The Benefits System Perpetuates Misery

Posted by Olderiswiser Editorial

Is the benefits system a free hand out or a hand up? This Intelligence Squared debate questions the state of benefits in the UK.

William Henry Beveridge architect of the benefits system did not envisage a nannying state of free hands outs for all when he wrote the report that paved the way for the introduction of the Welfare State. Indeed his qualifying criteria for receipt of Social Insurance and Allied Services was strict, to say the least.

Today in the UK, approximately 4.5m people live in households where nobody has a job. Behind that figure lies a subsection of society mired in multi-generational unemployment. What was meant to be a safety net has become a poverty trap. Opponents of the benefits system claim, with justification, that far from being the short-term stopgap that Beveridge envisaged, access to benefits has created a culture of long-term welfare dependency.  Proponents for the continued investment in the welfare state counter that far from benefits being the source of this dependency, the true cause lies in the relentless pursuit of free market economics, introduced with such far-reaching consequences by the Thatcher government, which decimated the industrial heartlands of Britain and removed the livelihoods of whole communities.

A 2012 survey by Dr Andrew Dunn, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln, found that unemployed people are 3.6 times more likely than those with jobs to say they are seriously unhappy. If you want to help the poor, don’t just throw money at them. Incentivise and help them into work, and reform the system in which many people are actually better off not working at all than taking a job. Such an environment of worklessness simply makes it harder for the next generation to break out of the cycle. 

In this Intelligence Squared debate James Bartholomew, columnist for The Spectator, and Adam Perkins, lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, argue that the benefits system is consigning people to a life of unhappiness and poverty. Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips and Matthew Taylor, former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and a regular guest on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, assert that benefits are not a handout but a hand-up and remain a true manifestation of social insurance imagined by Beveridge.

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