Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Welfare myths

‘The welfare debate’. The very phrase, I have a problem with. It suggests there’s some kind of debate in the media, which there rarely is – it’s usually an exchange of horror stories about households who’ve ‘never worked in their lives’, have 'an infinite number of children' and are 'living beyond their means'. ‘Welfare’ itself has become a loaded term, being automatically
accompanied by a picture of someone slouched on their sofa, probably the same actor who appeared in the disgraceful latest Tory advert (see pictures). Never used to refer to pensioners, where the majority of welfare spending goes, but almost exclusively people alleged to be feckless and work-shy, sitting at home all day while 'hardworking families' next door work long hours.

A friend interviewing me for her dissertation recently asked me why I enjoy writing for Epigram, our student paper. As well as making students aware about things that it is in their interest to know – such as, that one of the university’s biggest societies had a policy in place to forbid inviting women speakers which we reported and, after The Guardian, Times, Mirror and others picked up, they reversed – I said, after thinking about it, that I like to make sure readers are more accurately-informed and not only see both sides of a news story but see it in a bigger context.

So, for example, if I was writing an article about welfare, readers wouldn’t just see the line, repeated endlessly on the BBC and elsewhere ‘that welfare accounts for more spending than health, education and defence combined’ and therefore assume that it has ‘rocketed’ or become ‘out of control’, as the Daily Mail shrieks. I might make them aware of how welfare spending compares with other departments but also how it is lower than it was under Thatcher in the 80s and Major in the 90s, to put it into perspective, and that it might go on what you'd think it does from the media coverage: the majority goes to pensioners and only 2.5% actually goes to the unemployed. Crucially, that they know that the Department for Work and Pensions’ own statistics show that less than 1 per cent (0.8% to be precise) of benefit spending is taken with fraud.

Why is this figure little-known? Why didn’t the DWP publicise it? Because this Tory-led government thinks it'll gain from telling those in work poverty that their neighbour is probably fiddling the system and that only they will tackle them. It's classic Tory divide-and-rule. They hope to appeal to just enough working-class voters to complement their core vote and win an election, turning in-work poor (whose very poverty is largely because of low wages consistently supported by Conservatives, who even opposed the minimum wage) against the unemployed; so called ‘strivers’ against ‘skivers’. 60% of households hit by the real terms cut on benefits (which Osborne claims to be introducing for ‘the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’) are in work. That’s right: they work, but wages are so low – the minimum wage is worth less in real terms than in 2004 – and rents so high that they may be in receipt of housing benefit. Or perhaps they have children and are among those who haven’t yet had their child benefit taken away. They are not the man in the advert, a tiny minority, refusing to work, and to claim that welfare cuts are only aimed at ‘scroungers’ like him is not only morally repugnant but factually incorrect.

Tory attacks on benefit claimants are also often aimed at a supposed ‘culture of worklessness’. Recent Employment Minister Chris Grayling claimed ‘there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’. Yet a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which saw dogged searching in localities with high rates of worklessness across decades shows this as completely unsupportable, with researchers even unable to find any families with three generations of worklessness, let alone four, and just 0.3% with two generations.

At a talk at university the other day, Times executive editor and Tory adviser Danny Finkelstein admitted that he thought the focus on a tiny number of cases is disproportionate; conceding that the media collectively represents these isolated cases as if they were widespread and as if they meant more money being lost than the tax dodging of the likes of Starbucks, Amazon and Google. Corporate tax avoidance, by the way, costs us £60-70 billion a year. Right-wing journalists know this. They also know about the DWP’s statistics but don’t report them because, as Tories, they want to continue to ill-inform the public into thinking that the reason their neighbour has their blinds drawn is not because they’re out on their bikes, doing what Tebbit ordered, looking for a job but struggling to find one, even with their degree, but because they’re too lazy to. And so they should vote Tory because only they will tackle the scrounger next door, while Labour ‘is the party of shirkers, not workers’…

This media-entrenched Tory narrative has historically worked. It worked so well that Labour gave up fighting it after four election defeats and began chasing after the right-wing press; Blair even flying over to Australia to meet Murdoch. And it began parroting this line, making the task for left-wingers like myself infinitely more difficult when our own party had been complicit in deepening these Tory-drawn divisions, somehow thinking that this would win over so-called ‘Middle England’.

Labour’s failure to, until recently, challenge the Tory/media narrative on all this, as well as being morally indefensible, was political suicide. Unless – which even the wildest Blair supporter would hardly have dreamt of – New Labour planned to move permanently to the right of the Tories, the minority that, no matter how many figures you show them, will always be convinced that the Daily Mail is right and benefit claimants are all ‘scroungers’ will never trust Labour to crack down hard enough, while the millions who know this Tory strategy to be a myth will stay at home rather than vote Labour and keep the Tories out. The tabloids relish nothing more than hunting down extreme examples of benefit fraud and passing them off not as isolated examples but representative of an endemic problem. As Owen Jones writes in his new preface to Chavs, which I can never recommend enough, ‘The “scrounger” has become the public face of the unemployed in Britain’. If Labour fails to take on these myths, such as the fallacy that he is somehow representative, as the likes of Jones and Mehdi Hasan are too lonely in doing, then the reality of poverty and homelessness existing in the quantities that they do will go unnoticed, and we’ll have yet more myths about ‘a spiralling welfare bill' and households 'work-shy for generations' prevailing in print and broadcast media alike.

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