IT IS little wonder that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George
Osborne, felt called to defend himself at such length on Tuesday.
"We're going to put things right. . . We are on your side. . .
We're getting there. . . We are delivering results. . ." The
wholesale changes to welfare benefits that began on 1 April
represent far more than an attempt to reduce government spending.
The next General Election is just over two years away, and
Conservative ministers are under pressure from their back-benchers
to reclaim ground lost to the UK Independence Party. In part, this
involves sounding tough on Europe and immigration; more generally,
it will mean a swing to the Right. But the Conservatives cannot
afford to look heartless, not least in the eyes of their Coalition
partners. Hence the energetic PR response to the Churches' document
The Lies We Tell Ourselves, published at the start of
March but resurrected on Easter Day, the eve of the welfare
This document, about the misconceptions that surround benefits,
has proved prophetic, since the easiest way to defend the new
welfare cuts is to denigrate the recipients. Ministers are too
careful to do this openly, but a key part of their PR strategy is
to divide those in work and those out of it, implying that benefits
go only to the latter and would be deserved only by the former.
Thus Mr Osborne uses phrases such as "We're reforming welfare to
encourage work." He told his Kent audience on Tuesday: "In 2010
alone, payments to working-age families cost £90 billion. That
means that about one in every six pounds of tax that working people
like you pay was going on working-age benefits." No mention is made
of the benefits that go to the hard-working but low-paid. The
Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that 6.1 million of those in
poverty are in work, compared with 5.1 million out of work for some
reason, including disability.
The plain facts about welfare are that (a) by far the largest
amount, £85 billion, is spent on pensioners, i.e. repaying them the
contributions they made through National Insurance during their
working lives; and (b) the global labour market is such that wages
are depressed: as a consequence, a form of subsidy is needed to
cover artificially high living costs, such as housing. If the
economy is to recover, such subsidies are an essential pump-primer,
not least in those areas of the south-east which will feel the
housing-benefit cap most keenly.
Examples of shiftlessness can be produced, of course, but the
evidence assembled by the authors of The Lies We Tell
Ourselves suggests that these are rare - and far rarer than
the electorate is led to believe. The greatest problem among the
poor is despair. Those struggling to survive in a world where work
is scarce and uncertain deserve sympathy, not blame.