Benefit Caps and the Politics of Envy

Yesterday the House of Lords debated the government’s flagship policy about imposing a benefits cap of £26,ooo. Iain Duncan-Smith fanfared the populist agenda by rattling on about this being equivalent to a salary (after tax) of £35,ooo and the tired lines about why anyone who doesn’t work should get the equivalent of £35,ooo from ‘state handouts’. While the Lords passed one amendment, the Bill and policy as a whole is flawed.

It’s very easy politics. It appeals to human nature at its most selfish. The simple logical progression.

I work hard. I earn £25,000. Mr Smith next door doesn’t work. He gets £26,000. It’s not fair.

Tying the benefit cap into the national average wage is clever and is nothing to do about economics and everything to do with the psychological weight of envy.

Why should I work, it then follows, if I would get more on ‘benefits’?.

This turns the idea of the welfare state around and but the simplicity of the ‘envy equation’ means that few people look beyond it.

This is crude policy making by people who will never need to bat an eyelid in the direction of subsistence on ‘benefits’ playing their usual ‘divide and rule’ between those who are at the lower and average pay levels in order to distract attention from those at the top end of the ‘haves’ scale including themselves.

So why do I think a benefits cap is unfair? It looks, on the face of it, so obvious.

- It punishes children born into larger families.

Even with the Lords amendment excluding ‘child benefit’ from the capped amount, child benefit rate (£20.30 for first child + £13.40 for subsequent children) doesn’t cover the costs of the child and the particular problem raised is the cost of accommodation and larger families need larger houses.

-Housing

This is one of my chief objections to this policy.  Housing Benefit or Local Housing Allocation (LHA) as it is now known is built into the ‘capped amount’.  The escalation of property prices and the lack of affordable local authority and housing association stock pushes many people into the private sector. The government has already announced plans to increase subsidised rents. Some places (London, for example) cost more to live than other areas.  Houses with more bedrooms cost more to live in than houses with fewer bedrooms. Seems obvious of course but it means for some people the level of the ‘cap’ will be disproportionately spent on rent costs – forcing people and more likely than not, families – and the larger families at that – to poorer (and cheaper – and  more likely Labour..) areas of the country.

Regardless of the exemption of Child Benefit (if that amendment survives) it is the inclusion of LHA which is, in my mind, the really perfidious action of this policy.

I live in London. I work in London. It is expensive to live here. I don’t want my city to be housing only those either who have substantial amounts of money or those in social housing (especially as the stock of social housing is so low).

The obvious thing would be for the government to crack down on landlords who set rental as high as possible for low quality housing in order to benefit from LHA allocations. They are the real scroungers living off the state, in my view. Yes, I feel strongly because I’ve been priced out of many areas of London myself but I don’t play the game the government want me to by blaming the recipients of LHA – rather I blame a spiralling cost of rent and greedy buy-to-let landlords.

Imposing controls on rent would hurt the Tory party faithful. Divide and rule. Divide and rule. See how well the government play the blame game.

Deserving v Undeserving Poor

The game of playing the ‘deserving v undeserving poor’ is one enjoyed by those in politics.  How the politicians love referring to ‘scroungers’ and people who live on benefits in demeaning terms while absolving themselves of any responsibility for an economic malaise which has led to increased job losses and struggles to revive the economy.

It’s all very well imposing sanctions on those who don’t work (actually no it isn’t) but when there isn’t work to be had it’s hard to escape from the vicious cycle. Many people are losing their jobs in this recession and being unable to find other work would force people to claim benefits which they are wholly entitled to but the government wishes to stigmatise everyone who needs to claim a benefit whether due to unemployment, disability or sickness.

Unemployment isn’t a lifestyle choice. It isn’t easy to ‘choose’ employment as even if you desperately want to work, the jobs may not be there.

There are more jobs in the south-east where house prices are higher and fewer jobs in the north where house prices are lower. ‘Getting on your bike’ which is the eternal call of the right-wing is going to be more difficult and potentially create ghettoes of worklessness in the areas of the country with the cheaper housing.

Politics of envy is easy but it is ignoble. By encouraging the population to envy those who have less rather than those who have more (i.e. the class of politicians) they are diverting our attention from the real battles we should be fighting. This isn’t a Conservative (+ LD) v Labour battle as the Labour party has, unfortunately, jumped on the bandwagon to make similar points.

Being popular doesn’t make a policy right. Unfortunately, we get the politicians we elect. And we are seeing the measure of them now. All of them.

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3 Responses to “Benefit Caps and the Politics of Envy”

  1. I agree that consecutive governments have created a situation where Housing benefit has run out of control. Selling off council houses, failure to control rents. The solution is a cruel one likely to cause suffering by the crude benefits cap, divide and rule indeed, cause maximum conflict between different groups of the poor/poorish/low paid whilst the good times roll for the super rich.

    However, is it so wrong to expect people to only have children they can afford to have,? My father left the army in 1948 having given his youth and educational chances over to fighting Nazism, worked non stop, often 6 days a week until 65 and continued to work and pay tax even now at 88. We had a small 3 bed semi and my grandmother lived with us. I shared a bedroom with my sister until I was 14 , it caused stress and conflict, it affected my education as my older sister had to be given the dining room to do her homework in, etc etc. If my parents had had a third child, we would have been grossly overcrowded, so they didnt. . There was one week’s holiday a year if we were lucky, very few outings, Mum made a lot of our clothes, etc. I can still feel the palpable tension in my mother as we shopped for my grammar school uniform which came to £33 in 1966.

    Child benefit was never designed to cover all the costs of having a child. A reasonable balance between incentive to work and a safety net means people need to consider whether they can afford the children they choose to have – contraception is available free. Sorry, but for some, unemployment is a lifestyle choice – increasingly for many it is not, but there is no real doubt that for some of those with access to social housing it has in the past been a rational decision to exploit the benefits system as far as possible and avoid the miseries of low paid work. Thre are plenty of days when I reckon I would swap a life onsubsistence benefits for the stresses of my job. Sadly, this is the worst possible time to address this problem, the jobs really aren’t there for the most part. But really – there should never be any sanctions for those who refuse to work? Never?

    Some people wont like this post. I know the bankers are to blame. I know there is gross tax evasion and it is a disgrace. The ATOS assessment system seems grossly flawed and should be reviewed immediately. People should get the benefits they are entitled to and people going hungry in the UK because of administrative delays is a total scandal. But never to address the peverse incentives in the system, or to make a judgement on elgibility or availability to work is simply unsustainable, and unfair.

  2. Hi
    Thanks for your response. My concern with the cap is the way that housing benefit is tied into it to be honest. I also think it is wrong to blanket punish unemployment – tying those who cannot get work in with those who can’t. It is a very difficult distinction to make but it is important that those who wish to work and cannot nor those who have been made redundant have done nothing wrong to be punished.
    As for family sizes, it’s easy to say ‘only have children if you can afford them’ b but circumstances change. People who have jobs and can afford larger families can lose their jobs (or their partners). It is not right to punish children because their parents chose larger families.
    The government propaganda machines make far more of those who choose not to work because it wants to attribute blame. I prefer to think of people as generally honest with many a few exceptions rather than assume the worst.

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