Recent debate in the UK about ‘Universal Credit’ (the primary system of delivering State funds to the poorest) got me thinking about the role of welfare in current political discourse and its effects on the debate.
Universal Credit was temporarily uplifted by the British Government to the sum of £20 a week during the Covid-19 Pandemic. That uplift was reversed at the beginning of October 2021 to much political and media discussion ranging from arguments that the UK’s public finances needed to get back under control and recover from emergency pandemic spending, to that it was a harsh, cruel cut to Britain’s very poorest at a time when other costs of living e.g. energy prices and food inflation were increasing. It is of course a complicated area – for example, we know that c.40% of people who get Universal (UC) Credit are already in work and can’t earn enough, so UC (through quite a complex and controversial formula) in part tops up (and taxes for some extra) wages. Neither is it particularly generous – there are lots of variables depending in individual circumstances, but it seems the average payment is c.£780 a month or £195 a week. This is not big bucks for the recipients.
Rather than the economics I’m actually more interested in the public and political attitudes, over time, which have driven the debate, perception, and attitudes to welfare. Are they an element that has made up the general feeling of disgruntlement in Western democracies, and is in fact any of this new?
You don’t have to go very far to find criticism of welfare with plenty of comments under the line in some newspapers talking about scroungers, fraud, or claims that people in receipt of welfare should really be in work. Skivers! Similarly you can find criticism of welfare in more right wing leading newspapers which can no doubt influence their readers, just as you can find critics of the system (because it its claimed ungenerous nature) on the left of the political spectrum.
Rather I think this discourse is a continuing trend that has been going on for at least two centuries.
Prior to 1834 when the original Tudor Poor Laws based on the parish system were reformed, local government grappled with how to tackle poverty. As is sometimes the case today, elements of the rural poor did not earn enough to meet the cost of living. Grain prices rose in England during the Napoleonic Wars and in Speenhamland in Berkshire a system of ‘top up’ means tested poor relief was adopted in 1795, and copied in many other parishes, to ease poverty. It become known as the ‘Speenhamland System’ yet whilst its motives were well-meaning, it critics (as some do today around current welfare payments) argued that it just encouraged employers to pay below subsistence wages because the parish (and therefore taxpayers who paid the ‘poor rate’) would make up the difference. The system did not fundamentally change the structural fundamental causes of poverty, some of which had been caused by landowners themselves like enclosures of common land which had previously allowed the poor to the subsist without bothering the parish overseers.
The 19th century saw the first nationwide attempt to reform the Poor Laws with the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The Victorians also grappled with their own value judgments about welfare, including trying to decide who were the deserving and undeserving poor. E P Thompson in ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ saw the 1834 Act as ‘idealogical dogma, in defiance of evidence of human need.’ Even people just above the poverty line could be resentful at the thought of those less deserving receiving support. For example, writing in 1873, the journeyman engineer Thomas Wright explained that whilst the craftsman:
‘…resents the spirit in which the follows of genteel occupations look down on him, he in his turn looks down on the labourer. The artisan creed with regard to labourers is that the latter are an inferior class, and that they should be made to know and kept in their place.’
Can we see a version of that comment’s sentiment in media coverage/comments on online news articles today?
The 1834 system was not a national welfare state but the system it replaced had tried genuine attempts to deal with the worst affects of poverty in different areas and reflected a tradition, based in Christian values, that the ruling groups in society, if only to prevent revolution, had accepted some responsibility for the welfare of the poorest. As such the pre-1834 poor law was regarded by the poor themselves as an essential safety net in times of destitution and one from which they had the right to benefit. For example, the 1832 Commission of Inquiry into the operation of the old poor law noted that in Yorkshire ‘relief is demanded as a matter of right, and sometimes with insolence.’ It is this very notion of a ‘right’ to welfare that came under increasing attack before 1834 – again we can pick up anger about welfare as a ‘right’ in public discourse today: “Why should I pay my taxes because so and so is lazy?” The criticism of the undeserving poor remains alive and well.
