The political reason behind why it’s difficult to survive on benefits


by Richard Exell    
11:10 am - April 29th 2013

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Another sign of the times is the debate about how much people on benefits need to spend on food. The BBC says you can have “a healthy diet on £15 a week”.

Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke thinks the problem is they spend their money on fags and booze and the Daily Mail says you can ‘survive’ on a pound a day.

Of course, most of us could take a holiday to poverty and get by for a day or two or even a week or two. Polly Toynbee is spot on about this, it’s the grinding effect that makes poverty different – the longer it lasts, the fewer resources you have and the more difficult it is to cope with an emergency or unexpected bill.

Just as important, the longer it lasts, the greyer life becomes, the more depressing. No wonder many people in long-term poverty are desperate to hang on to whatever “luxuries” they still have; lectures about this from the comfortable are beneath contempt.

It was George Orwell who had the clearest insight about the politics of poverty in the 1930s. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he imagined what would happen if the millions on the dole did actually cut their spending in the way the Daily Mail and Conservative MPs would still like.

Orwell had experienced French food culture at first hand and thought that the English could learn lessons about making food go further. But in the end that was irrelevant: people on benefits don’t have a hard time because they lack the skills to make the most of their benefits, their benefits are deliberately set at a level where most people will find it hard to cope.

This isn’t a conscious policy of forcing malnutrition on millions of fellow-citizens, it’s the inevitable result of a political conversation dominated by the obsession that the poor may be putting one over on the rest of us.

As Orwell put it:

If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.

People aren’t hungry because they’re incompetent, they’re hungry because the rest of us think that the possibility they may be getting away with something is more important than hunger.


A longer version of this post is on the Touchstone blog

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About the author
Richard is an regular contributor. He is the TUC’s Senior Policy Officer covering social security, tax credits and labour market issues.
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Reader comments


1. Red Fraggle

Very difficult if you’re housed – impossible for anyone who is homeless (and the number of people in this situation is increasing).

Nowhere to store or prepare food for a start!

£1 a day. Lets see the poisonous Paul Dacre show how easy that is. Cut his salary from £1.8million to £365 immediately. At the least it’d save Viscount Rothermere a few quid for the upkeep of his £40million mansion even though he claims to be a non-dom for tax dodging purposes. Funny that never gets mentioned in the Heil along with his MAD pact with Dirty Desmond

3. Shatterface

Benefits were set at punitive levels already – but the new sanctions regime takes it to a whole new level.

There are two ways to make work rewarding, either increase pay so that those in work witness a noticeable increase in living standards due to their hard work thus making work attractive, or make life an unbearable grind of poverty and kafkaesqe grilling for the unemployed so that any old respite is better than that.

The second is notably cheaper to achieve…

5. Shatterface

Never mind, Millipede has the answer:

Introduce a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, a paid job for every adult who is out of work for more than two years. People would have to take up those jobs or lose benefits.

After two years on benefit they’ll be forced to work selling horse-meat lasagne for Aldi or they can sleep rough and eat at a soup kitchen.

6. Chaise Guevara

Good article. Spot on.

By the way, I’ve got the impression that this “poor living on a pound a day” thing is based on international data. If so, does it strike anyone else as silly to challenge people to do this in the UK?

The 1948 National Assistance Act superceded the 1834 New Poor Law Act but only in name, Beveridge (a Liberal) intended that being on benefits should not be attractive and so the Utiltarian philosophy which guided the New Poor Law was adopted for the welfare state.

The problem is that it was supposed to operate in an environment of full-employment (for men), so when the economic policy changed (care of Thatcher), demands on the welfare state increased beyond what it was designed to deliver. Also other factors such as the ageing society (an unintended consequence of the welfare state) and the massive welfare bill now paid to working people have multiplied out of control.

The tories are reacting the same way as both the Liberals and tories in the wake of unemployment in the 19th century, pointing to the ‘undeserving poor’. Next thing will be a lecture on self-help, possibly a free copy of the book of the same name given to all the undeserving layabouts.

8. mike cobley

“This isn’t a conscious policy of forcing malnutrition on millions of fellow-citizens..”

I cant agree – I think there is a conscious doctrine that the poor (and the new poor) of Europe/UK need to be disciplined, need to have their expectations demolished. The rich are not like us – they believe they are entitled to everything, which includes the right to decide the future of the non-rich.

9. Churm Rincewind

@ (6) Chaise Guevara: This whole “living on a pound a day” thing is based on whether it’s possible to eat nutritiously for this amount, and it’s just about arguable that this can be achieved (assuming you have the requisite knowledge and skills to do so).

As for “living” – i.e. including the costs of accommodation and other basics – then, no, it’s not possible to live in the UK on a pound a day, and anyone who says so is lying. Oh, silly me, the story was in the Mail, and I see that it’s already been pretty much discredited by its own readers.

10. So Much for Subtlety

Just as important, the longer it lasts, the greyer life becomes, the more depressing. No wonder many people in long-term poverty are desperate to hang on to whatever “luxuries” they still have; lectures about this from the comfortable are beneath contempt.

So unemployment is bad. The solution is clearly to force people back into work. Workfare, not welfare. And you may be right about unemployment being depressing, but the point is not whether they want to hold on to their luxuries but whether it is a good idea for the rest of us to pay for what is essentially fraud – they are claiming hunger but buying SKY.

But in the end that was irrelevant: people on benefits don’t have a hard time because they lack the skills to make the most of their benefits, their benefits are deliberately set at a level where most people will find it hard to cope.

And this is bad because ….?

