Sorting the welfare reality from the welfare myths

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The first time the bus leaves for a school trip that you can’t afford to go on is a disenchanting moment.  It pulls in to sharp focus the fact that there are some real differences between the backgrounds of you and your mates.  It’s the same reason they have better trainers and coats, why you get off the bus in another part of town or spend your summer holidays in very different places.

These are some of the early realisations that you’re growing up in poverty and it establishes feelings you’ll struggle to shake off for the rest of your life.  But this experience doesn’t just leave a mark psychologically; it also has the biggest baring on your likely outcomes in life.

Kids on free school meals are 55 times less likely to go to Oxbridge and 22 times less likely to go to a top university than children at public school.  Grow up in poverty and you’ll have only a tiny chance of accessing ‘the professions’.  It’s likely your life will be shorter and money will probably always be tight.

Yet the barriers that hold people from these backgrounds back are nothing to do with natural ability or work ethic, instead they are based on a deeply iniquitous society, where the odds are stacked against people from modest backgrounds.

That’s why politics needs more people with experiences like Simon Danczuk, with a working class background, roots in the community they serve and real experience of the world outside Westminster.  However, having also been brought up in poverty by a single mother – in an area that has similarly been ravaged by massive unemployment (the Rhondda) – I didn’t feel I could let his recent contribution to the welfare debate in The Telegraph, The Mirror and The Sun pass without comment.

Across these articles Danczuk outlines few specific policy ideas for bringing down welfare spending, so it must be concluded that this intervention is mainly about his views on the general position the Labour Party should adopt in the welfare debate.  He sets out a challenge that “if welfare is to be strengthened and targeted more efficiently at those who need it then we have to condemn those who abuse the system”.  Yet in making this positioning case, he slips back into repeating misrepresentative stereotypes about our welfare state.

His Telegraph article says “[where families haven’t worked for years] it’s a tragedy for the children as well. What kind of message does it send out to them when they’ve never known any adult with a job?”  Of course if there were children who didn’t know anyone in work this would be appalling, yet it seems very unlikely.  I grew up in an area of high worklessness and my mother was out of work for a time, yet the vast majority of adults I knew were working.

In reality, even children in the tiny 0.3% of UK households with two generations of people who have ‘never worked’ will have aunties, neighbours, family friends or cousins in work.  When the highly regarded Joseph Rowntree Foundation, set out to find three generations of the same family who have never worked’ researchers were unable to locate even one.  Their thorough report went on to conclude that ‘cultures of worklessness’ was not a good explanation for unemployment.

As Osborne, IDS and Cameron – along with our worst tabloids – have shown during the Philpott furore, the right are cynically using unrepresentative case studies as a means of trying to get the public on board for benefit slashes, which will have a devastating impact on millions of ordinary families.  Repeating back similarly unrepresentative stereotypes only plays in to their hands.

We need to be mindful about falling in to this trap and making a bad situation worse.  A recent TUC poll found that people assumed 27% of benefit spending was claimed fraudulently, in fact the amount is 0.7%.  Similarly, the assumption that a significant number of people are ‘coasting’ on the dole just doesn’t add up.  Even with 2.5 million unemployed – including 1 million youngsters – 90% of people claim JSA for less than a year, which is pretty impressive when you think 1,700 people applied for just 8 jobs at Costa.  We also have a violently unstable employment market, which has meant 4.8 million people have had to claim JSA at least once in the last two years.

Although in his Mirror article, Simon Danczuk warns that, “Instead of allowing our focus to dwell on the challenges and obstacles preventing people working, we should prioritise the rewards people, families and communities derive from work.”

Yet if we are serious about bringing down spending on benefits (although let’s not forget over 42% of this spending goes on older people and a further 20% helps those on low wages, through things like housing benefit and tax credits), then we must do the exact opposite and relentlessly focus on eliminating these “challenges and obstacles”.  As it’s no coincidence that areas with the highest rates of worklessness, like the South Wales Valleys, are those that have still not recovered from Thatcher’s legacy of de-industrialisation and are being hit hardest by the on-going economic crisis.

These challenges are arguably the defining political issues of our time.  We urgently need a concerted effort by government to help our economy grow, to provide more and better jobs; measures such as boosting affordable house building (that would actually bring down housing benefit, which in the long term only really subsidises private landlords), investing in our transport infrastructure and delivering a proper industrial strategy, are vital to this.

While at the same time there has to be support in place to eliminate the real barriers faced by the relatively small number of people furthest from the labour market.  Labour was already starting to do this through the Family Intervention Projects and excellent work is being done with young people through scheme like the Prince’s Trust Fairbridge Programme.  There is also the more fundamental need to provide decent affordable childcare, particularly to help single parents back in to work.

The current welfare reforms do nothing to address these challenges; neither would a tougher line from Labour aimed at unemployed parents.  Perhaps most pertinently for this debate, it is kids from the least well off homes who will be among the hardest hit.  The 1% uprating cap alone will mean single parents losing an average of £260 a year, while the social security cuts as a whole will drive a further 1 million kids in to poverty by 2020.

Simon Danczuk has a powerful and important story to tell, we should applaud his bravery in sharing it.  Yet given this platform and his experiences, surely it would have been better to try and take on some of the damaging myths about our social security system, which are being used as cover for brutal benefit cuts.

Labour can’t afford to let this debate be shaped by the Tories and won on the basis of who’s perceived to be hardest on mythical scroungers; they’ve got too many Peter Lilley types for us to win that murky battle.

Instead we need to concertedly knock over the lies that are being used to sell brutal cuts to social security and offer a vision of a brighter future, especially for those areas scared by de-industrialisation.  The impressive new Labour Party broadcast begins to build on this theme and offers a more positive articulation about what the Labour Party is for.  This is a far more difficult job to complete, but do it and the future for this generation of young people growing up in poverty will look infinitely brighter.

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