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Posts Tagged ‘welfare’

Often, what prods me to get tetchy and social-justicey on the internet and bash out a minor socialist tirade has a lot to do with the free-loader problem.

Someone else writes about the problem of other people “expecting everything to be handed to them”, and how this is a major societal catastrophe which their preferred political system is capable of handling, while your preferred political system would give free reign to these entitled monsters and then calamity would somehow ensue.

My objection tends to be to the mischaracterisation: it’s not only dehumanising to brand a class of people as moochers in this way, it’s an incorrect assessment of how entitlement is actually distributed. It’s not actually true that capitalism is busy rewarding the hard work of those noble industrialists who contribute the most to society, despite the best efforts of entitled poor people to undermine the whole enterprise with their unreasonable demands for free stuff to just be given to them. This is an untrue narrative that serves to further entrench class divides and add to the troubles of those already having the hardest time.

Reading one particular justification of class inequality the other day, though, I had another thought: What’s so wrong with wanting stuff handed to you?

I mean, as the foibles of humanity go, we’re capable of vastly worse, and this one seems to be either justified or largely self-regulating.

If you demand the handing-over of unnecessary luxuries which you haven’t earned and people don’t think you deserve, then what you’ll actually receive is probably disappointment and frustration.

And if what you expect to have handed to you isn’t a luxury but part of the bare minimum requirements to allow you a tolerable existence, then maybe these are things we should just be handing to people regardless of how obnoxiously we think they’re asking for it?

So why is it worth the rest of us making such a fuss over it? If someone’s expecting too much to be handed to them which they don’t deserve, they’re damning themselves. If they’re expecting to be handed things people should feel entitled to, are you going to be the one to look at them holding their hands out and say “NOPE, sorry, you go hungry and sleep outside tonight because you were too much of a dick when you asked for food and shelter”?

It’s relatable, I admit, the way this freeloading problem is something people react to very viscerally and emotionally. But I’m not persuaded that a rational assessment would actually identify this as a major problem deserving of such a harsh crackdown. It might make you angry, and that’s understandable, but that doesn’t make you right, or give you right to indulge those angry instincts without questioning whether that helps anything. The fact that even mild entitlement earns such vicious castigation is a quirk of human psychology, not a fact about how objectively terrible people are.

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I mean, the science is pretty clearly in, so we know the social and economic benefits of providing everyone with a basic income would be vast. Apparently another bonus is that it makes people “more entrepreneurial“, whatever that means and whatever’s so great about it. Sounds less exciting than escaping the constant anxiety of being homeless and starving if the intrinsically fragile capitalist economy has a bit of a bad day and decides to fuck you up, but sure.

But another thing that’s actually interesting about it, is that a basic income makes sense of a bunch of other policies many economists have recommended, but which often make bleeding-heart lefty types like me bristle.

F’rinstance: charging people a flat fee to see their GP or attend A&E. All the articles I’m finding about it seem to be at least a year old, but I’m sure this cropped up again somewhere just recently.

Basic economics tells us that an increase in something’s price will reduce the volume of its consumption; an increase from free, to a nominal fee of £10 a visit, would ease the burden faced by the NHS and reduce the volume of people using its services, but only those people whose problems are worth less than a tenner would be foregoing any medical attention. Care is still available to anyone who’d really benefit from it, but those who don’t really need it won’t go along anyway on the grounds that “might as well, it’s all free”.

The point of having money, after all, is to allow people to express preferences in a meaningful, concrete way. People who wouldn’t “prefer” to see a doctor than whatever else that small nominal fee could provide – coffee with a friend in Starbucks, say – probably aren’t going to die or deteriorate abruptly based on that decision, since it can’t be bothering them that much.

The problem, as things currently stand, is that the people who’d end up “preferring” to do something else with their nominal fee wouldn’t be choosing between a hospital visit and some overpriced caffeine; they’d be choosing between a hospital visit and the gas bill for keeping their home warm. Or the food they were planning to buy for their children this week. Or the bus fare to get to the Jobcentre so the bastards don’t fucking sanction them again.

