Call me naive, but what staggered me about the coalition’s proposal to cap annual benefits at £26,000 is that any family on public support would ever exceed such an income. But that was before I appreciated the dumbfounding buffet of benefits the exchequer puts on offer: jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment support allowance, council tax benefit, carer’s allowance, working tax credit, child benefit, child tax credit…An industrious household that plays this system can, according to both the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, pull in up to £800 a week, or £41,600 per year. So apparently limiting welfare payments to the amount that George Osborne cites as what “the average family gets for going out to work” would crimp the style of some 50,000 families.
First, one mystery solved. I’ve long been perplexed why so many immigrants gather around Calais trying to stow away in lorries headed for Britain, when these migrants are already in France — a rather pleasant country in my experience, and doubtless a vast improvement on Afghanistan. Now I get it: because in the UK, your family can get merely £26,000 a year for doing nothing and it’s an outrage.
Of course, a big source of this welfare bloat is housing benefit. Britons are used to this system, but as an American I’m still astonished that, rather than providing workless families a set allowance, here the state simply pays their market rent, whatever it is. This is not the way most countries do things. The policy has led to numerous high-profile scandals of families on public support living literally in mansions, of which most of us could only afford to snap photos from the pavement.
But let’s skip a long middle-class whinge about the unfairness of it all — about how in inflated property markets such as London’s hard-working families on modest incomes are priced out of the very homes that the unemployed poor inhabit for nothing. That would risk the ugly, sour resentment of Guy Drake’s song Welfare Cadillac. There’s nothing faintly enviable about being on “benefits”, a less than apt expression, since dependency on the state does not benefit anybody.
Osborne appears to be on a mission similar to the shake-up of American public assistance in 1996, though the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was even more drastic. This controversial bill limited the amount of time recipients could rely on public payouts over their lifetimes to five years, and required them to work (often at state-manufactured jobs) after being on the dole for two. The revolution was conceptual: an attempt to transform welfare from an often multi-generational way of life into a temporary, transitional safety net that would help to hoist the able-bodied into employment. As a consequence of the PRWORA, between 1997 and 2000 the number of people on American federal assistance would more than halve.
Yet I’ll never forget my father’s fury when Bill Clinton supported the bill. A lifelong liberal Democrat with a powerful Christian commitment to the poor, my father paced his living room railing that if Clinton signed that legislation he would “never contribute another dime to the Democratic Party.”
But my father was himself a workaholic. An ambitious academic who infuriated my mother because he was forever putting the finishing touches on an article while dinner was getting cold. A man who defined himself through his work, and had always taken his greatest pride in professional achievement. Why would the prospect of urging his less well-off compatriots to sample these same satisfactions so enrage him?
Left-wing pundits and politicians are often guilty of a condescending double-standard, anxious to provide the poor a kind of life they’d never, ever covet for themselves. The fact that 28 per cent of the UK population live off the state is appalling, and not for economic reasons alone. What’s appalling is that such a considerable proportion of this country is denied the dignity and self-respect of work. Like my father, without work I would be bereft — bored stiff, listless and underconfident.
This is hardly the economy in which to tsk-tsk about the shiftless unemployed, and countless Britons on benefits would like nothing better than to find jobs. But a hard core of the lifelong dependent here is cheated of the simple pleasures most of us enjoy every day: being paid for our labours, engaging with our neighbours, having something to do. UK benefits are just generous enough to alleviate one form of deprivation and to entrench another kind: deprivation of spirit. So, no, it can’t benefit any family to pull in over £40,000 in handouts. How to get Britain’s large, permanent underclass off the dole is an infernally difficult nut to crack, but that £26,000 cap is a start.