Sunday, 7 April 2013

Contributing to the Problem

The current debate on "welfare" (the Mick Philpott Show) is being widely described as a dividing line between the parties ahead of what is likely to be a vicious general election campaign in 2015. For the Tories this is a return to the "are you thinking what we're thinking" snidery of 2005, while for Labour there is a determination to resurrect the contributory principle, if only to avoid the charge of being soft on the "something for nothing" culture (TM Tony Blair). Liam Byrne's interpretation of reciprocity owes little to socialism ("From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") and a lot to the liberalism of  Lloyd George and Beveridge ("Benefit in return for contributions, rather than free allowances from the State, is what the people of Britain desire").

It would be easy (and futile) to point out that popular belief on benefits is wildly out of whack with the facts, or that the political debate is driven more by the unscrupulous deployment of myths. What's more difficult to explain is why the popular mood seems to have turned against benefit recipients. Some of this is just misreporting to suit an agenda (the combination of a YouGov poll and a Tory-leaning newspaper tends to produce a predictable result). But though the death of solidarity is exaggerated, there does appear to have been an increase in suspicion around false claims and undeserving cases that cannot be wholly explained by media tub-thumping. I suspect some of this is actually a product of the growth in low-wage jobs. If you are working long hours for shit wages, you'll probably become more resentful of imagined skivers. Also, the visible increase in immigration around the millennium has probably fed the belief that "benefit tourists" are real, despite the evidence that immigrants are less likely to claim benefits than natives. Social change that we feel is not in our control leads to anxiety.

One of the more depressing changes in attitude concerns disability. Even well-meaning lefties have played a part in this, subscribing to the widely-held belief that the Thatcher administration deliberately shifted the long-term unemployed in deindustrialised regions onto incapacity benefit in order to shrink the unemployment figures. While there is truth in this, it masks an underlying secular trend that would have pushed up the numbers anyway. The number of people on incapacity benefits rose steadily during the 1980s and early 90s but did not show a correlative decline when unemployment dropped in the late 80s or an uptick during the recession of the early 90s. However, the rate of growth slowed during the late 90s and then started a gradual decline from 2000. How so?

While the acceleration in the 80s was probably amplified by government policy, the underlying trend appears to reflect two other factors. The first is the higher rate of work-induced illness during the postwar years. Industry wasn't any more dangerous than before, but the advances in medical science meant that we woke up to the scale of the damage, hence the introduction of Invalidity Benefit in 1971. I remember as a kid in the 70s watching programmes on TV about the growing understanding of pneumoconiosis and asbestosis, though chronic back pain was probably a bigger problem in terms of numbers affected. The second secular trend is an ageing population. This meant that the cohort in the 1990s who had worked in heavy industry, become unemployed in the 80s, and had now developed chronic symptoms, were disproportionately larger due to the postwar baby boom. If you started work in a colliery or steel mill in the 1960s, and lost your job by 1990, there's a fair chance you were a candidate for a couple of decades of incapacity benefit ahead of your state pension.

It's hard for people today to imagine just how physically damaging work in heavy industry was. We forget (if we ever knew) just how easily your spine could be knackered by spending your working life in a 5 foot high coal seam or lifting heavy metal. One of the results of a greater focus on health and safety, and the shift to working in offices and retail, is that many fewer workers are now exposed to such dangerous environments. This has led to a corresponding decline in empathy as we assume that time off work due to back pain is just some lard-arse moaning about their chair upholstery.

The really long-term trend, encompassing the last 100 years, has been the evolution of benefits from a focus on frictional (i.e. temporary) unemployment assistance and short-term protection against "slumps", to a focus on long-term need, such as disability, child benefit and (more recently) in-work benefits. Structural unemployment has exacerbated this. Pensions have been there from the beginning, but have grown from a small consideration for the "lucky few" who didn't die before 70 to the largest item in the benefits bill. This is the truly chronic aspect of welfare. Though the total we spend on benefits (as a percentage of GDP) is gradually declining (if you exempt the current recession-induced bump), and the amount we spend is modest in comparison to other countries (contrary to the propaganda), there has been a significant shift in the composition of benefits since 1980 towards the elderly and the working poor. The unemployed and the disabled are a distraction from the real change. We can't do much about the ageing of society, and too little is being done about the persistence of low-paid jobs, so this will just get worse.

The shift towards chronic benefits means that Labour's attempt to resurrect the contributory principle, the idea of social security as a form of episodic insurance where you get out what you put in, is doomed to failure, and not just because of the popular misunderstanding of how insurance works. The point is that the world of Beveridge has gone and cannot be recaptured. Episodic unemployment and short retirements have been replaced by chronic need. The "crisis" is not that benefits are unsustainable or counterproductive, but that they have become a necessary prop for the modern economy. Imagine what would happen if all in-work benefits (working tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit etc) were abolished tomorrow. Society would implode. This is chiefly a function of low wages rather than too many OAPs.

The "something for nothing" meme is misleading as it assumes an unequal exchange. In reality, we rarely give money away (unclaimed benefits vastly outstrip fraudulent claims). Even allowing for HMRC's puzzling indulgence of tax dodgers, the state is generally not a soft touch. There is usually a return, so perhaps we should ask what the quid pro quo for benefits actually is. It isn't a return to work, or any other "make-work" contribution to society, like tidying up parks or over-painting graffiti, it is in fact the absence of a negative: the desperate poor indulging in antisocial activity such as crime, self-destruction and prostitution. The welfare state is the price we pay to avoid the levels of viciousness that debilitate societies that lack either public or private provision. The disruptive force of capitalism on private support (the informal networks of family and established community), and the success of neoliberalism in neutralising defence mechanisms like organised labour, means that advanced societies have become ever more reliant on the welfare state to prevent the Hobbesian war of all against all. The Jeremy Kyle Show, where Mick Philpott first came to fame, is just televisual Tamezepam.

Where benefits become a significant and regular part of workers' income, they provide a lever for government coercion independent of the employer. Crap wages and in-work benefits extend the power of the state, so it should be no surprise to hear the agents of the state start to make behavioural demands on the working poor. It's hard to resist the heaven-sent opportunity. The Philpott menage was clearly exceptional, but in one respect if was actually quite typical. Both women worked, but both were dependent on in-work benefits as well as child benefit. If there is a root cause for the growth of a "dependency culture", it is low wages. A contributory principle for benefits does nothing to address this, while sanctions to force the unemployed into low-wage jobs just exacerbates it. Liam Byrne is part of the problem.

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