Why does the UK still have such a shameful attitude towards poverty and benefits? | Polly Toynbee


OWhat is the problem with this country? A rising tide of poor families are being plunged into deeper deprivation due to the meanness of the UK benefit system and our punitive public attitudes. We have misplaced what George Orwell thought was our “common decency,” in a culture where politicians and the media have conspired for years to stoke fear of moral hazard paying benefits to “scroungers,” dampening public sympathy. for misfortune.

This is why our benefits are now more rigorously insurmountable than at any time since the 1930s, according to The Transformation of British Welfare Policy, by Tom O’Grady, associate professor of political science at University College London. This alarming regression is what happens when the government strips £37billion from the benefits system, targeting its austerity cuts on those who can least afford them.

The Guardian’s heat or food diaries chronicle the difficult lives of people who fall below the tolerable standard of living. But I always find – however often over the years I’ve reported on this – that I come across a new revelation that shocks me again.

This week he found doctors appalled at the growing number of distraught parents with critically ill children unable to get them to urgent hospital appointments because they cannot afford to travel or take one day off. Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, tells me it is now so bad that they are gathering the evidence to warn its members. With unprecedented waiting lists, paediatricians are prioritizing their most urgent cases, but the families of these sickest children often cannot muster the £31 that she says each hospital visit costs on average. This should shock an audience that believes in a free NHS.

Attitudes have softened somewhat during the years of austerity. But social research group NatCen and Professor O’Grady find opinion tracks media discourse more than the objective reality of poverty statistics. Although people are more forgiving during recessions, research shows that most of the blame lies with Daily Mail-style shock benefit stories – like a person on disability benefits caught running a marathon – which doesn’t do not highlight the very low figures for benefit fraud. I once caught Iain Duncan Smith telling these stories to select media, but missing the Guardian. Poverty porn reality programs also bear heavy blame, with their colorfully selected characters and highly selective editing – Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits, Benefits Britain and Benefits Street being among the culprits.

Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley’s famous song about crooks, from the rostrum of the 1992 Conservative Conference, marked the first salvo in the fight against the post-war safety net. He announced, “I’m shutting down the something-for-nothing society,” with a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan mocking “young women who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue.” As inequality soared and union power crumbled in the 1980s, attitudes toward benefits hardened. This has prompted Labor in power to tiptoe into benefits, giving quietly to lift a million children and pensioners out of poverty, but waving big sticks threatening ‘conditionality’,’no fifth option», « a helping hand, not a helping hand ». They never dared to change their tune to talk about empathy, kindness or human bad luck.

Take an example of a cut from the last decade, the two-child limit which, unique in Europe, removed benefits for having three or more children. Bowing to populist bias, here is a typical example of conservative policy-making without evidence. Breaking the theoretical link between benefits and need, that alone pushed an additional 1.1 million children into poverty, O’Grady finds. This is the language George Osborne and the Department for Work and Pensions used to see benefit recipients “making the same choices that working families have to make every day”. Osborne even used Mick Philpott, convicted of the manslaughter of six children, as ammunition against benefits: “There is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidizing lifestyles like that.” The Mail labeled Philpott the “vile product of British welfare”, symbolizing all claimants.

But last week, new research from the London School of Economics once again exploded false justifications for the two-child limit. There have been no noticeable effect on fertility but a slight increase in abortions in the families concerned. The majority of affected families are working. Half never knew the limit of two children before conceiving. Many were not applying for benefits when they conceived, later losing a job or a partner. As expected, many conceived while experiencing abuse they dared not report. Maximum damage has been done to already poor families, without any of the moral improvements proposed by the DWP, which claimed that the changes “would improve the life chances of children because they ensure that households make choices based on their circumstances rather than taxpayer subsidies”. .

Similar bullshit permeates other Conservative policies that cause poverty: the five-week wait for Universal Credit; the debts of this expectation recovered on the benefits; the frozen cap on benefits crushing families as costs rise; rent allowances lagging even further behind rent increases; and the £20 reduction in Universal Credit ‘enhancement’.

Our shameful rates of poverty have produced globally respected research into its nature, causes and remedies, stretching all the way back to poverty maps of Charles Booth, the York Inquiries of Seebohm Rowntree, the ongoing work of the Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the health studies of Michael Marmot, and a plethora of scholarly research that build on the unique longitudinal studies in Britain monitoring cohorts of babies for their entire lives. The untimely death of the academic John Hills marks the loss of the greatest authority, auditor of all aspects of inequality, arbiter of the progress of each government, or now of regression. We know everything we need to know.

It just makes this government all the more despicable. Sympathy is growing – but only, according to NatCen, among Labor voters, not among Tory supporters. Marcus Rashford shows the dial can move, but he needs more such champions.


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