AN IMPORTANT new study has blown a hole through the central ideas behind New Labour's welfare 'reform'. The study is called Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the Myths by social policy expert Paul Spicker. It is published by the 'think-tank' Catalyst, whose members include Labour's former deputy leader Roy Hattersley.
The right wing press, the Tories and New Labour constantly peddle the idea that poverty is down to 'irresponsible' behaviour, such as drug taking, teenage pregnancy or crime. But this study slams that, saying, 'poverty is not a problem of the behaviour of poor people.' The report attacks the idea that the poor have become dependent on welfare 'handouts'.
And it confirms what Socialist Worker has long argued - that the idea of an 'underclass' of the permanently 'socially excluded' is a myth. The report shows that people move in and out of poverty as their jobs, marital and other circumstances change. During the 1990s some 60 percent of the population spent at least one year in the bottom 30 percent of income distribution.
'Poverty is generally an experience for part of people's lives, not for all of it,' says the report. The report reveals that a much greater proportion of the population is prone to poverty than is often assumed by politicians. It quotes figures from the Rowntree Foundation that show some 14.5 million people, over one quarter of the population, are living in poverty.
The poorest are young, single people who are not working, families with young children, female single parents, people with disabilities, and older pensioners. The report adds, 'Although these groups are more vulnerable, it is not clear that any group is immune to poverty.' 'Most of the population is likely to have been on a low income for at least some time in the last few years.'
The report is scathing about the New Labour politicians who say there is an 'underclass, shut out from society'. 'Poverty means that people who are poor lack the diets, amenities, opportunities and scope for participation in society that others have. It is striking that so many people seem to go through poverty, particularly during childhood, without becoming alienated from society,' says the report.
The report accuses New Labour of repeating the myths perpetrated by right wingers like the former Tory minister Keith Joseph, who talked about a 'cycle of deprivation' of the 'feckless poor'.
David Blunkett, the home secretary, said, 'You can give the poor some money for a period of time but they still remain poor.' 'This is false,' states the report. 'People do not remain poor indefinitely. The point of giving them money is to tide them over.'
Since the 1970s, under both Tory and Labour governments, the social security system has become more reliant on means tested benefits and stigmatising people for 'dependency, fraud and unwillingness to work'. The government's welfare reform green paper in 1998 argued, for example, that the welfare system 'chains people to passive dependency'.
The problem with benefits is not that they are too high but that they are hard to claim and set at very low levels. 'They are enough to cover the costs of physical existence, but not enough for a basic standard of living as it is normally understood, let alone for income replacement.' The report argues that 'it's not benefits, it's the economy' which determines whether people find work or not:
'The argument that welfare encourages dependency has been around for over 200 years, and has repeatedly been disproved by changes in the economy.' The report also shows that welfare costs are not spiralling out of control and that benefit fraud is totally exaggerated.
It concludes that rather than stigmatise the poor through means tested benefits and punitive sanctions, the government should provide universal benefits: 'Poverty is not the moral, cultural or social problem of a permanently excluded underclass, but an economic risk that affects everyone. The purpose of the welfare state should not be to target programmes more carefully on 'the poor', but to ensure there is a general framework of resources, services and opportunities which are adequate for people's needs, and can be used by everyone.'
You can read the report at www.catalyst-trust.co.uk