Some people are so rich they can have basically all the things they want, and the use of money as a way to express preference becomes meaningless on this scale, while some people are so screwed over by the system already that they don’t get to make choices between preferences in a way that’s remotely fair. Even if you try and means-test it, it’s another hurdle requiring poor people to prove their neediness once again before granting them access to basic medical care.

If only there was some way to make sure people didn’t face that kind of harsh, brutal, unjust, life-or-death dichotomy, and were free to make genuinely economically rational choices about how to allocate the resources available to them.

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Astonishingly enough, it turns out that, if your strategies for saving money are inhumane and uncaring, you’ll just end up making things more difficult, more painful, and more expensive for everyone.

In this particular case, spending a little less now to help people with mental health problems means we have to spend a lot more later when those mental health problems become more serious.

(See also needle exchange programmes, which demonstrably reduce harm caused by compulsive drug use in a remarkably cost-effective way, but which have an iffy history of interaction with government at best, and are rejected by many politicians on some kind of moral “principle”, regardless of how much they help.)

I guess there’s no inviolable natural law as to why, in theory, governments mightn’t be capable of rising above this kind of short-termism, and responding to a troubled economy by taking actions that would actually save money rather than making everyone’s lives worse. But it’s not how things often seem to work in practice.

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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Poverty

Here’s Alex Andreou writing about living in poverty and being homeless.

Here are 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.

Here is someone else explaining Why I Make Terrible Decisions.

Just thinking about the kind of actual poverty that exists and that we let people fall into makes my stomach cramp with anxiety.

And hey, here’s a pretty fucking important question about, say, Alex’s case. At what point would he have been motivated out of his situation by harsher benefits cuts, or unpaid work experience, or being forced out of his house and made to find somewhere smaller in a different area because of the bedroom tax?

By what process could providing him with less support have motivated him to work harder and magically produce more for himself?

What, in short, the fuck, to be blunt, do you expect some people to do?

(There probably isn’t nothing which Alex could have done to avoid getting into such dire straits. With 20-20 hindsight, it may be possible to see different actions which might have helped him avoid his fate. Kinda like how women wouldn’t get raped so much if they stayed sober and dressed demurely at all times.)

This is reason #681947 why I’m in favour of a generous welfare state (insofar as there’s going to be a state at all). Because this is the reality for many people, and the way to improve things for everyone involves helping them.

Which isn’t an idea that seems to get a lot of play in the public conversation – in part, I suspect, because it’s just not a reality whose grisly details you get to see that often. Channel 5 haven’t commissioned a series called “Homeless and Ashamed“, to my knowledge. That wouldn’t tap into the right insecurities and prejudices and create a ratings-winning Twitterstorm of hate and division.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Where should the balance lie between helping people support themselves, and not supporting them so much that they become complacent and lazy?

2. Are you impressed I didn’t explicitly shoehorn in another chance to bang on about how much easier a universal basic income would make all of this?

3. Why haven’t those infographics I keep seeing on Twitter completely solved the problem of the general public’s flawed perception of benefit claimants?

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I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.

There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.

1. Born this way

Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.

But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.

It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.

Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?

If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.

There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”

2. Big is beautiful

You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.

There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.

It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.

Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?

Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.

And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.

3. “Hardworking people

There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.

For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.

But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.

I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.

Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.

Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?

2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?

3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?

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take time this winter to check that elderly friends or neighbours are ok – sign up to be a winter friend

So the Secretary of State for Health tweeted earlier today, adding a link to an NHS page about how awful winter is for many elderly folks and how we can all help it suck a little less.

This seemed largely in keeping with Tory policy in general, which I rather unfairly characterised thusly at the time:

Come on, poors, huddle together for warmth. What’s that? Help with your heating or food bills from the millionaires in charge? Piss off.

There’s an interesting thing, though, about the government’s regular advice on charity, and how we can all help each other out when times are tough, and other such flimsy shreds of Big Society remnants – in particular, in how much it differs from their own policies on matters of poverty and welfare.

