We conclude our 'Reports from the Poverty Line' series with this reassessment of who contributes to society, and who is parasitic. The first piece in the series describes life under the welfare system; the second contrasts the attention given to benefit fraud as versus tax avoidance; the third examines the call to "get 'em off benefits"; and the fourth looks at the debilitating effects of living with fear and insecurity.
I see the benefits regime from a particular perspective, because most of the people I meet are unlikely ever to hold down full-time work; many will not hold down a part-time job; some could not handle even voluntary work.
That’s not only because of the limitations of the job market, real though they are. It’s also because managing disability can be a full-time enterprise. When chronic pain turns getting out of the chair to go to the toilet into a task to be tackled with stoical determination, or when anxiety makes opening the front door an act of major courage, living is itself hard work.
It’s also the case that many people with disabilities are part of informal support networks or twosomes, as people who struggle help their friends who also struggle. These arrangements are forms of unrecognised 'work', underpinning the lives of myriad people whose dogged courage is never suspected by those walking past their drab front doors. Courage – and biting observation. Those who stigmatise benefit dependency might usefully listen to the social analyses of the dependents.
So I rotate back to the opening point of this series, ‘Reports from the Poverty Line’: about the failure of social responsibility. A concentration on conditionality and sanctions as the means of overcoming benefit dependency relies on a particular analysis of the causes, costs and benefits of our economic system. Why are so many people in Britain seriously poor and seriously insecure? Why is the minimum wage well below the living wage? Why are significant numbers of people disabled by the effects of physical and emotional abuse, their unacknowledged trauma condemning them to pass on the scars to their children? This condition affects more than is ever caught by statistics (see the comments by the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre).
Why are economic analyses skewed towards assessing the costs rather than the wealth-generating potential of the economically poor, and the wealth-generating potential rather than the costs of the rich?
A single mother doing her best with sod-all resources to keep her children away from the drugs rife in the neighbourhood, or two friends with disabilities informally caring for one another and so staving off the need for residential care: both contribute far more to society and economy than a futures trader. More than that: it is the futures trader, parasitic upon the infrastructure and the violence – physical, emotional and economic – which underpins our society, who fails in their responsibility.
John Major’s call to “society” to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”, talking in 1993 of the underclass of persistent offenders, became a bye-word. It’s a comforting patch of high ground to which, post the credit-crunch, too many of us have scurried for safety. That’s not honest, and it’s deeply irresponsible.
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