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Whatever happened to the deserving poor?

We are all well aware that we are not allowed to discuss the poor in terms of them being ‘deserving’ or ‘ undeserving’. “We certainly don’t want to go back to the days of the undeserving poor,” Is a well-established mantra which is assumed to be so self-evidently true that it immediately closes down any debate on the subject.

The welfare state today, we are told, is based on need.   How those in need have found themselves in difficulties is irrelevant.   If they are in difficulties, the job of the welfare state is to assess their needs and meet them.

Well, at the risk of offending all right-minded people, I feel the need to make a few points.    First, when the welfare state was set up, this aversion to ‘judgementalism’ did not exist.  The welfare state provided help to those in need but they had to be worthy of help.  If they were not, help was withheld.

Secondly, despite the emphatic denial, we all know that there are deserving and undeserving poor.   The person who has worked hard but has lost his job and, despite strenuous efforts to find any type of work, has failed to find paid employment is certainly at a different point on the ‘deserving’ scale from someone who has never worked, never looked for a job and sees welfare as a modest but viable life-style choice.  The genuinely disabled are in a different category from the permanently unemployed but able-bodied man with eight children who happily declares: “We just feed and breed; what else is there to do?”

Thirdly, with a need-based welfare system, since the more you need the more you get, the only sensible thing to do, if you’re in need at all, is to maximise your need.   If you increase your need, you are entitled to more help; if you decrease your need, you get less.

So, to summarise, first, the welfare state of today has abandoned the element of ‘deservingness’ which was central to the welfare state when it was founded; secondly, although we cannot discuss it, we all know that some people are far more deserving of state help than others; and thirdly, the substitution of need for desert motivates, or rather incentivises, those who turn to the welfare state for help to make themselves more rather than less dependent.

That would seem to be a pretty powerful case for at least considering whether there  might not have been something of value in the concepts of the deserving and undeserving poor.

So why is the modern establishment so set against it?  It’s not an easy question to answer.  Here are my attempts:

1.     It is not always easy to determine the causes of neediness and the staff employed to hand over welfare benefits are probably not best qualified or competent to make such judgements.  As a result, there is a perfectly understandable preference for assessing need rather than desert; and a preference for box-ticking rather than the exercise of judgement.

2.    There is now a massive bureaucracy that is understandably averse to holding people responsible for their own situation because:

a.    the culture that created their jobs assumed that people were not responsible
b.    their jobs depend on the state maintaining that assumption.

3.    There has been a trend through the latter decades of the last century for the state to intervene in the life of the individual in order to dissociate cause from effect.  Divorce, for ordinary families, no longer necessarily means poverty for one or both parties. Unwanted pregnancies are terminated by the NHS. Children abandoned by one or both parents are provided for. The unemployed, whether through lack of opportunity or indolence, are protected. The old, abandoned by their families, are taken into care.

The care provided by the state in these instances is often inadequate but that’s not the point.  The point is that the state has taken responsibility from the individual and assumed it on behalf of the state and at the expense of the tax-payer. This benign attitude to what would previously have been considered irresponsible or anti-social behaviour seems to permeate the establishment to such an extent that even those on the right of the political spectrum feel that any suggestion that individuals should be held accountable for the consequences of their actions is best left unspoken.

Why has the state maintained this trend?   Well, first, it was (and is) no doubt well-intentioned.  After all, no one wants to see the children, the disabled or the elderly in abject poverty.   The second explanation is the seemingly insatiable appetite of democratic governments to intervene in the lives of individuals and, often, to make them dependent.  The motives here are partly to show just how much government has to do and partly to attract or hold on to voters at the next election.  (The payment of benefits even to those on incomes of £50,000 a year shows how far up the income scale governments have been keen to bribe people with their own money.)

Actually, these are three pretty plausible explanations for the way in which the welfare state currently operates. So the final question is this:  Is the non-judgemental, needs-based welfare system of today socially positive or negative?

I guess the answer depends on how you see the individual.   If you believe that, given decent education and healthcare,  most people are capable of taking responsibility for their own lives, that given encouragement and incentives, most people will work hard and that, if the state leaves them alone, most people are happy to accept responsibility for their own life choices, the welfare state of today is not fit for purpose. 

If you believe that large numbers of people are not really able to take responsibility for their own lives, that it is the duty of the state to step in whenever anyone makes a decision which has consequences they cannot handle, that it is essential the state pays for services to deal with the consequences of such decisions when they are clearly beyond the means of the individual, you will think that today’s welfare state is run on the right lines.

But, even if you tend towards the second viewpoint, you have to accept that a needs-based welfare system:

  • is very expensive

  • discourages initiative and encourages those close to the bottom of the social hierarchy to move down rather than up.

Only the second point needs further comment.   The present government has set a cap for benefits for all but the disabled at £25,000 p.a., the average salary. (In passing, we should note that, if the £25,000 cap is after tax, it is the equivalent of about £30,000 before tax, considerably above the average salary.)  While this is seen as punitive by some, it is seen as perversely generous by others. Whatever your opinion, it seems impossible to argue that someone who does no work deserves to be given as much as the average worker earns. But of course no one is seriously arguing that the benefit claimant deserves that amount.  Those who oppose the cap say that it is not a matter of what the person deserves; it’s what the person needs. Indeed, they would argue the person may well need more.  One of the problems with the needs-based approach is that it is open-ended.  If a woman has three children, her need is greater than a woman with two children.  She’s probably not going to have another child just to get more benefit but, if she does have another child, she doesn’t have to worry. She doesn’t have to take responsibility for the financial consequences of her actions.  Her need increases; so will her benefits.

