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Leader comment >

Blaming the poor

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 reforms.

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.

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Mon 27 Mar 17 @ 10:29
Listen to the first episode of the Church Times Podcast- The latest on the Llandaff row & @malcolmguite on Coleridge https://t.co/BuiRqOQXZQ

Mon 27 Mar 17 @ 9:57
@TR_Smith here you go: https://t.co/KOMd0sCFbY It's also available on iTunes etc.