The hugely controversial documentary ‘Benefits Street’, aired on Channel 4 a short time ago has added fire to the already fierce debate on the welfare state. Predictable lines have been drawn between parties with one exception: the big three all are committed to reducing the welfare bill.
This is a fine ambition. In a time of fiscal weakness, it is entirely logical to reduce spending in all departments of government. The difference falls in how the parties aim to bring down to cost of people being out of work.
The Conservative party have attempted to address a wide variety of issues in its tenure in Number 10. Wide ranging attempts have been made to reform the welfare system and arguably many of them have worked.
The party claim successes on a number of fronts. Capping benefits at £26,000 per year improves fairness in the benefits system, according to the party’s website, and creates a situation where it is impossible to ‘get more on benefits than the average person earns in work’.
There is however an obvious problem with this policy. £26,000 per year represents the average worker in the country. This is implies that a person earning this sum encountered average opportunity in their education, achieved average levels of training and works at an average level in average employment.
With many benefits claimants in possession of no worthwhile qualifications, it is still more attractive for them to claim up to £26,000 per year. Because of the lack of qualifications, many people find themselves unable to find work which pays as much as they can get for free. It is a logical decision, based on self preservation, that keeps people on benefits; a decision which is forced by the system itself.
Many of the residents of ‘Benefits Street’ claim to want employment. For many, it is a matter of pride. The discourses surrounding welfare claims manifest in feelings of diminished worth for those who cannot find work which works for them. They don’t want the welfare state that hands them money but no opportunity. Westminster doesn’t want the welfare state that leaks funds and encourages economic inactivity.
It seems that the only realistic solution must come from greater reform of the welfare system.
Labour weighs in: Should we be elected in 2015, we commit to guaranteed employment for the long term unemployed for one year. Furthermore, we will link the benefits system to skills – training will be offered and those completing their training will maintain their benefits. Those who do not will find their benefits cut.
As with the Conservative policies, these decisions have a degree of merit. While it is infinitely easy to promise things before an election, Labour seems genuine in its intent to get people into work and off benefits. The ‘Jobs Guarantee’ has already been effective in the Labour run Welsh assembly, providing employment but more importantly experience to young people. The ideal manifestation of this policy requires that this experience holds them in better stead with regards to picking up their next job and remaining an asset to the economy.
Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions secretary, claims that ‘the shocking levels of English and maths among too many jobseekers are holding them back from getting work’. To offer free training is a fantastic identifier of those who want to work and those who don’t. Claimants who are ambitious but unfortunate, hardworking but unemployable look set to benefit from the schemes that would be on offer from a Labour government.
This, to me, seems fairer. Those that want to work but do not have the opportunity should not be boxed into the same category as those who are genuinely work averse (a number I believe to be minimal). By focussing on training instead of money, the Labour camp aims to encourage social mobility and take thousands of people out of poverty.
By providing work and training Labour aims to encourage a transition of benefits claimants to contributors.
It seems clear to me that to alleviate the financial burden of benefits we first need to rid ourselves of the all too recurrent perception of benefits claimants. While there is still a belief that the majority of claimants are there because they want to be there will never be a concerted effort to reduce the financial inequality this country faces.
The current system demonises the poor and effectively pays them to remain that way. It makes their worth entirely monetary, and assigns them a maximum value of £26,000. It dictates that these people will never be better than ‘average’.