There is much talk here at the moment about welfare benefits. The Government has been trying to do something about the enormous sums of benefits being paid out by encouraging more to seek work, by limiting the receivable sums, making benefits less than the minimum wage, etc, etc. Of course the newspapers are very good at finding individuals who milk the system and I have strived to bear in mind that these are individuals, not necessarily typical.
But I have been struck by a recent change of direction and the media's depiction of individuals who 'can't afford to live' on current benefit levels. In many cases I am sure that might be a real problem, but the article I read today was something of a double edged criticism. Maybe that was deliberate?
One individual was diagnosed with a degenerative disease and was wheelchair bound. But, interestingly, he complained that he couldn't afford to pay for his house with current benefit levels and now had to move into a home.
I suppose, for someone who had always had a certain amount of independence, and his own home to boot, moving to some sort of public authority accommodation must have a further depressing impact on his life. But, actually, isn't this what welfare is for? If you are unfortunate enough to be unable to work and can't afford your own house, we have a complex system of public provision available, whether you're infirm or simply temporarily unemployed and whether you're without housing or income to pay for it. I should have thought that this individual was exactly of the category for whom the welfare system was established.
But it's interesting, isn't it, that even he felt that benefits should give him an income sufficient to live and buy/rent the house he wanted, rather than provide a fallback position for unfortunates like him. I have always seen the welfare system as a safety net to prevent poverty or immobility, not a ladder to somewhere wage earners and able-bodied citizens have reached. I would accept benefits myself, if not with regret, at least with a certain amount of humility, not as an option.
The second example that caught my eye was perhaps the classic 'benefit scrounger'. I shan't go into detail about her complaints and suspicious special needs; it was her criticism of the system that was significant. She said that she had worked for 22 years and 'paid her dues' and now she was entitled to benefits. 'I just want my money,' she said.
I hadn't I don't think seen quite that argument before, as though the welfare system is a savings account or an insurance policy to which you contribute over the years. Of course to some extent she's right - workers do contribute to a public pension and to a fund from which unemployment benefit is paid, and of course the free healthcare system is based on contributions. But the thought that at some stage you might have earned the right to be paid by the State, rather than work, is an interesting extension.
Clearly, such a proposition is unsustainable. With longer life expectancy, even State pensions have proved unsustainable. If we all stopped working before retirement age and received a living wage from the State, Britain would be even more bankrupt. But it does make you think. Do we all benefit sufficiently from all the taxes and salary deductions we pay? Should we demand our 'fair share' or is it right to expect us all to pay for the benefit of all and perhaps not get anything back? Is welfare in fact a right which we are entitled to claim whenever we wish.
Of course thinking of payments as being towards individual benefits is probably an argument for private insurance, but that would be as unacceptable to most of us as this woman's attitude is to many. That would probably mean the gradual dismantling of the Welfare State, which I don't think we're quite ready for yet. Perhaps the main problem we face today is simply that the system was set up nearly 70 years ago and few of us remember how things were and why the original plan was so revolutionary. The 70th anniversary of the creation of the Welfare State is in a couple of year's time; maybe that will be the time to publicise the whys and wherefores and make a fresh start?