If you are even moderately well-off and suddenly fall on hard times, Britain’s universal welfare system isn’t like landing in a safety net – it’s more like smacking into a concrete floor from a fifty-foot drop.
People generally talk about the British welfare state as some kind of benign presence, maybe in need of a tweak here or there but basically something of which we can be justifiably proud – Britain’s post-war gift to humanity.
This story makes us feel good, so naturally most of us swallow it unquestioningly, nodding along when the NHS is worshipped in a theatrical Mass during the London Olympic Games opening ceremony, or when Just Another Identikit Politician drones on about the importance of “triple-locking” pensioner benefits.
Sadly, it’s all nonsense. The universal welfare state and its organising principle of non-contributory benefits has proven to be one of the greatest self-inflicted evils we have ever wrought in this country, a vast conveyor belt of human misery leading to an incessant grinding machine in which the lives and dreams of countless thousands of our fellow citizens are destroyed each year, while nearly everyone turns and looks the other way.
Usually it’s good when government does not discriminate. Justice, for example, should certainly be blind, as the old saying goes. But when it comes to social security, we choose to regard our welfare system as a “safety net”. Yet any fisherman knows that different nets are needed for different environments, and likewise a one-size-fits-all safety net for citizens experiencing unemployment or hard times simply won’t catch everybody. Some will slip through entirely and crash to the ground, while others will become ensnared and trapped forever. In other words, when it comes to welfare we should actually want the government to actively discriminate.
Take the kind of person that we like to imagine the welfare state is actually there to help most – the person who gets educated, works hard, eventually earns a good salary and pays their taxes – basically someone who “does the right thing”. If such people actually do find themselves suddenly cast on to the unemployment scrap heap for any reason – perhaps victims of the Great Recession, serious illness or just plain old bad luck – they find themselves treated in exactly the same way as the individual who is able to work but who has never bothered to work, and perhaps has never shown any interest at all in working.
Neither will the long-term employed worker suddenly out of a job be treated any differently than those people it is now fashionable to feel sorry for, the long-term unemployed who choose not to work simply because the net effect of taking a job results in a high marginal “tax” rate (tax being redefined to include the loss of government support that is only meant to be temporary).
The financial obligations of the higher-income person suffering short-term distress are likely to be considerable – they may well have a mortgage to pay, or least a high monthly rent payment to make. God forbid that they have started a family, let alone chosen to send their children to private school while still funding the public education system with their taxes. Without huge personal cash reserves or kindly relatives to help out, such an unfortunate person may struggle enormously in the short term, particularly when a replacement job is not immediately available.
If the term “safety net” means anything, surely it should describe a system which aims to break the fall of all types of citizen who may need it, bearing in mind that different people will be falling at different speeds based on their prior circumstances. The school-leaver or graduate still living at home, for example, may well be frustrated and angry to be facing unemployment but the Jobseeker’s Allowance entitlement of £73 will go a long way toward helping them subsist.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the married senior professional worker who happens to find himself between jobs would probably never think to claim JSA at all, likely having savings to fall back on, or the quick prospect of alternative work. Students at the very start of their careers or well-paid senior professionals at the peak of theirs – both types of people would fall relatively gently into the safety net should they be unemployed.
By contrast, the young professional early in their career may have neither the contacts nor the financial reserves to easily absorb the shock of unemployment, even if they were earning a relatively good salary – particularly at times of particular financial exposure, such as having recently made the downpayment on a mortgage, or preparing for the birth of a child. Throw in an unexpected job loss into these circumstances, and a person’s fall into the safety net may be much harder.
In such cases, the Jobseeker’s Allowance entitlement of £73 per week of “unemployment insurance” is an almost derisory figure when set against monthly mortgage or rent well in excess of £1000, food and utilities costs, travel expenditures and all of the other necessary expenditures of city life. But if you are still living at home, or have your accommodation and other needs taken care of through other means such as housing benefit, £73 every week can be quite doable.
I know, having witnessed it myself while a student, that a significant number of young people in some areas regard their Jobseeker’s Allowance as little more than beer tokens to fund nights out – in many cases the government may just as well deposit the money behind the bar at Wetherspoon’s to save the claimant the hassle of going through an intermediary.
