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.

The Obligatory “Predictions for 2012” Post

So….what’s going to happen in 2012? I thought I’d try my hand at crystal-ball gazing.

At least some of  the following predictions may be no more informed than those of the next pub bore, so feel free to agree or disagree in the comments threads.  Also feel free to add your own predictions. In December 2012 I may well dig up this thread and find out whether these forecasts were accurate or not.

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Book Review: Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson

This book was part of the reading list that I’ve put together as part of my attempt to define the Not So Big Society.

Jackson attempts to reconcile a key area of disagreement between economists and environmentalists. Economists tend to view prosperity as inextricably linked to economic growth. Ecologists and environmentalists insist that simply isn’t sustainable – the planetary resources are finite, oil production will eventually peak, and potentially catastrophic climate change is waiting in the wings. Sooner or later economic growth will hit the buffers. I was curious to see if this book would have anything to say about how we’re going to look after the most vulnerable members of society in the trials to come.
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Pondering the Not So Big Society – A Reading List

As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve been musing the snarky title I gave this blog, and trying to flesh it out into an actual idea.

Something that I suspect will be of key relevance is the idea of the ‘Triple Crunch’ – the suggestion that industrial civilisation will face a threefold challenge of financial chaos, peak oil and climate change in the coming years and decades. I’m trying to avoid some of the usual cliches when talking about this subject matter, so I’ll merely state that “Perfect Storm” is a rather good movie starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

The question is how to look after each other – and particularly the most vulnerable people in society – during the ongoing chaos. At present the Not So Big Society is a snappy title in search of a theory, but then the same is equally true of Cameron’s Big Society and Miliband’s Good Society.

If the theory is to be fleshed out, I think it’s time to do some reading (and in some cases viewing and listening). Here’s my reading list for what I hope will turn into an ongoing series of posts.
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