CPAG: Welfare myths are not based on fact – and people are starting to see it

by Alison Garnham, Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group

This week may be a watershed moment with the Chancellor feeling compelled to publicly defend why the poorest families are in the frontline of his austerity agenda. It would be nice to think a shift is occurring in the debate on social security with public opinion moving against relentless attacks on the poorest and cuts in basic social protection. For example, the Work and Pensions Secretary claimed he could get by on £53 a week and met with such derision that a petition calling on him to prove it attracted hundreds of thousands of signatories within a couple of days.

Despite recurrent popular misperceptions about social security claimants, British people believe in social security and protection from poverty. A poll for Radio 4 by ComRes showed 70 per cent of people think the welfare state is one of our nation’s proudest achievements and 72 per cent think everyone has the right to a minimum standard of living paid for, if necessary, by the welfare state. The public want the costs of social security kept under control, but they have also retained a strong sense of fairness and empathy for those who need access to social security and other forms of state support such as tax credits.

The public wants two key things in relation to social security reforms and benefit spending – fairness and financial stability for the public purse. Those who support the government’s policy agenda claim that cutting benefits, and reforms like the Work Programme, will achieve this. They allege that people unhappy about their policies also oppose fairness and stable public finances. But this is a straw man. A major reason why anti-poverty campaigners are concerned is that the proposed cuts will fail to deliver on either fairness, or stable public finances.

At the heart of this failure is the error of considering social security in a vacuum. Increases in social security expenditure largely reflect problems or policies outside social security itself, such as high unemployment, lack of affordable childcare and the deregulation of the housing market. Answers to these problems correspondingly lie outside the system. So far from being against reform, anti-poverty campaigners want more radical reform – reforms that address the root problems. So it’s time to target some inconvenient truths:

1. There’s zero growth and too few jobs to go round.
2. Far too many jobs – millions of them! – fail to pay a living wage, provide job security or provide enough hours of work.
3. Housing is far too expensive and has pushed up the cost of housing benefit, while house building is at its lowest level since the 1920s. Families on benefit see no advantage as their rent money goes direct to landlords.
4. Childcare is too expensive and we are years behind the best in Europe in the kind of access to high quality affordable childcare that allows more children to benefit and parents to work.

If we made progress on these root problems, we’d see much larger savings to the social security budget than can be achieved by salami-slicing entitlement levels and further impoverishing children and families. We’d also avoid the problem of shifting costs elsewhere in the system to pick up the pieces of damaged lives – for example, through the NHS, child protection services, mental healthcare and homelessness services. Our high child poverty rates cost us a fortune – £25 billion a year according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – and child poverty is now predicted to rise by one million by 2020. Cuts that increase child poverty will cost us more in the long run.

Perhaps the turning point really occurred before this week when the government announced it would increase benefits and tax credits for out of work and low paid households by just 1% – which means a 4% real terms cut when adjusted for inflation. They hoped for public support, but polling showed the vast majority of the public believe it is fair to increase benefits at least in line with growing prices, as has always been the case in both good times and bad in the past. And, the public know now that 60% of the cuts to benefits and tax credits are in fact falling on working families. So, how odd to see the Chancellor say on Tuesday that we must cut benefits out of fairness to people who “get up, go to work”. That same day, the PM’s office revealed that the government are also considering cutting the minimum wage!

So this week Ministers turned their fire on critics who have been busting the myths, including faith groups, voluntary sector organisations and charities who are just doing their job by making the facts known. The critics are accused of being happy to see people languishing on benefits indefinitely. This, despite the fact that 90% of unemployed claimants leave benefit within one year. So, terms like ‘dependency culture’ and ’something for nothing’ are simply politically loaded and highly stigmatising. 

George Osborne admitted this week that the Thatcher government had been wrong to park unemployed claimants by shifting them onto sickness benefit to massage down unemployment figures, but parking still exists under the Coalition’s flagship Work Programme policy. Early evidence suggests claimants left in the work programme may be less likely to return to work, and placing people in unpaid work does no better. DWP’s own research concludes: “There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers”.

All the main parties have been guilty in recent years of negative mythologising about benefit claimants so let’s hope all of Westminster wakes up to the fact that a change may be occurring. Myth-making about poor families cannot be sustained because it is not based in fact and that is why the myth busting work by campaigners will continue to be so prevalent and so potent. Let’s hope we also see more reports about the fair and sustainable social security system that campaigners want to see, with more attention paid to achieving decent social security, jobs, fair pay, affordable homes and universal childcare.