The welfare system subjugates the poor, ensnaring them in a trap of dependency, and crushing their horizons
By Brendan O'neill
It was the week the battle over benefits exploded into life as liberals howled about Tory cuts. But here a leading Left-wing thinker says the chattering classes are peddling a poisonous myth – that the poor cannot survive without the soul- deadening embrace of welfarism.
The thing about receiving incapacity benefit is that you really start believing you’re incapable. The Government tells you you’re incapable, and it sinks in: I’m useless, I can’t work, I must be looked after.’
So says an old friend of mine who lives in the most deprived ward in Barnet, North London, where we both grew up. After suffering anxiety attacks, he’s been ‘on the sick’ — that is, receiving some form of sickness benefit — for nearly five years. It is, he assures me, an unpleasant existence.
‘You get sucked into a life of uselessness. The Government gives you enough money to live on, but you don’t live. You do the same thing day in, day out. See the same people, watch the same TV, drift off to sleep in mid-afternoon.’
Twisted values: Mick and Mairead Philpott, who were convicted of killing six of their children in a fire, have raised the welfare debate
He says he’s pleased Iain Duncan Smith is shaking up benefits paid to ‘the incapable’, alongside other forms of welfare. More than two million Brits receive sickness-related benefits, and my friend reckons many of them must be like him: not really sick, but simply treated as sick by a welfare system with more money than sense.
He agrees with Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party, who says of the army of sickness claimants: ‘It is not that these people were trying to play the system, so much as these people were forced into a system that played them.’
This is the side to the welfare debate we rarely hear about, at least not from Left-wing politicians and commentators: how the welfare system subjugates the poor, ensnaring them in a trap of dependency, and crushing their horizons.
Over the past week, as IDS’s welfare reforms have kicked in, we’ve heard quite the opposite from middle-class liberals who have been tearing their hair out over the fact that the poor aren’t rising up against them.
Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party, who says of the army of sickness claimants: 'It is not that these people were trying to play the system, so much as these people were forced into a system that played them'
They’re bamboozled as to why the down-at-heel haven’t peeled their eyes away from the Jeremy Kyle Show, got off their subsidised sofas and marched to Whitehall to demand: ‘Leave our welfare payments alone.’
Where well-off, Left-leaning do-gooders in Britain’s leafier suburbs are weeping into their macchiato coffees over the Tories’ trims to welfare spending, the poor seem unmoved. What is wrong with these ungrateful urchins, plummy-voiced radicals wonder?
What the posh warriors for welfarism don’t understand is that the poor do not share their enthusiasm for the welfare state, for one very simple reason: like my friend, they know what the welfare state is like, and what a corrupting influence it can have on individual ambition and community life.
They have seen with their own eyes what the intrusion of welfarism into every nook and cranny of poor people’s lives can do.
Iain Duncan Smith's reforms to welfare have been greeted with anger, surprisingly not so much from the poor, but from the middle-classes
They know it is not a liberating force, but a soul-deadening one, which doesn’t improve less well-off communities but rather turns them into ghost towns, maintained by faraway faceless bureaucrats rather than by the community’s own members.
The chattering classes now refer to Monday, April 1, when the Government’s benefit reforms were enacted, as Black Monday. They call IDS a ‘Tory toff’ who is launching an ‘ideological war’ against the poor. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has said that the poor will be hit by an ‘avalanche of cuts’ which will propel them into ‘beggary’.
In this lip-smackingly Dickensian view of what will become of Britain, we might soon expect to see women in shawls selling soap on London Bridge and children in torn trousers going back up chimneys.
IDS might only be putting a cap on the annual increase in benefits people can receive, slightly reducing some people’s housing benefit, and rethinking Disability Living Allowance, yet his increasingly shrill critics paint a picture of him turfing the downtrodden out of their homes and into a gutter-based life of Oliver Twist-style precariousness.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has said that the poor will be hit by an 'avalanche of cuts' which will propel them into 'beggary'
When the pro-welfare lobby isn’t wildly exaggerating the severity of IDS’s chopping, it is demonising those who dare to raise questions about the impact welfarism has had on poor communities.
So anyone who suggests that Mick Philpott’s decadent, deeply unproductive lifestyle in Derby may have been a product of welfarism, of the thoughtless casting of the welfarist net across entire poor communities, is shot down in flames.
Some commentators, and now the Chancellor George Osborne, have said that the Philpott case raises questions about the way the state has sustained, ad infinitum, those who don’t work or contribute to society.
But they’re mercilessly attacked by pro-welfare activists, who treat any attempt to critique welfarism as tantamount to committing a hate crime against the poor and ‘vulnerable’.
Yet no matter how much these observers ramp up the rage, still they fail to inspire those who are actually on benefits to join them in their battle.
In fact, far from wanting to fight in defence of welfarism, less well-off people seem positively suspicious of the welfare state, and this drives middle-class campaigners crazy.
John Harris, a columnist for the Guardian, this week expressed his dismay that anti-welfare ‘noise’ always gets ‘louder as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society’.
Indeed, earlier this year a study by the Left-leaning Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust found that poor families, including those affected by welfare cuts, take ‘the harshest anti-welfare line’.
The study’s lead researcher was thrown by this.
‘Logically, I’d expect those at the sharp end of things to be pro-welfare,’ she said. ‘But if anything, many had internalised a Thatcherite every-man-for-himself mentality.’
Other studies make for interesting reading, too. A British Social Attitudes Survey in 2003 found that 82 per cent of people on benefits agreed that ‘the Government should be the main provider of support to the unemployed’, but by 2011 that number had fallen to 62 per cent.
The proportion of working-class people in work who agree with that statement has fallen from 81 per cent to 67 per cent in the same period.
