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The Benefits System Perpetuates Misery

Is our benefits system an effective safety net for society's neediest, or has it become a poverty trap which encourages long-term dependency?

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.


For the motion

James Bartholomew

Columnist for the Spectator

Columnist for the Spectator — where he coined the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ — and former leader-writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has studied the British welfare state since the 1990s and has been in the forefront of those arguing that welfare states can do harm despite their good intentions. He has appeared on numerous radio stations and television programmes including Radio 5 live, Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today programme and The Moral Maze. Author of The Welfare State We’re In and most recently The Welfare of Nations.

Adam Perkins

Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality

Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London. Author of The Welfare Trait: How State Benefits Affect Personality, which argues that discoveries from personality research could be used to increase the sustainability of the welfare state. The LSE recently postponed a lecture by Dr Perkins over fears of protest and disruption. Before becoming a scientist, he spent years working as an unskilled labourer and also claimed welfare when unemployed.
Against the motion

Jess Phillips

Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley. She has been hailed by JK Rowling as ‘a heroine’, for her pronouncements in the House of Commons. She is the author of the books Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth and Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on B.S.

Matthew Taylor

Chief Executive of the RSA and soon-to-be Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation

Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and soon-to-be Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation. Former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Daniel Glaser

One of the country’s most popular neuroscientists

One of the country’s most popular neuroscientists. He has presented and contributed to numerous BBC television and radio programmes, and was the first scientist to serve as a judge for the Man Booker Prize. In 2002, he was made the first Scientist in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Formerly the Head of Engaging Science at Wellcome Trust, he is now Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London.