Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Tories bring back Victorian Poor Law without the workhouse

The attitude and policies of this government to the poorest and the least fortunate takes us back to the days of the Poor Law. Putting the poor to work is possessed of an attitude that the poorest are feckless and work-shy and must be put to work for their own benefit.

It is not only a divisive approach, setting the more fortunate against the least fortunate, but it is profoundly unethical and counter-productive. It has its populist appeal. But it is profoundly wrong. It tars the majority of unemployed with the brush of the minority.

I hear it said commonly in radio phone in programmes 'there's plenty of work out there if only they were willing to look for it.' And that about sums up as much as they 'know'. They know if for sure; there is work out there. Of course there is, but where is it?

Unemployment is said to be falling. The headline figures demonstrate this. But it is not falling uniformly across the country. In some regions it has risen and not fallen. One problem for the unemployed is that it is impossible to move from regions of high unemployment to find work. Costs are simply too high for such a move. So families are stuck.

But the Tory government adopts the old 'get on your bike' mentality, which suggests that somehow those who were in work before the recession suddenly became work shy during it.

The government says it wants to make 'work pay'. What they really mean is that they want to give the unemployed less in the mistaken belief that this will drive them back to work.

Now it may be true that for some there is little incentive to take employment when earnings will be less than that received in benefits. But to suggest this is the main reason for unemployment is to blame the poorest for the recession and assume that somehow they are masters of their own fate.

The poorest and least fortunate are being made to pay for the mess that the banking sector got us into. But the reason is that the Tory attitude to the poor isn't driven by understanding of the recession, it is driven by ideology. If IDS had the chance he would bring  back the workhouse. Driving people into 'work for their benefits' simply makes the low pay problem worse.

For the wealthiest this is great. We are heading for an economy based on virtual slave wages. Millions of decent, hard working people take home insufficient to meet their basic needs. That is the definition of poverty. To solve this problem we need to create an economy that pays wages that at the least meet basic needs of housing and feeding a family.

Mr Duncan Smith talks of 'fairness' without understanding what it means. He assumes it means 'treating people the same'. But this leads to the kind of indiscriminate cuts in benefits this government has imposed, such as the bedroom tax that takes little account of real need.

Meanwhile Osborne says he will create a budget surplus. This becomes a goal for which there is little need. Running budget deficits is not in itself a problem. If you run a budget deficit because of increased spending on health and welfare, the economy benefits from a healthier and more productive  workforce. This is something that enlightened Victorians realised, which is why they set about investing in infrastructure, public works that improved the health of the nation.

It would be better for Osborne to adopt three goals: 1) to create a full-employment economy based on 2) a living wage and to 3) improve housing and health of the population. These are real goals; running a budget surplus for its own sake  is a foolish goal that can only be achieved through austerity. In any event, if you want to run a budget surplus then full employment and increased productivity, a healthy sustainable workforce, is more likely to be successful because it increases revenue.

Postscript

The way government ministers talk about the unemployed suggests that they haven't been looking for work, and that somehow they have slipped into a 'culture' of 'getting something for nothing'. This really isn't born out by the figures supplied by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Of the nearly 2.5 million unemployed people,  less than 1 in 5 (18%) had been looking for work for over 2 years. This is the 'hard core' of the long-term unemployed.  The largest group (47%) have been unemployed for under 6 months. There is very little here to suggest the unemployed wish to remain on benefits, or that they are feckless and work shy.

A feature of this recession is that more people than ever before are only able to get part-time employment, or their jobs are temporary leading to further periods of unemployment. Again there is little to suggest that these people are feckless and work shy or adopting a culture of dependency! 

On the contrary where we have a culture of dependency is for businesses who depend on paying low wages to workers. It is business that is being subsidised by welfare payments. Businesses needs to adjust to paying a 'living wage' to their workforce. Currently we have a labour market that is distorted and fosters low pay.

Read also:

The unethical language of 'welfare dependency'
The Conservatives brand the unemployed as 'shirkers'

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