Tuesday, March 26, 2024

More gruel, anyone? (1989)

From the March 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

As if life is not hard enough already for them, the people who depend on Social Security benefits for their living are now being targetted. And what, you might ask (unless you are on benefit yourself, in which case you know the answer) does that mean? To begin with we might consider the fact that "targetted’’ is a non-word, a verb created out of a noun. Such creations are not uncommon and often taken to be evidence of fresh, innovative thinking. If the new word catches on, in quarters where there is a real fear of not being thought of as fresh and innovative, it may become set into jargon, without which no speech or article commands proper attention and which is useful to evade an inconvenient reality or to confuse a simple issue.

Targetting, according to the rich Tory ministers who run the Department of Social Security, means rearranging the system of state benefits so that they are paid only to those who can prove to be in the greatest need. It is. they say, a reform long overdue. A recent TV programme about the difficulties experienced by claimants who try to get money from the meticulously targetted Social Fund included the contrasting case of a mother in a large, mock-Tudor house on the greener fringes of Croydon. She declared that she drew her recklessly non-targetted Child Benefit once every few months, when she remembered, and then only to pay it straight into her bank account.

The policy of paying flat-rate benefits to everyone in certain categories, regardless of need, was laid down as long ago as the Beveridge Report. When the policy was written into legislation there was a great shudder of relief among those who, whether through personal experience or not, understood what the Means Test had meant — a harrowing, degrading probing by officialdom for reasons to disqualify desperately poor people from benefit. The Means Test, we were told, had been abolished for ever. But targetted benefits are Means tested benefits, albeit under a zappy. freshly-created — distorting — name.

Dependency culture
It is true that means-tested benefits are recommended to us by Tory ministers as an essential antidote to the widespread scourge of the dependency culture, than which nothing is more dangerous to our morale. Dependency encourages us to live off others instead of using our abilities to contribute to the social good. Those who wondered whether these verbal assaults were targetted at the ruling class, whose income from the labours of the rest of us enables them to jet around the world's playgrounds. may have been reassured by the recent stream of bracing advice from ministers on how we can avoid falling into dependency. The common theme of this advice was that anyone who is poor, cold, hungry or homeless has only themselves to blame. Edwina Currie, before she made the bad mistake of upsetting the farming lobby, came unscathed through the anger provoked by her patronising dissertation to pensioners and any other potential sufferers from hypothermia about the advantages of warm underwear. Peter Lloyd, an Under Secretary at the DSS, recommends clothing ourselves from jumble sales (which many workers do in any case):
I am a great attender of second-hand sales for charities in my constituency. You can get very good bargains. (Daily Telegraph, 12 January 1989)
Lloyd is a member of Lloyds (no relation, presumably), which means that he has. apart from anything else, at least £100,000 which he can afford to lose in an adverse insurance deal. Someone with that kind of money may buy second-hand stuff at jumble sales — it’s all good clean fun, helps out some local charity which targetted claimants are applying to in unprecedented numbers and maybe wins a few votes by showing what a cheery, caring fellow he is. But living in need is not good, clean fun. Getting by on cast-off bargains is a way of life reserved for the class who, directly or indirectly, contribute through their exploitation to Lloyd s fortune and add also to his political comfort by voting him into parliament.

Young people — in whose hands, as politicians so often tell us, The Future Of The Country Rests — are finding their benefit so efficiently targetted that it is shot out of existence. This is happening because the government prefer to have them working. A recent leaflet from the DSS informs them, in terms which suggest that it is the best news they have had for a long time:
From September 1988 if you are under 18 you will normally not be able to get Income Support.
It then puts, and answers, a number of suspiciously docile questions:
Why can't I get Income Support?
Because there is a guaranteed Youth Training Scheme (YTS) place for everyone under 18 who does not go into a job. 
Must I go on YTS?
No. The choice is yours. But if you don't go on YTS any money your parents get for you will stop at the end of your extended Child Benefit period.
Removing workers from the scope of benefit by presenting them with this kind of “choice" does wonders for the unemployment statistics and it is right in the historic tradition of punishing people for being poor. Under the Tudors this was a matter of brutal persecution which, as more and more peasants were driven off the land, had to be modified into the subtler repressions of the Poor Law. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relief was based on, and administrated by, the parishes, which caused paupers who were unsettled to be carted backwards and forwards across parish boundaries as each tried to cast off responsibility for them. There was, of course, always the workhouse, which in the eighteenth century developed, through a process of reasoning which was a stranger to logic let alone humane concerns, as a deterrent to the condition it was supposed to relieve:
The great object of the poor law board is to ensure a constant unvarying and efficient discipline during the entire residence of the pauper within the workhouse. He rises to the minute: he works to the minute: he eats to the minute. He must be clean, respectful, industrious and obedient. In short the habits inculcated in the house are precisely those the possession of which would have prevented his becoming an inmate. (Chairman of the Sheffield Guardians. November 1855)
Undeserving poor
Another tradition — or perhaps a better word would be tactic — is to divide the people on the lower rungs of poverty into the deserving and underserving poor. The penury of the deserving poor is recognised as largely beyond their control: they are old. or unpredictably redundant (provided they have not neglected the approved ways of guarding against its consequences) or the victims of a sudden disaster. They may also be sick — except that a failure to join BUPA at the proper time may mean they don't deserve to be among the deserving. On the other hand there are the undeserving poor, tainted by a stigma so profound that only a brash rogue like Shaw's Alfred Doolittle would willingly confess to it: “I'm one of the undeserving poor, that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man." The undeserving poor are cunningly work-shy, preferring to live on state benefits to submitting themselves to a good day's exploitation. If they do work they dissipate their wages on booze or gambling. Before the days of smokeless zones, they kept coal in the bath. Nowadays they loll about all day watching the latest videos on an outsize TV set in the corner.

