The end of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor?

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran an editorial noting that attempts to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were ‘almost as old as the modern British state.’

And yet, with the introduction of Universal Credit ending the difference between in and out of work benefits and the potential extension of conditionality within the benefits system to those that are in-work, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor may be coming to an end. So far, the focus of the welfare reform bill has been on changes to disability benefits and also on the issue of benefit ‘caps’ of different types. The potential to compel people working part-time to find extra work with their employers or find a new job(s) has, to my knowledge, received little media coverage, with the exception of this article in The Guardian by Jonathan Rutherford. This post draws heavily on that article and the links within it.

The Coalition Government’s Child Poverty Strategy states that ‘The Universal Credit will support those who do the right thing, who take a full time job, to have an income which lifts them out of poverty’ and a Universal Credit Policy Briefing Note states:

Under Universal Credit, we will remove the separation between in work and out of work benefits, and we believe we should also extend conditionality so as to encourage or push Universal Credit claimants who are earning over £70 a week to work more and reduce their dependency on benefits


Our intention in extending conditionality is to continue this historic trend to increase activation within the benefits system. Setting the threshold higher up the income spectrum will enable us to encourage or push claimants, including some of those working a few hours a week, to work more and reduce their dependency on benefits. This will enable us to apply full work-related conditionality, where we consider that appropriate.

(my emphases)

The earnings threshold will be set at 35hrs x National Minimum Wage (currently equivalent to £212.80 per week). Anyone earning over this threshold will ‘fall into the no conditionality group’. Anyone earning below this threshold could be subject to conditionality which could require them to seek full time work within 90 minutes travel time from their home. The population will, in theory, be split between those that earn enough to warrant no intervention from the state and those that earn too little and require state help to ‘do the right thing’ and find full-time work. The ‘poor’, whether in work or not, will be ‘managed’ using the same tool, with ‘conditionality focused on those not earning as much as we might expect them to’.

This policy proposal appears to be built on the belief that those who are working part-time are doing so because they are lazy and in Lord Freud’s words ‘are clearly capable of working or earning more’. However, when the latest employment figures suggest that 1.3 million people are currently working part time because they cannot find full time work (the highest since figures began in 1992), and JRF suggest that ‘in the first half of 2011, some 6 million people were underemployed’, a fairly coherent argument could be made that perhaps ‘laziness’ is not the main problem within the current system.

To the best of my knowledge, these proposals are not fully worked up at present and one of the briefing notes suggest that the DWP ‘will in due course provide further details of the regime we will implement under this framework’. Lord Freud has stated that;

It is worth stressing that although we will be able to impose conditionality on those in work, we will not be obliged to do so. Clearly, that is important. Although we believe conditionality can play a key role in getting in-work claimants to progress, we do not yet have a final view as to how or when this is best done…. However, I am clear that the Bill needs to provide us with the powers to apply conditionality to in-work claimants

So, it’s not altogether clear what may or may not happen in relation to this, so we’ll have to wait and see. There is also no guarantee that any such move to extend conditionality to working people will prove as popular with the general public as reforms aimed at unemployed people appear to be, which is something Jonathan Rutherford highlighted in his article.

The picture at the top of the post formed part of the Conservative campaign leading up to the last General Election. It is maybe worth considering how popular the slogan would be if it read ‘Let’s cut benefits for those who refuse to work longer (or harder)’. It is also perhaps worth considering if certain sections of the media’s coverage of benefit recipients will, in time, move from the ‘scroungers’ to the ‘skivers’….


7 responses to “The end of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor?

  • Ben Baumberg

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this – will keep an eye out for it, particularly because it could be yet another policy that hits disabled people particularly hard (given that part-time work is one way in which sick and disabled people manage to stay working at all).

  • Ruth Lister

    Not sure this all means end of distinction between deserving and undeserving poor – just that the lines are being drawn differently and in many ways more tightly with fewer in the ‘deserving’ category witness the demonisation of people claiming disability-related benefits.
    Incidentally, Freud has said that they won’t introduce in-work conditionality immediately and plan to pilot it. Clearly they don’t really know what they’re doing yet.
    Ruth Lister

  • Stephen Crossley

    Hi, and many thanks for the comments. I agree that it is one to keep an eye on and the full implications are not yet clear. I remember when the government’s child poverty strategy came out and I read the ‘do the right thing and get a full time job’ comments, I didn’t immediately appreciate or understand the specific reference to full-time work but this perhaps explains it.

    I also agree that it may not end up being the end of the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor but it will be very interesting to see what the end of ‘in work’ and ‘out of work’ benefits means symbolically. I also wonder what the relatively recent political pre-occupation with the ‘squeezed middle’ will mean in the longer term for the most marginalised in our society.

  • Ruth Lister

    Yes Stephen I have a real worry that the ‘squeezed middle’ ‘narrative’ is encouraging resentment against those at the bottom as well as those at the top. And the idea of squeezed is being interpreted not just as being squeezed in terms of what is happening to wages, prices and living standards in ‘the middle’ but also that they are being squeezed by those either side of them who, it is felt, are being protected in a way that they are not. So the hardship experienced at the bottom is obscured cf the strong public support for the benefit cap. Would be interested to know what others think about that.

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