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Benefits crackdown put in historical context

25 August 2010


From Canon David R. Tilley

Sir, — It is well known that in the 1920s, in the southern states of the United States, there was a sudden and unexpected rise in the lynching of negroes. It was unexplained until some time later people looked at the fluctuations in the price of cotton. When the price collapsed, the num­ber of lynchings went up; when the price fell, it went down. Coinci­dence?

In England, in the decades after the Black Death, the aristocracy lost income steadily because of a fall in the price of food, an increase in the cost of labour, and a shortage of tenants. At the same time, there was an unusually higher number of prosecutions for offences such as fornication, drunkenness, the bear­­ing of bastards, gambling, and the keeping of alehouses. Coinci­dence?

Why these events separated by centuries might be connected ap­pears to be something to do with the pressures on society, especially financial ones. Let us call it eco­nomic determinism.

The Government has just an­­nounced a crackdown on benefit fraud — and this at a time of social stress and economic suffer-ing, at least for most of us. Coincidence?

Of course we should crack down on cheats and benefit fraudsters. But experience tells us to watch this one like a hawk. Such crackdowns must operate with finesse and subtlety, not something for which central government is noted. Churches and the voluntary sector (both under pressure) must keep their eyes and ears peeled. “Ain’t it all a blooming shame!”

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