“The moral case for welfare reform”

A few days ago the country’s most senior Catholic, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols raised some objections about the Government’s welfare reforms in comments to the Daily Telegraph. I don’t think we should pay attention particularly to what religious leaders say (about anything), but in this case, the Archbishop was merely stating the obvious. Basically, he said that the reforms were leaving some people destitute (they are), that the reforms are primarily about saving money (yes), and that the reforms are not working (depends on how you define ‘working’).

This seems to have upset David Cameron enough for him to ask the Telegraph for a right of reply. Here’s his article and he tries to answer the Archbishop with a moral argument. His argument is a textbook example of the conservative ‘strict father figure’ framing I’ve been banging on about recently. Here’s some extracts:

“First, our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right. Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.”

“Those who can’t work will be always supported, but those who can work have the responsibility to do so. “

“I believe very firmly that it is wrong to penalise those who work hard and do the right thing while rewarding those who can work, but don’t.”

In this version of reality (which Cameron may actually believe), it’s not necessarily the people that are to blame, but the evil system which makes people ‘dependent’, even rewarding them for “not making the right choices”.

So the system is immoral and must be ‘reformed’ to ‘make work pay’ and create the right incentives to ‘work hard and get on’. This is classic conservative moral framing, but what Cameron doesn’t mention is the enormous elephant in the room – jobs (or lack of them).

I might have some sympathy with Cameron’s position if there were more job vacancies than people looking for work, and those people were turning down work left, right and centre, but the maths just isn’t in Cameron’s favour. We’ve got around 4.5 million people without a job who want on and over a million more in part time work who’d like a full time job. At the same time, there are just half a million vacancies. Against those numbers, if you cut the amount of money people receive in social security benefits they will just get poorer. They can’t find jobs that don’t exist no matter how hard they try.

So to re-state Cameron’s case: when people stand on their own two feet, work hard and do the right thing, they will succeed, but the evil welfare system makes people lazy and dependent so must be weakened.

So how could we frame this differently? I always think Owen Jones is on to something when I hearing him talk about housing benefit. When is a discussion about how we need to get the housing benefit bill down, he just agrees strongly, but says it should be done by tackling private sector rents and building more houses. Housing benefit should be reframed therefore as landlord benefit. People don’t like feeling like they are being screwed, but anyone who is renting privately strongly suspects they are being. Jones hasn’t quite got his delivery down though I don’t think. It’s a bit machine gun with too much spraying of facts and figures, which probably won’t change anyone’s mind. I think his overall strategy is sound though.

On the welfare system as a whole I think the reframing might go something like this.

“The welfare system needs updating for the 21st Century, but to do so we need to understand the problems. The welfare state we know today was established under the assumption of full employment. That assumption no longer holds. There are simply not enough jobs. We need to rediscover what full employment means and government has a big role to play in that. Young people need paid work experience. People who’ve been out of work for a long time need a chance to get back into the workplace and update their skills. The private sector has consistently failed to perform in this regard, so where the private sector can’t or won’t offer these opportunities, government can and should. As Keynes said:

“The Conservative belief that there is some law of nature which prevents men from being employed, that it is “rash” to employ men, and that it is financially ‘sound’ to maintain a tenth of the population in idleness for an indefinite period, is crazily improbable – the sort of thing which no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years…

It’s time to unfuddle our heads. When we talk about people having a responsibility to work if they can, so government has a responsibility to ensure that work is available and that it pays well enough to sustain people in a lifestyle appropriate for a rich country.”

I’ll finish this with a quote from a recent Jack Monroe article which is a pretty good antidote to this ‘work hard and get on’ nonsense:

“Poverty can happen to anyone. That’s why I unsettle some of the stalwarts of the Tory party. Because their rhetoric of “work hard and get on” can fall apart in the blink of an eye. I worked hard. I got on. And I still spent a year and a half scrabbling around in a festering pit of depression, joblessness, benefit delays and suspensions, hunger, and the entrenched, gut-wrenching fear that I was failing as a parent.”



