Understanding welfare differently

Last week, Paul Spicker gave a presentation at Newcastle University Business School, offering an alternative view of the role of welfare and the ‘need’ for some of the reforms that are currently taking place. I’m not going to try and summarize Paul’s presentation, mainly because I wouldn’t do it justice but suffice to say that he showed, using DWP data, that the suggestion that welfare somehow trapped people or led to long term ‘benefit dependency’ was unsupported by any evidence.

Paul began his presentation by highlighting that his work was very unfashionable and that people had largely stopped working on the issue of ‘social security’. One of the things I’d like to highlight here, is just why Paul’s work and those of others like him (Declan Gaffney, for example) is so important and I’ll try and do this by offering up a couple of other useful resources which help to counter the dominant narrative about the unaffordability of our benefits system and the abuse of it by individuals and families who receive benefits. Firstly, Paul’s blog deserves a plug and you can sign up for it here.

Before I do this, however, an example of the ‘dominant narrative’ was waiting for me when I returned to work in the afternoon – the Centre for Social Justice had sent an email newsletter which opened with the following statement:

Universal Credit – designed by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) – will rejuvenate Britain’s ruptured welfare system and give millions of people the tools to escape poverty

Paul pointed out during his presentation that Universal Credit actually manages to include almost every single recent failure in the benefits system, including: requirements to work for those who can’t; medical reassessment; penalties not linked to knowledge; and complex assessments with multiple dimensions. So this would suggest that UC might not do everything that the CSJ are proposing it will.

John Veit-Wilson who also attended the session forwarded me a couple of articles in the Scotsman following Iain Duncan Smith’s visit to Glasgow to speak at a conference. One noted that:

Iain Duncan Smith … is a decent man, or so people say, who is on a crusade to reform the benefits system. Unfortunately, he is also presiding over the biggest assault on the poorest people in living memory and causing untold misery to families the length and breadth of the country. While the Work and Pensions Secretary and his aides talk about scroungers and cheats, huge cuts to the living standards of people already on the edge are being masqueraded as reform

The other link was to the letters page of the Scotsman and it included a letter from Adrian Sinfield which included the following comment:

The coalition government needs to tackle the regressive unfairness of the overall tax system where the poorest fifth contributes more of its income than the richest fifth – 38.2 per cent as opposed to 33.6 per cent, according to the government’s own 

This linked to one of John’s comments at the event about the need to remember that there are two welfare states – one for the rich and one for the poor. Kevin Farnsworth from the University of Sheffield has also identified a third form of welfare – corporate welfare and he estimates that British corporations save more in tax breaks and loopholes than they actually pay in tax. Kevin notes that

Just as social welfare protects citizens from the cradle to the grave, corporate welfare protects and benefits corporations throughout their life course. And
yet, in most countries, corporate welfare is hidden and underresearched.

Finally, a couple of pieces of further reading, if anyone is interested:

  • False Economy, the campaigning group launched a briefing note highlighting ‘5 things you need to know about welfare cuts and the economy’, which is, in my opinion, a very useful resource.
  • One thing Paul didn’t touch on in his presentation was the level at which benefits are set and there have been three very interesting blogs on this recently – one by Chris Goulden from JRF looking at the heardening of attitdues towards ‘benefits scroungers’, one by Ben Baumberg on the Inequalities blog looking at whether or not people overestimate the level of benefits and one by Donald Hirsch, also on the JRF site, on the proposals to uprate benefits in line with earnings rather than prices – a situation he refers to as ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’
  • And, the evening before Paul’s event, I read an article by Jay Wiggan called ‘Telling stories of 21st century welfare: The UK Coalition government and the neo-liberal discourse of worklessness and dependency’ which explores the language used in the both the Green and White papers linked to the current welfare reforms. Very interesting reading indeed…..

Best wishes,



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