Beveridge would be turning in his grave. The benefits system that his 1942 report introduced has become a travesty. Right now there are some 4.5m people in the UK living in households where nobody has a job. Behind that figure lies a subsection of society mired in multi-generational unemployment. What was meant to be a safety net has become a poverty trap. Far from being the short-term stopgap that Beveridge envisaged, benefits have created a culture of long-term welfare dependency. And that leads to misery. A 2012 survey showed that the unemployed in Britain are 3.6 times more likely than those with jobs to say they are seriously unhappy. If you want to help the poor, don’t just throw money at them. Incentivise and help them into work, and reform the system in which many people are actually better off not working at all than taking a job. Such an environment of worklessness simply makes it harder for the next generation to break out of the cycle.
That’s the argument that was made by journalist James Bartholomew and social scientist Dr Adam Perkins, who has made a study of the adverse effect on personality of state benefits. Taking them on was Jess Phillips MP, dubbed Labour’s ‘future red queen’, and Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, who argued that benefits aren’t a handout but a hand-up. It’s all very well saying that benefits perpetuate misery. The fact is that one in five people in the UK still lives under the poverty line. And what after all caused this privation in the poorest parts of the country? Not benefits, but the free-market economics introduced by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s, which led to the closing of mines and the devastation of industries in northern cities. The benefits systems isn’t perpetuating misery. It’s picking up the pieces of the neoliberal juggernaut. Attacks on benefits are a continuing assault on society’s neediest — part of a concerted campaign to dismantle the welfare state, as typified by the Chancellor’s now abandoned proposal that more than 600,000 disabled people collectively lose £1.3bn a year from their payments. Is that how society protects its most vulnerable? This isn’t benevolent reform; it’s austerity making the worst-off pay.