The Bedroom Tax, Big Benefits Row and the degradation of the teaching profession

A lot to get through this week, but first up, the Bedroom Tax. UN Special Rapporteur Sharon Rolnik finally published her report in housing in the UK, and as expected, she repeated her call for the Bedroom tax to be scrapped. What was striking during her visit to the UK last year, was the willingness of Ministers like Grant Shapps to tell obvious lies about the visit, like she wasn’t invited (she was) or she hadn’t met any Ministers (she had). There was a similar reaction to her full report as this Guardian article explains:

Ministers savage UN report calling for abolition of UK’s bedroom tax

But Rolnik’s report wasn’t solely focused on the Bedoom Tax. Far from it. Jules Birch gives a very good summary of the report’s findings in a blog for Inside Housing:

Rights Row

And after some interesting decisions in the appeals courts regarding the Bedroom Tax, Joe Halewood – who has blogged tirelessly on this wretched policy – predicts the whole edifice may soon come crumbling down:

The Bedroom Tax is Dead here’s why

Moving on now, and this week Channel 5 hosted a debate provocatively titled “Big Benefits Row”. I watched it myself and found it to be quite shouty, although actually quite sympathetic to those claiming social security benefits. The two exceptions were Katie Hopkins and Edwina Currie. I’m not sure how much they say, they actually believe, as they both seem to make quite a bit of money from being invited on TV to voice opinions many find offensive, but if they are genuine, they would seem to be outstanding examples of Geogrge Lakoff’s “strict father figure” frame, which I blooged about here. In their world, those who do the right thing, work hard and play by the rules will always succeed, so anyone who is claiming benefits must be doing something wrong. You could see this in the show when a member of the audience explained (very robustly!) how she was volunteering, doing training and applying for endless jobs but still couldn’t find work. Edwina Currie’s response was just to shout back at her repeatedly “Get a job” or “Try harder”.

There were two good blog posts I noticed this week from people who were actually in the studio during the debate Jack Monroe and Sue Marsh:

Dear Edwina, Thankyou for last night. I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: The Big Benefits Row

Teaching now, and I came across this blog post written by a teacher who has recently left the profession. My partner is a teacher, and what what she tells me, a lot of this rings true. This paragraph in particular hits the nail on the head about the stresses teachers are under:

“What I couldn’t cope with was the toxic culture of fear that now pervades the whole profession. People no longer talk about ‘what this brilliant kid did’ – it’s always about who had a drop in and what grade they subsequently received. As a profession, we have been reduced from largely innovative, invested individuals to a bunch of approval-seeking junkies, because we know we’re only as good as our last Ofsted rating. Forget what the kids think of you; forget what the parents think of you, if Ofsted say ‘nope’, then that’s it. You’re not good enough.”

This is no way to treat dedicated professionals, and as the blog goes on to explain, it’s pretty terrible for the kids they teach too:

Life lessons, fear of failure and why I left teaching.

A couple of shout outs for blogs I like now. First, two posts from Irish blogger Robert Nielsen, one on concepts of freedom, and one on endogenous money:

The Two Types Of Freedom

Endogenous Money Or How Loans Create Deposits

And here’s one by Peter Martin on government budgets, and why when people like Ed Balls talk about balanced budgets and surpluses, we should treat them with scorn:

Why Governments Can’t Choose to Run Balanced Budgets.

Finally, with the Winter Olympics getting under way this week in Sochi, there’s been a lot of negative coverage of Russia and what it’s like for gay people there. Channel 4’s Dispatches program aired a documentary about Russian gangs who target gay people over there and video their actions. It’s pretty horrendous stuff. Here’s a video of some tough Russians from the Interior Ministry showing a softer (but obviously completely heterosexual) side:

Are cuts to social security moral?

