Falling support for benefits is based on a delusion
It's a delusion that everyone living on benefits is a con artist who’s playing the system and living in luxury that most of us couldn’t afford.
“Benefits cheat given £135k!” “Single mother of six given mansion!” “Ten-strong Somali family on benefits live in a £2 million council home!” Those are all stories that have appeared in the press recently and we simply lap them up.
It’s so easy to be angry about the “feckless fathers” of 16 living in deliberate joblessness on ‘Shameless’ estates. The single mothers having babies each year and demanding bigger council houses. The immigrants who’ve never contributed to the economy but are given mansions.
Sometimes, the tabloids even get to interview the families in question and gleefully report back on their plasma TVs and Nike trainers. Eventually, we’re left with the delusion that everyone living on benefits is a con artist who’s playing the system and living in luxury that most of us couldn’t afford.
But that is a delusion. The reason those news stories are news stories is because they’re unusual. Most benefits claimants are not playing the system; in fact, most are living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence.
Is it possible that the occasional news story highlighting deliberate joblessness has blinded us to the real need for benefits?
Yet research published today by social research group NatCen reveals that British attitudes to benefits are hardening. More than six in 10 of those questioned believe that unemployment benefits are too high and encourage people to stay out of work.
That compares to 24% of the population in the early 90s (also during a recession) – meaning public support for benefits has dropped off a cliff.
Is it possible that the occasional news story highlighting deliberate joblessness has blinded us to the real need for benefits? Unemployment surged during the recent recession, plunging far more families into life on the dole.
But £71 a week is hardly dangerously generous – and that’s the maximum. It’s £56.25 if you’re under 25, while couples are entitled to just £111.45 in Jobseeker’s Allowance. That’s not pocket money; people are paying for food, clothes, heating, their TV licenses, their phone bills… Life on benefits is far from easy.
I personally know three people who have lost or are likely to lose their DLA under the new system.
The press also loves a story about those on Disability Living Allowance – like the man who’s been unable to work for three decades due to a bad back, but has been caught making a charity parachute jump.
But again, these stories disguise the truth. I personally know three people who have lost or are likely to lose their DLA under the new system. None of them is employable, they all need regular days off for medical treatment and one suffers from uncontrollable, unpredictable fits. They would struggle to find work they could manage during a boom, let alone during a recession when graduates are desperate to stack shelves.
Yet that’s not what we think of when we think of benefits. We think of Shameless and Vicky Pollard and the last tabloid news story we read.
- Felicity Hannah is a personal finance journalist living in the north of England.
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