Dear prospective Prime Ministers: the important issue is poverty not “welfare”

A question was asked in the prime ministerial debate about “welfare”. Much of what was said in response by both candidates was either a gross oversimplification or simply incorrect.  It is telling that the only person who did not fall into this trap was the second questioner on the subject, who was also the only person who identified herself as needing social security payments to make ends meet. She didn’t say if she was one of the 50% of Universal Credit claimants who must skip meals to make ends meet no-one asked her nor was it even acknowledged that benefits do not provide enough to meet the essentials of life.

The entire debate occurred without mention being made of rising poverty or destitution. These are the things that the benefit system is meant to tackle but they were not even alluded to. All that remained was a hollow conversation about reducing the cost of the benefit system, where those who need the system were either unmentioned or represented by shallow caricature.

The two candidates offered some differences in policy and rhetoric – and people will take a view as to the merits of these positions when considering their vote – but the absence of a serious engagement with the injustice of poverty and the welfare system’s role in the lives of people who experience poverty was the common theme.

“Getting off Benefits and into Work.”

This is the phrase which ended the question chosen by the BBC to introduce this part of the debate. There is a technical objection to this phrasing: the idea that there are two separate categories, those “on benefits” and those “in work”, is 25 years out of date. Many working families with low incomes receive benefits, with the balance between income from benefits and income from work varying for myriad of reasons including benefit rules, pay rates and increasingly rents.

The phrase encourages us to turn a complex issue where the individual, the state, employers, landlords and others have power and responsibility into a binary dilemma for which only the benefit claimant has moral responsibility – everyone else is let off the hook.

That is not however the main reason I dislike the phrase. I have had the privilege of sitting in foodbanks listening to the stories of people who rely on the benefits system, some in employment, some not. I have yet to meet someone who does not work hard. Poverty is hard work, scraping together enough resources to get by is hard physical and emotional work. Perhaps the hardest working person I have met in my life was a mum in a Newcastle foodbank who has a child with learning difficulties and a seriously disabled husband that she cares for with little help from the benefits system. The extraordinary job she does is hard work – and should be appreciated and admired as such.

“Those who can work should work”

This phrase was used by both party leaders, and I would imagine is uncontroversial. Yet it is how a discussion on benefits is always framed and it comes with the strong implication that it is not what is happening currently.

It is worth noting that people who the DWP believes can either work or prepare for work are given 35 hours a week of job searching tasks which they must complete, or they will have their benefits sanctioned. Should a person be offered a job, and in the view of the DWP unreasonably refuse it, benefits are sanctioned for 3 months in the first instance and up to a year if this is repeated. These sanctions have a “compliance” condition which means that the sanction remains in place until the claimant complies with the instruction of the Jobcentre.

While there was a great deal of talk about how to ensure “those who can work do work”, there was little explanation of why this comprehensive and often heavy handed and regime of tasks and monitoring applied to 3 million people each week is not doing its job. There was not discussion of the financial costs of implementing such a regime nor was there any consideration of what it might be like to have such a regime – enhanced or otherwise – applied to you for months or even years on end.

Let’s End Poverty

Let's End Poverty logo

There were other confusions, particularly conflating disability benefits with out-of-work benefits, but by the end of the debate, for me it was not the lack of engagement with the detail of policy that was so dispiriting, it was what appeared to be a of engagement with the reality of poverty as it experienced by 14.3 million people in the UK today. Funding is an important part of the debate around poverty and the benefits system, but the people affected should be the starting point.

Tonight, Let’s End Poverty is running a different kind of debate where people who have experienced poverty and people who have walked alongside them will get to express their views. There will not be rehearsed soundbites nor simplistic policy solutions, instead, there will be an engagement with the reality of poverty, and the choices we face. When the election is over, no matter what its outcome, these are the voices that the new government needs to hear.


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