This isn’t a conscious policy of forcing malnutrition on millions of fellow-citizens

As if any of the vastly overweight British underclass is even remotely at risk of malnutrition!

it’s the inevitable result of a political conversation dominated by the obsession that the poor may be putting one over on the rest of us.

Rightly. The dole should not be an attractive lifestyle.

People aren’t hungry because they’re incompetent, they’re hungry because the rest of us think that the possibility they may be getting away with something is more important than hunger.

Well people are not hungry because they are not hungry. But in so far as they do not have all the flat screen TVs they would like, they do not because the rest of us feel, in general but weak terms, that welfare should be about helping people back into work. Not making them so comfortable they never want to work again. As it does now.

11. ludicrous pseudonym

@10

Ever been on benefits?

Also…

“they are claiming hunger but buying SKY.” (citation needed)
“As if any of the vastly overweight British underclass is even remotely at risk of malnutrition!” (citation needed)
“making them so comfortable they never want to work again. As it does now.” (citation needed)

0/3, must try harder.

@SMFS

As if any of the vastly overweight British underclass is even remotely at risk of malnutrition!

I predict that you will now be lectured by someone who will explain that obesity and malnutrition are not mutually exclusive and that the underclass are generally obese because they lack the necessary time to prepare food properly and the education, or intelligence, to feed themselves nutritionally.

Those are the reasons, you will be told, why they do not go to shops to buy food, take it home and cook it but instead have Dominoes and the kebab shop on speed dial.

Now it is certainly true that laziness and lack of self respect often go hand in hand with stupidity and that might reasonably be considered an excuse for those who adopt, or maintain, such a lifestyle. It is not their fault, it might be argued, that they were unfortunate enough to be spawned out of a degenerated gene pool and lacked decent role models.

But it is the allegedly intelligent state, supported by the votes of the vast bulk of the population, who pay them to permit the kind of lifestyle that fosters obesity.

The direct policies of successive governments have encouraged our underclass to feed, and become stronger and yet we have those, like the writer of the OP, who claim that the problem is that we have not succoured them enough. They need more money to buy more pizzas!!!

The implied excuse, articulated above, for the indolent lifestyles of the underclass is that they are congenitally stupid.

What’s ours?

@Pagar – The Kebab shop AND dominos? Most of the people I know on benefits generally just order from the Kebab shop if they’re getting take out pizza, about half-third of the price of dominos. Even that’s splurging, you can get a massive oven-busting pizza from Asda for around 4 quid. Which is about 3 quid cheaper than your average kebab shop small pizza.
Then again all the people on benefits that I know also happen to be those sort who could eat loads and not put any weight on, so they’re all skinny as fuck. High metabolism ftw.

14. MarkAustin

One of the things that people overlook in these “you can live on £x a week” artcles is purchase sizes.

If you are (relatively) weel-off, you can afford large packet size of basics, e.g. frozen peas.

Check out the supermarket shelves in prosperous and porr areas. In the former 2-5 lb bags. In the latter 8 oz perdominate.

These smaller bags are relatively more expensive, but people on low income/benefits can’t afford the investment of buying the larger sizes.

15. mike cobley

So, Pagar and So Much For Subtlety – wow, I’m impressed by the candour. You both make it clear how much you despise the poor. I guess when benefit claimants are reduced to using sacks for clothes, have their heads shaven and are living in grey-painted dormitories, you’ll give a little sniff of satisfaction then go on to examine new studies offering ways to cut still further the intolerable burden of the poor.

15

And Pagar and SMFS forget about the large amount of pensions paid-out each week to those feckless pensioners. No good arguing that they have paid into the system (or not as the case may be), it is the current taxpayers who are funding their lifestyle.

I wonder how many MPs actually cook from scratch as opposed to buying food others have cooked. I wonder how many of today’s unemployed were offered domestic science as a subject at school and were taught how to cook cheap, nutritious food. I wonder how many of the smug people who criticise unemployed people for unhealthy eating don’t live in high-unemployment ‘food deserts’ with lots of takeaways and little good quality cheap fresh food. I don’t wonder why there’s a gap between expectation and reality when it comes to eating healthily and adequately on the dole.

From the Daily Heil (I’ll disinfect myself thoroughly in a moment) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2317084/Iain-Duncan-Smiths-threat-Treasury-Ill-bite-balls-send-box.html
A question which must be asked is what did Smith plan to do with the balls which would necessitate them being sent by post to their erstwhile owner rather than being handed to him after the chomping had occurred?
Perhaps this is this a trial of a new sanction for the unemployed? Time and effort will prevent Smith personally biting the nads off every jobseeker so they’ll be forced to bite their own plums off. Dental records will be checked against bite marks when scrotums are presented at the jobcentre to check there’s been no cheating. Inability to bite one’s own testicles off will be grounds for a further sanction. Thus Smith solves the problem of scroungers breeding for the enormous welfare payments.

Iain Duncan Smith is:
a) Very bad tempered.
b) A complete stranger to reality
c) Madder than a bag of badgers
d) All of the above and then some

Mike @ 15

You both make it clear how much you despise the poor.

It’s not about despising the poor, just about not loving them too much…..

21. Derek Hattons Tailor

I don’t buy that they lack the time (who has more time than the unemployed and yes I have been), education (cookery was phased out of school curricula by the feminists and replaced by a lot of middle class “healthy eating” propaganda and cooking ability passed down by the family was lost in the statist attack on the family). As to lack of intelligence: eating is a natural act, it’s like saying stupid people have more trouble breathing than clever ones.


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