Nobody has yet been able to explain why the undeserving poor have a habit of increasing and decreasing all together and why they tend to concentrate in certain areas. For years — decades even — the undeserving poor lie dormant in their various employments and then suddenly sprout into indolence, their growth being especially luxuriant in places like South Wales. Scotland or Northern Ireland. For example a recent (16 December 1988) article in New Statesman and Society reported that in the region of Strathclyde 28 per cent of the population now live at or below the official poverty line. This includes about one third of the region's children, who are not yet able to choose whether to be deserving or undeserving, and 42 per cent of its old people, who are probably past caring how they are classified and only wish they were a bit better off. This mass descent from the normal poverty of employment into the lower reaches of destitution is largely due to unemployment (what Edwina Currie would call being workshy) which, according to the Strathclyde Council, now amounts to almost a quarter of a million people. A lot of these are trying to bridge the gap between their income and their needs by living on credit. For a while this method may work, in the same way as alcohol or any other drug, by blotting out reality. But the reckoning is unavoidable: the misery of Strathclyde's never-never hangover can be assessed by the fact that its Citizens' Advice Bureau is now dealing with almost 70,000 enquiries from people in credit-crisis — almost twice as many as they were in 1982

So what happened to the targetting of benefits? The National Association of Citizen's Advice Bureaux states that the changes in Social Security last April, which were supposed to bring a great rationalising of poverty into security, have left 82 per cent of the poorer claimants worse off. Some of this is due to the abolition of special needs grants and their replacement with, very often, loans from the Social Fund. There is a Catch 22 here which would impress Joseph Heller, because a loan will be agreed only when the applicant can repay it from their benefit but by definition anyone on Social Security who needs a loan is unlikely to be able to do this. As a result many claimants don't apply for a loan or if they do apply they are refused — which drives them to experiment with the tender mercies of the local loan sharks while about half the money allocated to the Social Fund lies unused.

The predictable response to this mess from the poverty lobby is to suggest that more money be allocated to the needy. This always has a certain appeal for it can't be denied that poverty in all its degrees is symptomised by a lack of money and rich people don't involuntarily live in slums or suffer from hypothermia or malnutrition. Neither are they to be seen queuing at their local DSS to have their domestic innards probed by the Biro of some harassed, sometimes callous, clerk on the other side of the shatter-proof screen. But the calculations of the poverty lobby tend to overlook the fact that the present situation, with its levels of destitution, was supposed to have been legislated out of existence by the so-called Welfare State modelled on the Beveridge Report. Since then there have been numerous re-arranging of benefits; the available money has been shuffled about, allocated first to this type of claimant and then to another. How successful this has been can be gauged from the suffering workers of Strathclyde and the despairing staff of any inner-city DSS office.

Redistributing poverty
All the plans to reform poverty out of existence ignore the vital fact that what counts is the source of our income — how we get our living — for that determines which class we are in and whether we live secure lives or are constantly under the burden of want. People who depend on being employed for a living are members of the working class, the group who experience poverty which can soon slide into destitution if they fall sick, or have more children than they can afford, or are made redundant, or become addicted to alcohol or some other drug. In this class are the people in places like Glasgow, the people whose budgets can be disastrously thrown out by an increase in their mortgage repayments, who can be quickly changed from a proud "owner-occupier'' into a wretched unit of homelessness In this class are the people whose abilities lie unused in a slump and who come to rely on state benefits to live, making themselves targets in the sights of any government looking for economies in its expenditure.

The other class are not to be found in inner-city slums and nor do they worry about temporary changes in capitalism's economy. They can afford to have as many children as they like and the best medical treatment in the most exclusive clinics when they are ill. Although they are socially redundant, as a class they do not suffer from being out of a job because they need never be employed in the first place. They live — in their several houses, their easy security, their luxury — off the exploitation of the working class. They are the people who really exist in a dependency culture for they rely on the workers labour. They are the class whose taxes finance schemes like Social Security and it is their representatives in government who are now concerned to reduce what is being paid out in state benefits". The "Welfare State" was not an act of generosity, a gift of historic proportions from the capitalist class to the workers. Destitution does not come cheaply for such is its cost in terms of crime, loss of production and social dislocation that to alleviate it through a system of state benefits is an investment rather than a gift. National schemes for sickness, unemployment and old age were designed to spread the load of that investment over the ruling class as a whole, even if clever politicians represented them as specifically intended to relieve distress among workers. That deception is now being eroded by the Tories equally specious claim that security for workers is to be found in less cohesive private schemes which will, through the wages they pay to their employees, adjust the burden among the employers.

What does it matter, if in the process a few thousand more people — children, their parents, retired workers, the sick and the elderly — suffer the stress of poverty that bites that much deeper? The indignant campaigners of the poverty lobby are strong on indictment, but like the boys in Dickens' orphanage their worry is that the gruel is too thin. Poverty need not mean an impoverished idea about how society works and how we can make it better.

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