering the government’s track record of exempting vulnerable groups from policies it is wise to be sceptical. The DWP has carried out 60 peer reviews of suicides “associated with a DWP activity” since 2012. For those who do have families to return to it would be wrong to assume that their parents would have the means to support them; the loss of Child Tax Credits when a child turns 18 means that families with a lower income would struggle to support them.
The true flaw in the Tories’ approach to welfare is its value of “contribution”. It fails to recognise that employment is not a virtue in itself. It fails to realise that we should be aspiring to make employment more fulfilling, more compassionate and more profitable for the worker, rather than forcing people into any form of employment. The focus on “contribution” is the centrepiece of a sustained attack upon the welfare state; stretching far back; from Norman Tebbit’s “he got on his bike and looked for work”, to George Osborne’s use of the Philpotts as an example of the welfare state gone wrong.
In 2012/13 benefit fraud stood at 0.7 per cent, and more than 80% of claimants do not even use the government’s work programme because the majority have returned to employment in 6 months. Therefore, examples such as the Philpotts are extreme. To use them to discredit and dismantle social security is an insult; not only to the vast majority who claim social security honestly, but to the countless generations who fought for a structure to protect those in need.