Deborah Padfield, a citizen’s advice bureau adviser, returns to report from the poverty line – a part of Britain that is outside David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In the third of a series of five posts, she examines the drive to get claimants off benefits. Her first report describes the reality of life for those dependent upon the state. Her second piece contrasts the media and political attention placed on benefit fraud as versus the much bigger problem of tax avoidance and evasion.
Is it not right to encourage people off benefits? Yes, insofar as it’s necessary and possible. The question pre-supposes that people need such encouragement. Some do. I work with some people who have been badly damaged by being “dumped” on Incapacity Benefit without review for years or decades. The thought of employment has become terrifying for many, even if they appear capable of tackling it. Some have developed a sense of entitlement such that a requirement to look for paid work seems to them to be morally unacceptable.
Governments have done a terrible thing to people who could have become socially and perhaps economically active, teaching them that they can and need never be so again. They did so for their own convenience: this “dumping” resulted not least from past drives to massage down unemployment figures.
I am seeing more people in this predicament as claimants are shifted wholesale from Incapacity Benefit on to Employment & Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance. But the ‘work-shy’ are a tiny minority of those I meet. The vast majority loathe being “on benefits”. It is for them a deadly, stigmatising phrase; they would give the fortune that they’ll never possess to have the health and/or literacy and/or skills and/or flexible employer and/or family support and/or childcare and/or transport to get work that pays sufficiently to keep them out of debt.
That question of sufficiency is not trivial, and it’s not about wanting a life of Riley. Housing Benefit tops up the earned income. It doesn’t take into account the actual rent. For people renting from private landlords, the benefit (aka Local Housing Allowance) is now pegged to the 30th percentile of a “broad market rental area” which can include very high rent areas among a majority of low rent areas without allowing for the difference. For all social and private tenancies, benefit has been pegged to a maximum level related to the size of family, regardless of whether or not families can find something smaller to which they can move in order to fit within the allowance.
In or out of work, most people on Housing Benefit will henceforward find that their wage or income has to stretch further to make up the rent. For people in work, the sufficiency of the wage and benefit depends on the overheads attached to employment. Part-time and often irregular hours at a low or minimum wage don’t readily pay the bills once the costs of transport from cheap housing areas, childcare and/or school meals are added in. Quite apart from any debts almost necessarily attendant on living without any surplus, it’s a tough choice between food, electric, clothing and topping up benefit to pay the rent.
Consider the position of people in private tenancies in Cambridge city. Their rents are often impossibly high in relation to the “broad market rental area”. So what to do? Move to an outlying village where rents are lower – but where public transport is scarce, expensive and in the process of being savagely cut? The local authority subsidy is being cut to nothing over the next four years. In such circumstances, work often leads to rent arrears and eviction; it becomes an unaffordable luxury.
Unaffordable, and deeply insecure. Managing benefits is complicated and time-consuming. Claims are slow to process. Working and child tax credits are riddled with brain-numbing complexities which create constant over and underpayments, the latter being nightmarish when the bill catches up. Any change of circumstances makes benefit stoppages and tax credit errors more likely. People moving in and out of insecure jobs or coping with irregular shift-work live with fear and uncertainty.
Then there is the need for a flexible employer. Even confident and well-educated people can struggle to return to work after time out parenting or a sudden redundancy. For the people I advise, adapting to a work regime while managing a mental or physical health problem, coping with the reality of stigma and perhaps juggling the competing diktats of shifting work and fixed childcare hours, is more a recipe for acute anxiety than for recovery. The Equalities Act, embracing previous disability and other discrimination legislation, is valuable only insofar as it is observed.
The attractions of stigmatising and penalising those living on benefits as a way of “encouraging” them back to work are obvious. Such a policy has all the satisfaction of moral superiority, blanking out any terrifying suspicion that Those People are no different from me, their predicament only a stone’s throw of bad luck away from where I stand. The policy plays to the insecurities of an electorate looking for identifiable scapegoats – bankers and “City fatcats” being beyond the personal eyesight of most of us.
It may in the short-term save more than it costs the Exchequer; but surely not when the broader costs of ill health, homelessness, family break-up and loss of spending power among the poorest are taken into account. I don’t see how this punitive approach is an effective or constructive way of getting unemployed people back into the work most of them want and need. If society could shift the focus from “scroungers” to “work-hungry”, the likely incentives become very different.