The 19th century debates naturally became the talk of economists and politicians where we can detect, as now, hostility to the old system and demands for ‘welfare reform’. In 1817 a City stockbroker, David Ricardo, and influenced by the free market thinker Adam Smith wrote a pamphlet ‘Principles of Political Economy and Taxation’ where he referred to his ‘iron law of wages’: any attempt to raise the pay of labourers through the parish poor relief system must necessarily impoverish the population because it would simply encourage dependency, idleness and fecklessness. The debates on the 1834 Poor Law also worked the other way in language like that of William Cobbet MP who claimed the new law was ‘to rob the poor man and enrich the landowner.’ The 1834 law was also subject to much protest from all sides of the argument, including direct resistance and riots.
The debate moved on somewhat in the latter half of the 19th century with more emphasis on charity and philanthropic endeavours, but also a realisation some people who were poor were not the authors of their own misfortune. The literary works of Charles Dickens and his portrayal of the poor and poverty were an important influence on public opinion and the consciousness of policy makers and whilst his works did not offer a consistent view on the problem of poverty, or its solution, he contributed in bringing a human dimension to the problem and a growing unease at the way the poor were treated by authority. At the turn of the 20th century we start to see more liberal measures not least due to more working class people being granted the right to vote. Politicians therefore needed to provide policies that would attract those votes, so we see developments, albeit limited, in state pensions and unemployment benefits. But poverty due to low pay persisted despite government passing the Factory Acts and the intervention in the setting of some wages in 1909. However until the reforms introduced by the Labour Government after 1945 many people still remained outside of the safety net including in terms of housing and the Great Depression of the 1930s made this worse.
But the 19th century ideology that people should help themselves still persisted into the present day. Norman Tebbit ‘on your bike’ comments after the Brixton riots in 1981 has often been seen as a vintage example of the self-help approach to poverty and was much criticised at the time. The narrative of shirkers and skivers reached its apogee between 2010 and 2015. The former British prime minister David Cameron referred in speeches to “benefit scroungers”, while the former chancellor George Osborne pitted the hard-working shift worker against their lazy neighbours who were “sleeping off a life on benefits”. ‘Benefits Street’, a Channel 4 documentary about claimants in a high unemployment area of Birmingham made in 2014 led to further criticism that people were being demonised by the media and used by politicians and campaigners like to advance their points for and against welfare reform. However, in 2019 the Guardian newspaper found that more members of the public agreed with the statement: “benefits are too low and cause hardship” than those who believed benefit levels were too high and discouraged work, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, reversing a hardening of views on social security that dated back to the late 1990s.
The worry of course is that the public discourse is still poisoned by attitudes, views and misconceptions, in places fuelled by the media, that may simply be untrue about the entitlement and level of welfare benefits. There is plenty of recent social research evidence out there to show that the public over-estimate the level of benefits, the amount of alleged fraud, the actual entitlement of immigrants, lawful and unlawful, and prejudice as to what a ‘typical’ benefit claimant looks like.
That’s a necessarily selective summary of my thoughts in an area rich in historical research, statistics, and human stories. But I think the basic point is this: welfare has always been a complex problem, often inadequate, often been met with public scepticism, frequently criticised by some politicians, complicated by ideology and value judgements, and, despite big beneficial changes after 1945, has failed to tackle the fundamental structural issues involved. The situation in 21st century Britain is not new and we are still topping up people’s wages via UC as we were in 1795 because they can’t seem to earn enough because of mix of global, economic or other human factors and tragedies.
The poor of 2021 don’t always have a Charles Dickens to shed light on Britain today, or other Victorian social reformer to champion them. I’d hazard a guess these same global and economic factors are affecting people who do not receive welfare, but who do manage to hold down a job, but are similarly angry, jealous, or concerned about the life prospects of their peers and selves, especially if they think someone is getting money they themselves don’t. It is an emotive subject and as we know emotions can be exploited politically.