Unlike my friend Eleanor Griggs, who wrote an article a few weeks ago condemning the Tories’ welfare reform proposals, I am not the product of a middle-classed family. In fact, I could scarcely even claim to have a ‘working-class’ background; there would be a contradiction inherent within such an assertion, considering half of my family do not work and have never worked. Unless the Tories have their wicked way, they will never work. That’s not because they’re unwell or otherwise incapacitated, it’s because they’re feckless. They’re trapped in a habit of worklessness, the tiniest of afflictions providing much-coveted excuses, not reasons, to avoid employment and live off state benefits.
There’s a peculiar irony in the notion that the Conservatives, the very same Party whose classist ideologies decimated Scotland and the North in the eighties, will be the Party to put paid to Britain’s unemployment crisis. By 1984, the unemployment rate in the north-east hit an all-time low of almost 20% as a generation of industrial workers were left jobless when Thatcher closed down the shipyards and the coalmines. In my opinion, the region has never quite recovered from this – and not just economically. I return to my hometown of Sunderland essentially as an ‘outsider’ nowadays to find it characterised by an air of pessimism and a lack of ambition.
“No matter how you look at politics”, I overheard a girl inform her friend as they marched past me on their way to the Jobcentre when I was up north this summer in the weeks following the general election, “there’s always going to be someone at the bottom, and someone at the top.”
After generations of being at the bottom, the people of Tyne and Wear appear to be staying there. It’s not that there’s no opportunity, it’s just that being caught in a cycle of unemployment, state dependency and dead-end jobs like your parents before you and maybe even your grandparents before them means that, for the majority, knuckling down at college and going to university to better yourself simply isn’t the done thing. It’s much easier to knock a couple of kids out and sign on.
In her article, Griggs argues that it isn’t fair to demonise the jobless for ‘sapping the economy dry’ in the context of last year’s expenses scandal and rife tax avoidance amongst the rich, which together cost society far more than benefit payments do. Indeed she is quite right to assert that: “those who don’t claim benefits are [not] completely free of the immoral ills which have supposedly infected jobseekers up and down the country”. Rich or poor, I think we need to accept the fact that it is human nature to do as little work as possible for as much money as possible; like MPs who fiddled their expenses, if people can get away with claiming more than they are entitled to, they will. Of course, both economically and morally, the nefarious activities of the rich are far more damaging than the paltry scroungings attributable to the lower socioeconomic classes in their day-to-day struggles.
However, I consider the social impacts of the dependency culture to be far more alarming than any financial problems it may or may not entail. In that vein, I think Griggs’ point regarding the UK’s comparatively meagre benefits bill in light of copious tax avoidance by George Osborne and his ilk is somewhat void. I’m not downplaying the abhorrence of such activities but considering that 34% of the Government’s income is spent on helping the poor and that we are each afforded merely £6,475 of tax-free earnings per year, even low-paid workers are footing the bill: directly funding the UK’s dependency culture.
Imagine how much it smarts to return home after a hard day’s work at your shitty job to see your next-door neighbour lazing around in the garden; he’s had his rent and food paid for and he’s even got some spending money on top from his on-the-side, part-time job.
Our current system doesn’t help people out of poverty – it keeps them in poverty
Okay, so fraudulent benefit claimants are never going to bring the economy onto its knees but that’s not the point. I’ve been in the position I’ve just described and I guarantee that it does nothing to enhance your work ethic. In fact, I was fairly close to throwing in the towel altogether and signing on myself. I mean, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – right?
This is why I back proposals to force the long-term unemployed into mandatory community work placements. The Tories obviously need to ensure jobs are available, particularly in the wake of such brutal public sector cuts, but I frankly find it impossible to believe that one cannot find work following a year’s thorough job-hunting. In my experience, such people actually have no intention of obtaining employment or are being too snobbish. Well, I’m afraid that when it comes to looking for a job, beggars can’t be choosers. Compulsory community work will break this habit of worklessness, flush out benefit thieves and, where people genuinely cannot find work, enhance employability skills.
Of course it is not the case that all benefit claimants are spongers. It probably isn’t even a majority and caring for the genuinely disadvantaged is a vital component of a civilised society. Nonetheless, I argue that well-meaning, middle-classed liberals – ‘champagne socialists’, if you will – need to alleviate themselves of their ‘class-guilt’ without delay and seriously reconsider their typically vehement defence of the welfare state. Because I’m afraid that this culture of dependency and joblessness that seemingly riddles lower-class areas cannot continue for much longer.
Of course, wanting to help those that are worse off than yourself is clearly very honourable; however, the fact is that our welfare system does not help people out of poverty – it keeps them in poverty. A life on benefits should be a last resort; it should not be a mildly attractive alternative. While I’d never suggest that those claiming benefits have money to burn, by the same token many aren’t exactly out of pocket either – with no small minority reaping the rewards of a cash-in-hand job on the side.
At any rate, there’s hardly an incentive to get yourself into work if it stands to leave you with less money than your benefits do, as is often the case. The effect of this is that people get trapped beneath a glass-ceiling. They are disenfranchised, ambitionless and, indeed, lazy; an underclass segregated from mainstream society with no hope and no real prospects.
Radical action is needed; this is not what the welfare state was meant to achieve. Claiming benefits was supposed to be a stop-gap; a desperate measure for the genuinely needy. Instead, our welfare system is a parody of socialism; it perpetuates the class divide and the indirect oppression this entails isn’t going to instigate what champagne socialists like to refer to as a ‘working-class uprising’ anytime soon.
The Government is clearly approaching this issue from an economic perspective and is slashing the welfare budget as a means of tackling the deficit, which is appalling because it will penalise the genuinely vulnerable members of our society. For me, though, tackling the dependency culture is fundamentally a social issue so my reasoning will never be on par with that of the Tories. However I reckon that, while their plans relating to this specific matter will never be a solution, they might just be a step in the right direction – even if their intentions are less than honourable.
Griggs, however, says that the Tories are just being cruel. Maybe she’s right. But making excuses for people, dousing them in pity and throwing money at them isn’t going to teach them how to stand on their own two feet so in the long run, it’s callous.
That’s why sometimes, just sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.