The problem – and the great moral rot at the heart of the British welfare system – is that the state makes absolutely no distinction between the perfectly-fit, perfectly-able eighteen year-old who can’t quite be bothered to look for a job, and people of more nuanced and complex circumstances. Worse still, the system treats people who have worked hard for many years, often contributing enormous tax payments to the Treasury throughout their lifetimes, in exactly the same perfunctory way that it treats a person spat out of compulsory education at sixteen without the curiosity or drive to find a career.
For the young, living-at-home jobseeker, £73 is probably enough money to do what the money is intended for – search for a job – though certainly not enough to buy fashionable brands, go on holiday or enjoy life. But for the highly-qualified, high-income worker whose luck runs out it is quite literally a laughable sum, doing almost nothing to slow the descent towards debt, despondency and sometimes far worse if they are unable to bounce back quickly enough.
And the British state watches this inequity play out all the time, but does not care. To the cold, dead eyes of the loving, altruistic, cradle-to-grave Brave New World welfare state that we built from the rubble of one great depression and two world wars, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this picture. This is the justice meted out every day when our universal welfare state treats everyone equally. Dulce et decorum est.
From the moment we can think, we in this country are conditioned to believe that our universal, non-contributory welfare state is a good thing, the epitome of altruism and compassion. We cast our eyes west across the Atlantic Ocean to America, beset with its own intractable social problems, and think ourselves superior and more enlightened. Then, sometimes, we cast our envious eyes north-east to Scandinavia and wonder if we could not make things “fairer” still in Britain.
Nonsense. Our welfare system takes good, decent people full of all kinds of potential, and grinds them up in a remorseless machine until there is often nothing left but a shell of a human being, often physically, mentally and spiritually sick, destined to be a net drain on the state and on society for the rest of their wasted lives.
Who stands for this abominable system? We all do. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn, all running for the Labour Party leadership, they certainly do. David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, despite tinkering around the edges in government with the Universal Credit, lack either the ambition or vision to do much else. Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon, the two current populist champions of British politics, certainly don’t have any bright ideas of their own.
If we absolutely must still tolerate the decaying, paternalistic Big Government apparatus bequeathed to us by the Beveridge Report, shouldn’t we at least make sure that it does the stuff that is genuinely useful to the country and the people? Today, the state seems to spend half its time furiously persecuting perfectly decent people for doing not very much wrong at all, and the other half wilfully ignoring real, festering national, local and individual problems while they spin out of control.
Could a programme of variable and contribution-based welfare – perhaps incorporating higher payments in the short term to act as a cushion for those who were earning more before losing their jobs, and who have contributed vastly more into the system – not only be more “fair”, but also save the taxpayer money in the long term? And far more importantly, could such an approach not also prevent much unnecessary human suffering?
People talk about the welfare system as being a “safety net” without thinking, and for some people it may function as such tolerably well, if they ever use it at all. But for many thousands and millions of others, our universal and non-contributory system – which remarkably, despite being the product of classic Big Government, takes absolutely no account of our individual lives and circumstances – is no such thing.
If you are born into deprived circumstances, our social safety net is far more likely to resemble deadly quicksand, seeming benign at first but quickly trapping the victim without hope, dragging them ever deeper with each desperate exertion to break free. And if you are even moderately well-off but suddenly fall on hard times, Britain’s universal welfare system certainly isn’t like landing in a soft safety net – it’s more like smacking into a concrete floor from a fifty-foot drop.
It it easy to delude ourselves that our taxes are funding an enlightened and compassionate system which protects the most poor and vulnerable among us. But this is a lie. With every pound of income tax we pay and every National Insurance contribution we make, we are complicit in funding a cold, dead-eyed, homicidal machine that doles out the same deadly dose of compassion to everyone, irrespective of circumstance, £73 at a time.
If we are truly serious about protecting the weak, the vulnerable and the dispossessed – those whom we loftily claim to care about – we first need to kill the machine. We need to kill it now.
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