A lot of people would answer no straight away to this question, but stay with me. I’ve just started reading George Lakoff’s “Don’t think of an Elephant!” which is about how people view the world through different ‘frames’ and how political parties seek to exploit these frames in their political messaging. Lakoff’s central thesis is that those with a conservative world view frame things from the point of view of a strict father figure, while those of a more liberal persuasion frame the world from the point of view of a ‘nurturant parent family’.

So what is meant by the strict father figure frame? Lakoff explains:

“In this model there is also a definition of what it means to become a good person. A good person – a moral person – is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant. A good child grows up to be like that. A bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous.She cannot take care of herself, and thus becomes dependent.”

To bring it back to the title of the blog then, for those who view the world though the strict father frame (a conservative viewpoint), cutting social security is a moral position, because a Lakoff also writes:

“Consider what this all means for social programs. It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because then they will not develop discipline and will become both dependent and immoral. This theory says that social programs are immoral because they make people dependent. Promoting social programs is immoral.”

This strikes me a quite a good description of the language Tories like IDS use when discussing social security. They talk about ‘welfare dependency’ as though it’s a great societal evil, and separate people into those who are deserving of help and those who aren’t. They talk about people who ‘want to work hard and get on’. The Tories are for these people. This all implies that if people have the discipline and drive to succeed, then succeed they will. Any failure to do so must be down to the personal failings of the individual. I think this last point was quite eloquently dismissed in a blog by Jack Monroe todaybut it is an idea that many people undoubtedly subscribe to, and the right are extremely proficient in pushing these kinds of messages, while the left are poor at pushing their own. Witness Labour’s almost total inability to defend the welfare state and it’s acceptance of this strict father framing.

I suppose my point then is that a lot of people seem to assume the cuts to social security are because the Tories are evil, or because they want to shift resources from poor to rich. Maybe there are elements of that, but I think for politicians like IDS, they genuinely do believe what they are doing is morally right. The left need to accept that a lot of people agree with him and come up with strategies to reframe the debate.

Public Attitudes to Welfare – Another Reason why we need a Job Guarantee

This pissed me off today. A good old fashioned hatchet job on a couple of creditable people who dared have the nerve to stick their head above the parapet and speak out. But this is not a blog about Richard Littlejohn, a thoroughly despicable individual who reminds me a lot of Lewis Prothero from V for VendettaOne of the subjects of Littlejohn’s outburst did a pretty good job of responding hereso there’s not much more to be said on the man himself.

What’s more interesting is what it says about the welfare debate in this country. Until now, I’ve been quite optimistic about people’s attitudes about the welfare state, but now I’m not so sure. It would be easy to dismiss Littlejohn’s article as trolling or ‘linkbait’, but I think people in general are very easily persuaded that there are millions of people out there taking the piss while they work hard. It’s a view I often hear from friends and colleagues, and no amount of facts and figures will change their minds. People resent the fact that benefit claimants seemingly don’t have to do very much for their benefits (not true, but that’s what they think).

So what’s the solution? Successive governments have tried to compete over who can be the toughest on welfare, introducing to fitness to work tests, more hoops to jump through and harsher sanctions. This government has taken this to demented and particularly cruel levels at a time when jobs and in short supply, and decent paid jobs are as rare as hens teeth. At the moment, the options for an unemployed person is get a job (if they are very lucky), fruitlessly look for a job, or go on a government punishment scheme. I think we need a 4th option – a guaranteed job paid for by the government.

This removes a lot of the resentment felt by working people towards those out of work. If anyone losing a job had the option of taking a guaranteed job, they will be seen as doing something for something. Most people would take that option I believe. I think the welfare system should be rebuilt around the idea of a full employment economy as we had when the welfare state was introduced, then we can get past this playing off one set of people against another, and ensure the welfare system does what it’s suppose to – pick people up who’ve been discarded by the system and keep them active and ready to get back in the game.