Benefit Cheats: A curse on the country?

Posted on: 18 February 2011 by Alexander Hay

Coalition government persecutes the weak in crackdown on 'spongers'.

Image care of Jim Welsh - conceptonline@ntlworld.com

One should always feel some level of foreboding when governments declare war on something. It's relatively straightforward if it's a country or region, but things tend to go horribly wrong when abstract concepts are put in the crosshairs, like the dreaded 'Benefit Cheat'.

Still, that didn't stop David Cameron waging war on the elusive beast - "Never again will work be the wrong financial choice. Never again will we waste opportunity", he declared. Iain Duncan Smith, who these days affects a persona midway between Joseph Rowntree and Judge Dredd, meanwhile added "far too many people are falling out of work and on to benefits every year”. It all sounds like a bowdlerised way of saying 'we will get those cheats working!'

For most people on benefits, however, there is very little to cheat with. If you're disabled, then you'll get £71.40 a week, with £49.85 mobility component thrown in for good measure. Yes, you'll be probably bathing in champagne and caviar at the end of the week!

Unemployed people are similarly spoiled meanwhile with a JSA bounty of - wait for it! - £65.45 a week if you are over 25 or £51.85 if you. Elsewhere, those feckless single mums who are single-handedly leading us towards Armageddon get... The same amount. True, you get £20.30 a week extra for your first child and £13.40 for everyone that follows, but a single parent with three kids is hardly winning the lottery on £112, considering it costs between £100-140 to feed a family that size a week.

True, housing benefit and council tax benefit can still keep you in housed (unless you live in London) but you've then got to buy food, utilities, travel and clothes (rather essential for job interviews) with whatever your JSA can muster, plus any special allowances the job centre may care to provide. In other words, there is a living to be had off the state, but it is a very Spartan one, and not the Life of Riley some politicians like to portray it.

Put simply, being unemployed is awful, and it's very hard to get a job if you're unemployed for too long.

So why do so many people claim benefits under these conditions? Not being able to get a job is always a good one (unless you're David Cameron), but despair and misery bind you down too. IDS thinks that making people work is the solution, but that's not enough on its own. Apparently, being forced to stock shelves for £5.93 is great for your self-worth.

Then there are all the problems that work brings. Can you really afford to keep up with the rent with your wages? Pay for childcare while you're out working? The problem with all the 'making work pay' shibboleths is that work pays by definition, but not always enough to live on. This isn't of much importance to Cameron and co, however, as for them government is something you do to other people. Even IDS' paternalist rhetoric hides not kindness but a sort of finger-wagging disapproval, an angry repudiation of the 'undeserving poor' by people who've never had to sign on in their lives.

There is a reason why blighted areas across the country are full of benefit claimants. It's not because they're lazy, feckless malingerers, but it's because they live in, well, blighted areas. The standard of living is poor, the number of decent jobs limited and all the life in these places was sucked out when traditional industries were shut down in favour of a Brave New World of overpriced housesservice sector jobs and income inequality. Solving this will require investment, hard work and patience, not to mention time-scales of decades and even generations to break the cycle. Neither of which is particularly conducive to the short-term world of politics.

So we reach the truth of the matter. Governments attack 'benefit cheats' because people on benefits are poor and so lack power. You won't see Cameron going after the bankers and tax avoiders you sometimes read about because they're too powerful. Far from proving the existence of the benefits cheat, Cameron has simply provided ample evidence that the Common or Garden School Bully is alive and well, and in power.

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Alexander Hay

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