Not just for the poor: Moral panic and the welfare state

panicThe ‘welfare reform debate’ has taken the form of a classic moral panic. But amidst the myths and misinformation, we must not lose sight of the true purpose of the welfare state…

“Benefit claimants flooding system”, “welfare needs to be tackled”, “vile product of welfare UK.”  ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic.’  Sergeant Jones’ famous refrain would be an apt response to the increasingly strident news headlines over the past few weeks concerning the future of the welfare state.   Battle lines have been drawn between supporters of the Government’s huge programme of welfare reform (and cuts) and their opponents.

But as in all wars, truth is one of the first victims.  Sadly, very little of the ‘debate’ has featured the real live experiences – let alone the voices – of those who are directly affected by welfare reform and benefit cuts.

Instead, the ‘welfare reform debate’ has taken on the form of a classic moral panic:  An intense and emotive response to an issue that is alleged to threaten the social order.   Moral panics have been around for at least the past 180 years – though arguably much longer, if you include the medieval witch hunts, or even the practice of scapegoating referred to in Leviticus.

Fear and panic

Over the years we’ve seen similar moral panic spread about single parents, the ‘rising tide of crime’ (even at points when crime rates were falling); asylum seekers; and immigrants in general.  In each case, a relatively voiceless and powerless group of people is singled out as the target for public disapproval, verging on hate.  For a nation which prides itself on our ‘British tolerance’ we’re a pretty intolerant lot at times.

The latest moral panic about ‘expensive, entrenched and inter-generational benefit dependency’ is, as with all previous moral panics, accompanied by increasingly value-laden and pejorative language when discussing benefits and welfare. In the past year, the term “benefit cheat” was used 442 times in national newspapers, whilst the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has spoken of a mass culture of welfare dependency in every speech on benefits he has made in the past 12 months.

Whilst politicians claim to be ‘responding’ to the public mood, the signs are that (as in all moral panics), public opinion is strongly swayed by the overwhelming tide of negative media coverage.  A YouGov poll for the TUC last year, for example, found that, on average, people think 41% of the welfare budget supports the unemployed – the true amount is 3% – and believe the fraud rate is 27%, as against the government’s estimate of 0.7%.

So what’s the big problem with the welfare state?

If you read the newspapers (or listened to many politicians), you’d imagine that huge chunks of the welfare budget go on feckless’ families, two – or even three generations of over-large families where no one has worked.  Skivers and shirkers for whom benefits is somehow a ‘lifestyle choice.’

But as the Economist has argued: “Though most of them seem to end up in newspapers, in 2011 there were just 130 families in the country with 10 children claiming at least one out-of-work benefit. Only 8% of benefit claimants have three or more children. What evidence there is suggests that, on average, unemployed people have similar numbers of children to employed people … it is not clear at all that benefits are a significant incentive to have children.”

I’m delighted that this is an issue on which the Baptist, Methodist, URC and Church of Scotland have chosen to take the strongest of stances.  According to their report Truth and Lies,

“The systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge.”

I’ve recently been re-reading a report the churches produced more than twenty-five years ago at the height of a previous moral panic about the future of the welfare state.  Not Just for the Poor took a long and considered look at the achievements – and challenges – facing the welfare state, more than forty years on from its creation in 1945.

One of its most potent lines, was to challenge the notion of welfare dependency.

“It is easy to forget that those who have considerable independence still depend on others for their life and well-being. Likewise we can forget, in a divided society, that those who are highly dependent also have their own contribution to make to the welfare of the whole.”

Our inter-dependence on each other and on God is a profound theological insight – and one which has profound implications for our understanding of the welfare state.  The welfare state does not create dependency:  We are all inter-dependent;  we all depend to a greater or lesser extent on schools and hospitals, good roads and impartial policing; we all enjoy (or look forward) to receiving our state pension.

And as Not Just for the Poor argues, one of the most important reasons for the creation of the welfare state was ensure the universal availability of services to avoid the need to be dependent on the ‘charity’ of the rich and advantaged.

“That sort of degrading and sub-human dependence was one of the experiences which the development of the welfare state was meant to destroy.”

A quarter of a century on, the welfare state remains a big part of British family life, with over 20 million families receiving some kind of benefit. Two thirds are families, almost nine million are pensioners.  For almost ten million families, benefits make up more than half of their income.  Almost six out of ten pounds of the welfare budget goes on pensions, and another two go on disability benefits. Only fifty pence out of every ten pounds are spent directly on benefits for the unemployed.

And what is the purpose of the welfare state? 

In the pithy words of David Donnison, one time chair of the Supplementary Benefits commission:

“To keep people out of poverty, people must have an income which enables them to participate in the life of the community. They must be able, for example, to keep themselves reasonably fed, and well enough dressed to maintain their self-respect, and to attend interviews for jobs with confidence. Their homes must be reasonably warm; their children should not feel shamed by the quality of their clothing; the family must be able to visit relatives, and to give them something on their birthdays and at Christmas time; they must be able to read newspapers and their membership of trades unions and churches. And they must be able to live in a way which ensures, so far as possible, that public officials treat them with the courtesy due to every member of the community.”

In the face of the latest moral panic, we should hold fast to that simple statement of the purpose of the welfare state – as true in 2013 as when first established in 1945…

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