Some commentators, and now the Chancellor George Osborne, have said that the Philpott case raises questions about the way the state has sustained, ad infinitum, those who don't work or contribute to society
In 2003, 40 per cent of benefits recipients agreed that ‘unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work’; in 2011, 59 per cent agreed. So a majority of actual benefits recipients now think the welfare state is too generous and fosters worklessness.Surely those well-off welfare cheerleaders, when shown these figures, would accept that perhaps they don’t know what they’re talking about. But no, they have simply come up with a theory for why the poor are anti-welfare: because they’re stupid.
The Trades Union Congress says the little people have been ‘brainwashed by Tory welfare myths’.
They claim the masses have been duped by Right-wing politicians and newspapers that spread myths about ‘welfare scroungers’. Consequently, ordinary people are apparently consumed by ‘prejudice and ignorance’ about welfarism.
One commentator says the problem is that not enough people read the Guardian. In a column for that paper on why the less well-off aren’t fans of the welfare state, she said: ‘Are the public stupid, or simply people who don’t read the Guardian? Well, yes . . .’
This is a spectacularly patronising view. The idea that the only reason the poor are critical of welfarism is because they’ve been ‘brainwashed’ suggests a view of those people as utterly gullible.
In 2003, 40 per cent of benefits recipients agreed that 'unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work' in 2011, 59 per cent agreed
In truth, there’s a far simpler explanation. Most of those who have experienced a life reliant on benefits have come to understand the detrimental impact it has had on their lives. The cult of welfarism also fosters divisions in less well-off communities.
Those who work, who leave the house at 7am to earn a wage for themselves and their families, start to feel antagonistic towards those who don’t work, whose curtains remain firmly closed well into the late morning.
Three of my brothers work in the building trade, and the one political issue that riles them is what one of them calls ‘subsidised laziness’.
This isn’t because they hate the poor, or think everyone on the dole could magically get a job tomorrow morning if they got their fingers out.
Nor is it because they’ve been brainwashed by anti-welfare tabloid newspapers, as liberal campaigners would have us believe.
Karl Marx described very early forms of top-down 'welfare measures' as a 'disguised form of alms'
Rather it’s because they recognise that the exponential expansion of the welfare net, the transformation of welfare-reliance into a permanent state of existence for many of the poor, makes worklessness into a way of life rather than a temporary predicament.
It actively encourages people to give up, to stay home, to be ‘kept men’ rather than working men. And naturally, working men don’t like that.
Indeed, there’s a long-standing tradition of poor communities expressing profound hostility to welfarist assistance, even when they have needed it.
In the Thirties, when early forms of state welfare were introduced, many of the unemployed came to resent their ‘new status as citizen beneficiaries of state welfare’, as one academic study put it. They found claiming state welfare humiliating.
In 1945 — the year the modern welfare state was born — a former cabinet-maker from the East End of London published a book about his life, titled I Was One Of The Unemployed. He described how, in Thirties and Forties Britain, he and many others who found themselves out of work felt an ‘innate morbid sensitivity’ towards ‘having to depend upon state welfare’.
The poor experienced a ‘sense of wounded pride at being driven by hunger to ask for cash benefits’, he said.
Even the most radical old Leftists, unlike today’s uncritical, poor-pitying Leftists, issued cutting criticisms of the welfarist ideology.
In 1850, Karl Marx described very early forms of top-down ‘welfare measures’ as a ‘disguised form of alms’ that were designed to make people’s less-than-ambitious lives seem ‘tolerable’.
That is, welfare was a way of placating the poor, lowering their horizons and acclimatising them to a life of mere survival.
As Pat Thane, a professor of history at King’s College, London, pointed out in a 1999 essay on early forms of state welfare, the less well-off were suspicious of welfarism that seemed ‘to imply that poor people needed the guidance of their “betters” ’.
The end result of this propping-up of communities is the kind of world Mick Philpott lived in
Working-class mothers hated the way that signing up for welfare meant having to throw one’s home and life open to inspection by snooty officials, community health workers and even family budget advisers.
They didn’t want ‘middle-class strangers’, as they called welfare providers, ‘questioning them about their children’. They felt such intrusions ‘broke a cultural taboo’.
And the use of welfare as a way of allowing society’s ‘betters’ to govern the lives of the poor continues now. Indeed, today’s welfare state is even more annoyingly nannyish than it was 80 years ago.
As the writer Ferdinand Mount says, the post-war welfare state is like a form of ‘domestic imperialism’, through which the state treats the poor as ‘natives’ who must be fed and kept on the moral straight-and-narrow by their superiors.
Mount describes modern welfarism as ‘benign managerialism’, which ‘pacifies’ the lower orders.
Working-class communities feel this patronising welfarist control very acutely. They recognise that signing up for a lifetime of state charity means sacrificing your pride and your independence; it means being unproductive and also unfree.
The cultivation of such dependency on the state has a devastating impact on community life in poor parts of Britain. Because if an individual’s or family’s every financial and therapeutic need is being met by the state, then what need is there for those people to turn to their own neighbours for help or advice?
Welfarism doesn’t only destroy individual pride and independence — it also eats away at social solidarity, the glue of local life, by encouraging people to become more reliant on the state than on their friends and neighbours.
The end result of this propping-up of communities is the kind of world Mick Philpott lived in, where a sense of entitlement to state cash overpowers any feeling of personal moral responsibility for improving one’s life, or any sense of duty to the community.
So to my mind, there’s no mystery as to why the poor are refusing to join the fight to preserve the massive and unwieldy welfare state: it’s because they live in the very areas where welfarism has wreaked its worst horrors.
It is the bleeding heart campaigners fighting to defend welfarism who are spreading a poisonous myth: that the less well-off could never survive, far less thrive, without the financial assistance and moral guidance of their middle-class betters.