When it comes to charity, and the idea of individuals selflessly helping others, the coalition say many of the right things. Giving some of your time to check in on your more frail neighbours, donating to food banks, volunteering with children – the kind of stuff it’s basically impossible to get wrong, so long as you have the barest understanding of how platitudes work. The emphasis is all on generosity and kindness and compassion, which are wonderful things even when right-wing politicians are giving them lip service. And the image they paint of a community looking after each other and socialising warmly is a charming one.

Pop round to visit old Mrs Beadle at number 36 and see if she’s got enough blankets, or needs some help working the thermostat, or might just appreciate some company for an hour or two now her son’s moved away for his job and can’t visit so often. Knock on the door of that grumpy chap with one leg whose name you’ve never got to know, and see if there’s anything neighbourly you can do even though he always seems to be glowering and he’s not that easy to be around. Ask if there’s anything that harried single mum would love the time for this Christmas, which an offer of an evening’s childcare might make possible. There are lots of really nice ways to make the world better and kinder, which are entirely in line with the government’s own advice.

But wait… Are we really just meant to pop round and help, no questions asked? Just, see if there’s something good to be done, and offer to do it? Give up something of our own through simple generosity, and make the world a little brighter for others? We’re meant to do all this… without interrogating all these people in our community as to whether they deserve our help?

Maybe you’re better acquainted with your own neighbours than I am with mine, but I haven’t done nearly enough background checks into these people to be sure that I’ve rooted out all the scroungers.

Why doesn’t Mrs Beadle order some warmer clothes and blankets online, or support a local small business by hiring someone to help her out with any gadgets and whatnot around the house that she might find confusing? She could offset the expense by trying Princess Whiskerbelle on an unbranded catfood for a while – there’s such a thing as responsible budgeting, you know. It may not exactly be in the spirit of charity, but until she gets her paperwork together to prove that she really is finding it tough, how can I be sure my valuable time is being well spent when I go to sit with her?

And that guy with one leg – is he really “disabled” and in need of help? There’s plenty of things you can do which you don’t need both your legs for, but he seems to be at home most of the time, so for all I know he’s not even bothered looking for ways to support himself. If I start going round and offering to help out with things he might struggle with, for free, then I may just be reinforcing the kind of habits which aren’t good for any of us in the long-term.

Obviously this is completely the wrong attitude. But the fact that the government act like it’s obvious too is actually rather odd. They’re not encouraging us, on a personal level, to be stingy, to be pernickety bean-counters, to demand evidence making sure that the old and infirm humans to whom we’re considering giving our time (and by extension money) are sufficiently deserving. We’re told to just go out and help. Be there for people. Give them your time. Donate what you can. Support the needy and less fortunate.

Whereas when they do it, the amount they end up spending on administration costs, to make sure that nobody has a chance to mooch a single penny more than they’re “entitled” to, is so vast that they could practically solve the whole problem for no more than it’s currently costing them to maintain and exacerbate it. The DWP recently wrote off over £40,000,000 on a failed IT system. That’s just one futile project with nothing to show for it, in one department, with many more examples like it. Hundreds of millions of pounds being spent elsewhere on nothing more than counter-productive penny-pinching.

And meanwhile, every time there’s a chance to avoid paying a meagre but vital weekly allowance to someone who needs it – whether it’s by inhumane and stupid sanctions or making someone with cerebral palsy check in every few months to see if they’ve got better yet – they pounce on it. According to one whistleblower, for people working in Jobcentre offices, not finding enough excuses to stop enough people’s benefits would result in disciplinary action.

It’s quite a cosy dichotomy our ruling class have set up for themselves. While it’s just the great unwashed masses offering charity to each other, free and easy is the way to go. Give generously! Spare what you can! If someone looks like they’re in need, assume they really are, and have a heart in these difficult times. But when it comes to their own funds – which they’ve legitimately earned by calling it taxes and taking it directly from us, remember – then everyone’s a thieving scrounger until proven otherwise. And quite often even then.

Come on, poors. Huddle together for warmth. And don’t be selfish with those blankets I see a few of you wrapping around yourselves. Charity’s important this time of year.

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