Welfare: choices

I signed the petition urging a boycott of the Daily Mail following its decision to use the Philpott child killing case as a stick to beat the welfare system. It is a most unpleasant rag and today’s front page plumbs a new low in its cynical exploitation of the worst instincts of middle England.  The suggestion that the welfare system produces horrible crimes is nasty (and stupid) even by the Mail’s standards. But leaving the Mail and the Philpott case out of it for a moment, why is there such a strong instinct to see the welfare system in such black and white terms, as if all the issues around it are easy? I don’t think they are.

I think we can probably agree quite quickly on what welfare should do, and I’m assuming that most if not all of us see a welfare system as an appropriate use of taxation and part of our commitment to living in a decent society which cares for all its citizens.  It should ensure that there is an adequate safety net for anyone who is not able to earn their own living through misfortune, illness, disability or similar cause, one that enables people to live to at least a minimal acceptable standard for as long as necessary.  We can probably also agree what it is not intended to do: trap people who are capable of work into a just-about-sustainable long-term way of life, or create a culture that regards and treats such a way of life as a norm.  It should not be an alternative to working for those able to work.

The problem is how to achieve one without creating the other.  In practice this must be fiendishly difficult.  Any payments system has to have some sort of eligibility criteria and some rules about who gets what under what circumstances.  I cannot imagine how it would be possible to create a system that does not have unfortunate and unintended consequences.  Any attempt to counter the tendency to create welfare dependent sub-cultures will almost inevitably also affect the people the system is positively designed to help.  Any attempt to separate the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ will be likely to fail.  And any attempt to reduce welfare spending in total is likely to hit everyone more or less equally.

We must not give up the attempt to help people out of long-term benefit dependency, and to create a system that encourages it.  But let us not imagine that this will be easy – we should probably have a little more sympathy for those whose job it is to try and create a fair and equitable outcome.  It would be a lot better if no-one needed welfare.  It would be a lot better if we did not have a welfare dependent underclass with (sometimes) lifestyles that make us gasp.  Better for them, better for all of us.  But if I have to choose between looking after people who need it with an accompanying risk of allowing some to ‘exploit’ the system or leave too many people without the help they really need I know which choice I’ll make.

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