Getting real about welfare

November 21, 2008 at 9:46 am | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

Since there’s enough in this Jenni Russell piece which is commendable, let’s get the irritating parts out of the way first:

This refusal to think about the interaction between good intentions and perverse consequences has long been a blindness of the left. It is beginning to change, notably with James Purnell’s willingness to challenge lifetime dependency in the welfare-to-work reforms at the Department for Work and Pensions. But he is seen by some in the Labour government as dangerously radical in approach. Here the government is lagging behind the public who, in the face of recession, are likely to be asking tough questions about who exactly benefits from the welfare state, what the results of its spending are, and on what basis its resources are allocated.

The first sentence is plainly wrong. When partisans on the left defend the welfare state without being self-reflexive enough to acknowledge its flaws, it’s not because they think ‘well, our intentions are good, so what could possibly go wrong?’ No, it’s invariably to counter the charge of powerful partisans on the right who fantasise about abolishing it, without themselves possessing the self-reflexivity to acknowledge the possibility that social dysfunction might well increase.

Secondly, the strongest criticisms of Purnell’s welfare-to-work reforms are practical, not ideological. As they stand now, Purnell’s reforms would have the long-term unemployed doing menial tasks like sweeping the streets in order to receive their benefits payments. But there are already people paid to sweep the streets by councils up and down Britain, and the insistance that welfare claimants do these tasks in order to claim their pittance will devalue that job to the level of about £50 a week. It’s a gross distortion of the labour market and, if Purnell & co. aren’t careful, it will disadvantage those already in work.

And finally, yes, in a recession, the public will be asking tough question about who exactly benefits from the welfare state. And when they, their family or any of their friends become unemployed, they will soon discover it.

What follows this are several paragraphs of “my anecdotal evidence conveniently proves how correct I am about everything!”, but when she stops being an armchair sociologist, there are some good points to be made.

The first is that the welfare system – like all great, heaving bureacracies – reacts far too slowly to people’s changing circumstances and is stubbornly inflexible. You don’t need your claim for Job Seeker’s Allowance to be processed in some call centre or by a Job Centre staffer who’s chained to the rigidness of form-filling procedures, and you don’t want the whole process to seize up just because there’s some small detail in your personal circumstances which the computer can’t adequately factor-in. You need a welfare agency which is quick, flexible and responsive, and this will inevitably require some decentralisation.

The second good point she makes is this:

If a culture is to change, we will need, as politicians like Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen have argued, expensive investment in all ages from nought to 18. It has to start with focused help with parenting and continue with genuinely good childcare, flexible jobs and a more responsive, emotionally intelligent education system. That wouldn’t be simple or cheap. But at a time when we are wondering how to prime the economy, it’s hard to think of a more productive way to invest the nation’s money than in rethinking the aims and failings of our welfare state.

One of the almighty frustrations about the commentary which followed the ‘Baby P’ case is that for all the vague allusions to some undefinabe ‘underclass‘ and all the hand-wringing about the harmfulness of welfare dependency, there’ve been precious few ideas for how this might be resolved.

Welfare isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that for far too long, there have been no government alternatives to welfare. If you want to reduce social problems, then Early Intervention is vital, and Graham Allen & Iain Duncan Smith offer some useful ideas about how a comprehensive programme (including SureStart & the Family Nurse Partnership) might help both parents & children. We can either commit to thinking seriously about ways of doing this, or we can just decide to moralise publicly each time poverty creates yet another newsworthy tragedy. But all those who opt for the latter will just sound startlingly insincere.


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