There is no easy solution to the problem.  Any attempt to reintroduce some element of moral judgement into the welfare system faces formidable opposition.   The liberal establishment, backed by large sections of academia will argue it is simplistic to hold people to account for their actions.  We live in a relativist moral world in which even the most fundamental moral rules are heavily qualified by circumstance and context.  Before a thief is punished, we need to know his upbringing, his social origins, his financial circumstances, whether he is on drugs, whether he was abused as a child, whether he is mentally competent, whether he is literate, etc.  All far too complex and subtle for the average benefits clerk to assess when faced by a claimant!

By giving more to those in greater need, the system inevitably motivates those in need to exaggerate their need.  Indeed many social workers see it as an essential part of their  task to ensure the benefit claimants, their clients, present their case in a way that will maximise the amount of money they can claim.  And it’s not just social workers who seem to see the welfare state as a limitless pot of gold. There is strong statistical evidence that many doctors moved (or at least acquiesced in the moving of) many of the unemployed over into the disabled category in order to get them more generous benefit allowances.

And there are very real difficulties in weening people off dependence on welfare in a society which now sees welfare as an entitlement.   When people on housing benefit complain that a reduction in benefit could force them to leave their home, we all understand what they mean. But, of course, it is not their home.  It is accommodation wholly funded by the state (i.e. people who pay tax). In the private sector, the tenant understands that continued occupancy of the accommodation depends on the tenant’s ability to pay the rent; the tenant does not own the property he/she occupies.  Yet it is perfectly understandable that, in the ethos of our current welfare system, beneficiaries of welfare often feel they have more right to their benefits than private sector tenants have to their tenancy or workers have to their wages.  And the beneficiaries of welfare are right - because reduction in benefits are vigorously opposed by a plethora of pressure groups while increases in taxation to pay for the benefits go through with little more than a collective taxpayer groan.

So, in summary, our current welfare system not only motivates people to maximise their needs; it also penalises those who make some effort to reduce their need.   It is a caricature but, in essence, under our current welfare system, the less you do to help yourself, the more you get; the more you do to help yourself, the less you get.  At the same time, it seems almost impossible, in today’s world, to reintroduce the concept of “deservingness”, partly because of moral relativism and partly because of the vested interests of those who oppose it. 

So what’s to be done? 

All the main political parties recognise the need for welfare reform.  The present system in unaffordable and having a disproportionate percentage of those of working age unproductive weakens our chances of competing in the global market.

The present government believes the answer is to “make work pay”.   People should always be better off working than unemployed.   That would help but it is a difficult goal  to achieve and it doesn’t solve the problem.  If benefits are capped at average earnings, obviously those who work and earn less than the average may well be worse off than those who claim the maximum amount of benefit.

But the problem runs much deeper than that.   Someone on the maximum level of benefit (all of which is tax free) is on the equivalent of a salary of around £30,000 p.a.  First, it is fairly unlikely that such a claimant is a suitable candidate for a job paying that level of remuneration. If they took a job at a lower salary, they would clearly be worse off.  Apart from loss of income, the benefit claimant who takes a job also loses all the concessions enjoyed by those on benefit.  

And there is an even greater difficulty. To make work pay, the differential between benefits and low pay for work has to be very substantial.  It is not enough that the low paid worker should be a little better off than his unemployed counterpart on benefit.  He has to be very considerably better off.  Otherwise, as many benefit claimants have pointed out: “If I take a job, and I end up £10 pound a week better off, I’ll be working for 25p an hour.  And I lose all my free time.  And I will have to pay full price if, after doing my 40 hours, I ever have time to go to the leisure centre or cinema”.

You can’t blame the benefit claimant.   He/she is right.  We have set up a system that penalises effort and rewards indolence.  We should not be surprised that many at the bottom end of the income scale are tempted to take the easier path the system offers them.  Indeed, you would need considerable moral fibre to resist such temptation.

Is there an answer?   Well, if we could open up a real differential between maximum benefits and minimum wages, we would be well on our way.  A first step would be to set a higher minimum wage.  This would be costly but, if it persuaded some who are unemployed to take jobs, the government’s tax take would be increased and the benefit bill would be reduced.  At the same time, the maximum level of benefits should be reduced.  A cap set at two thirds of the average salary (i.e. about £15,000 a year after tax) does not seem unreasonable.  This would mean, amongst other things, that benefit claimants living in expensive parts of the country would have to follow their low-paid working brothers and move to areas where they can afford (on their reduced benefits) the cost of rented accommodation.

This sounds harsh but is does offer some real advantages.  It should:

  • motivate those who can work to find jobs

  • show those born into families where no one has ever worked that a life on benefit is less attractive than previously thought

  • increase the proportion of the population in work, essential if we are to maintain average standards of living and care for a growing population of the elderly

  • free up some accommodation in expensive parts of the country for workers who need to live closer to their place of work

  • leave enough money in the welfare system for those who really cannot work (the genuinely disabled) to be properly cared for


Many will disagree with this approach but, given the general acceptance that the welfare system needs reform, let’s hear some alternative suggestions.

2013 12 05


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