Last week’s Panorama presented an enlightening fly-on-the-wall exposé into the lives of various families affected by the government’s lowering of the benefits cap in November last year. Entitled “The Benefits Cap: Is it working?” the programme explored five real life scenarios to assess the impact of this highly controversial Tory policy that has seen housing benefit slashed as part of a total benefits package that can no longer exceed £20,000 per year (£23,000 if you live in Greater London).
- Mr & Mrs Malingering-Git: If ever there was a stereotype to fit Daily Mail Man’s common perception of the benefits scrounger, this pair was it. Their benefits have been cut from an eye popping £500 a week to £380 a week. They could get their lost benefits back if they worked a whopping 24 hours a week between Mr Malingering-Git hasn’t worked for nine years since having injured his hand at his previous employ and decided that jobs don’t exist for somebody with a sore paw. He owns a Wii games console, but only to assist in regaining his “manual dexterity” you understand. He spends £40 a week on booze’n’fags but justified this as being “my business” and rebuking the interviewer with “how much do you spend on it?” when challenged. Mrs Malingering-Git also hasn’t worked for nine years (coincidence? Methinks not) and apparently suffers from a long-term condition called ME which makes doing everyday tasks like smoking fags and sofa warming “challenging”. When not suckling her litter of four young kids, Mrs Malingering-Git just suffers from Acute Malingeringitis or Lazy Fat Arse Syndrome. Given the youngsters’ ages, and the Malingering-Gits chronic and enduring state dependence, I was left with the lingering suspicion that their kids were born out of a legacy welfare system that ballooned monstrously under New Labour and which financially incentivised the dropping of more and more offspring. This gravy train is now rightly hitting the buffers, but the righteous indignation and sense of entitlement of the M-Gs was breathtaking. “It’s so unfair” is their justification for the unjustifiable. The relationship between having kids and affordability is anathema. But if the previous system facilitated a comfortable dwelling on Handout Avenue and nurtured a financial and attitudinal dependence on State Street, is it any wonder that the M-Gs now perceive themselves as victims?
- The Breeder: Another darling of Daily Mail Man outrage, this single mother is 35 and hasn’t worked for 17 years. In other words, she hasn’t done a single day’s graft in her entire adult life. What she does have to show for 17 years of state sponsored sponging, however, is a horde of seven young kids. Yes, seven. It wouldn’t be hugely controversial to imagine they were the fleeting product of seven, long scarpered fathers. All her rugrats have been in care because she hasn’t got a pot to piss in and, frankly, is unfit to be a mother. She could get her benefits back if she worked 16 hours a week. She chooses not to and falls into her own trap: no job, no benefits, no kids. The Breeder is the true product of the something-for-nothing welfare system: A Breeder’s Charter amounting to the commercialisation of progeny in lieu of working. The Breeder was full of entitlement and invective against her social worker as the choice between sucking up the benefits cap and employed self-sufficiency dawned in her pea-like brain. No more does opening her legs translate to ker-ching in her Giro.
- The Single Mum: Only four kids shy of Breeder status and inspired by Mrs Malingering-Git, Single Mum hasn’t got off her arse for ten years. Having been assaulted eight years ago, she can’t work apparently due to back pain, albeit that she has been assessed as fit to work in a limited capacity. Her work shyness is validated by the biological privilege of owning and utilising a uterus. She refuses to work as a mother’s privilege. Affordability is irrelevant. When the interviewer suggests that self-certified, full-time motherhood is perhaps an unaffordable luxury, Single Mum, compulsory fag in hand, dead-eyes the camera and pronounces that “everybody needs to stop having kids then”. Well, yes actually, they do if they share your expectation that the tax payer should cough up to fund your biological right.
- The Single Dad: Hasn’t worked for six years and has four kids. Unlike Single Mum, he has been active in looking for a job and acknowledges that work should pay. Unlike Mr Malingering-Git, he has given up the vices. The problem Single Dad has is to balance a would-be working life with the demands of his children. And this is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the system. For if Single Dad does 16-21 hours of work a week, he will keep his salary and his benefits. Barclays duly offered him a job but for 25 hours a week. Single Dad calculated that he would be £200 a week better off. But he couldn’t balance this demand with the additional childcare required, which would leave him worse off if he took the job. The government’s mantra that it must be work that pays is self-evidently correct, but the example of Single Dad shows that there are other socio-economic pressures at play that make it impossible to view the effectiveness of such a policy in splendid isolation.
- The Kinship Carer: Thanks to her daughter being incapable of looking after her own four kids, granny has been saddled otherwise they would have to go into care. Officially designated carers (e.g. a parent that cares for a sick child on a full-term basis) are exempt from the cap. Kinship carers (where relatives step in) on the other hand are not exempt, albeit that they receive a guardian’s allowance. Considering the extensive cost to the state if these kids were taken into care (at least £100k per annum), this is counter-intuitive and just bloody unfair. Watching the Kinship Carer’s daily struggle having been forced to give up work to look after four extra mouths “which I didn’t ask for” was crushing. She can escape the benefits cap if she finds a job. How can she do this when her youngest charge is three? The Kinship Carer said she was “ready to shoot” herself. She didn’t look like she was joking.
Like a lot of government policy, especially a reformative and politically incendiary one like the benefits cap, initial results are a mix of the good, the bad, the ugly and of unintended consequences. The Malingering-Gits, Breeder and Single Mum are precisely the types that this policy is zeroing in on, I suspect to much popular approval. These people are the long term idle; the users and abusers of an absurdly inequitable legacy system, designed more as a cynical New Labour ploy to buy votes than as a welfare safety net of last resort. It’s now time for them to reap what they have sown and take responsibility. Good-o. Single Dad is the victim of an inherent contradiction in the policy’s theory- that it pays to work, but not too much beyond a 21 hours-a-week cliff edge when other pressures and practicalities come into play. If the government is consistent in its mission, then Single Dad should never have to turn down the opportunity to work. Perhaps childcare vouchers could square the practical contradiction between work and childcare demands and ensure that a job is always economically viable. The situation of the Kinship Carer is unintended collateral damage and must be reviewed.
What all these five exemplars have in common, of course, is young children. And, as always when it comes to chronically deficient parents (be it by design or default), it is the children that suffer the most. 250,000 are estimated to be effected by the cap. Somehow the government needs to unspring this trap. Whilst it is morally wrong for the Malingering-Gits and Breeder to use their kids as welfare pawns and a smokescreen for their own murky ethics of state dependency, kids’ basic health and well-being cannot be compromised to prove some kind of Malthusian political point.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the lowering of the benefits cap is only saving the government £150 million of loose change per year in the context of the working age benefits budget of £100 billion. The policy must be more of an exercise in breaking and recalibrating the cultural mindset of the underclass than it is to save a few quid. Taking the government’s force-fed medicine around notions of responsibility, autonomy, self-sufficiency and affordability as they relate to the constructs of family and welfarism is a sustainable treatment to save far more money- and build a healthier society- for the long term.
Having kids and out-of-work benefits are as symbiotic as a shell suit around a Bunsen burner. Kids don’t work. It’s about time the Malingering-Gits, Breeders and Single Mums of this country took their medicine.