Shifting the benefit debate

Simon DuffyMyths and distortions about our benefits system have now become so widely accepted that they have poisoned the entire debate about our social safety net. In this guest post, Simon Duffy of the Centre for Welfare Reform explores how we could reframe the debate.

Have you noticed how the word “benefits” is now poison? You cannot hear a phrase like “He’s on benefits” without also hearing all the associated words:

  • Fraudster
  • Dependency
  • Costly

The fact that these are lies, damned lies and misused statistics, doesn’t matter. The poison still works its way into your system. Somehow we’ve entered a topsy-turvy world. The critic of benefits is on the moral high ground, while the advocate of social justice battles suspicion and mistrust.

This can reach ludicrous extremes. I was recently interviewed by LBC radio, where I explained that tax fraud was 15 times greater than benefit fraud. The radio show host was incredulous. First she doubted the figures:

“But if I asked people to talk about benefit fraud the phones would be red hot.”

That fact that the media and the public believe something to be true, somehow makes it true. Second she argued that, even if it was smaller, benefit fraud was still worse than tax fraud:

“It’s wrong to take something that’s not yours. But it’s not so wrong to try and avoid paying taxes.”

It’s very difficult to argue against this kind of self-assured slipperiness. So what can we do?

Firstly, you must avoid being pulled into the wrong kind of argument. The Chinese say “Lure the tiger from the mountain”, which means don’t let the advocate of injustice shape how you discuss the issue. Instead, shift the debate.

Here are a few examples of how to do that:

  • Reverse the meaning. When people talk about benefit dependency remind them that we are all dependent – every single one of us, from birth to death. It’s not dependency that’s the problem, is it?
  • Don’t accept the unacceptable. The current benefit system is badly designed and damaging. That doesn’t turn the current attacks on it into reforms, it just makes it worse. There are plenty of people advocating positive reforms to the benefits system; for example, a universal basic income would be a big improvement on the current system.
  • Learn some facts. Most people don’t know that the poorest 10% of the population pay a higher level of tax than any group; that almost all benefits are immediately repaid in taxation; or that the poorest 10% of families live on less than £100 per week after tax.
  • Change the person. Focus your debate, not on some vague ‘benefit recipient’, but on real people. Talk about yourself and people you know. Ask what the critic would want for themselves should they hit hard times, get ill or lose their family.
  • Follow the logic. Don’t let people get away with vague generalities. Do they really not care what happens to other people? If they do, then what is fair and reasonable? People are actually much less mean-spirited when they are forced to think through the consequences of their ideas.

And perhaps most of all, advocates of justice must follow the advice of G K Chesterton:

“…the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.”

Don’t be too po-faced or simply shake your head at the wickedness of the world. Treat injustice as an absurdity which no sensible person is prepared to put up with. 



4 thoughts on “Shifting the benefit debate

  1. Pingback: Shifting the benefit debate | The Meandering Social Worker

  2. Reblogged this on The Meandering Social Worker and commented:
    We know benefits fraud exists. But in a society that sees anyone on benefits as shifty and undeserving it’s about time we shifted perceptions a little. After all, we also know poverty exists. Here’s some thoughts from another blogger on how to reframe the problem.

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