Fed a relentless drip-drip of ‘benefit cheat’ stories from politicians and the media, it’s easy to see why voters think big cuts can be made to welfare without threatening the basic principles of the welfare safety net that they still strongly support. But the real and present danger to our welfare system is the government itself.
We're being deliberately fed a grossly distorted story about the extent to which benefit fraud drains the welfare state. Meanwhile focus is diverted away from the real issue: brutal government plans led by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, for a gaping five week wait before the newly unemployed can claim state support, squeezing welfare for those who genuinely need it like never before. If this is intended to penalise the ‘idle poor’, it just doesn’t stack up:
FACT: The government's own figures show benefit fraud costs just 0.7% of the total welfare budget. Yet a 2013 YouGov poll for the TUC found that on average people believed the figure to be an eye-watering 27%.
Don’t get us wrong, there is fraud and it does need to be addressed: “Supporters of a decent welfare system do not defend those setting out to defraud it,” says the TUC's Frances O’Grady. “They let everyone who needs a decent welfare system down, and only help its enemies". But we should recognise government and media attempts to whip it out of all proportion: “Instead we have to change the subject to show that what people do support in the welfare system is under threat,” says O’Grady.
FACT: Benefits to unemployed people make up 3% of the welfare budget. The same poll reveals a similar distortion in public perception: on average, people put the figure at 41%.
FACT: Only 1 in 10 people remain on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) for one year or more. Not 48%, as participants in our study had been led to believe. This puts paid to the notion that the long-term unemployed are any more than a secondary issue. Besides, it’s not as if anyone is going to get rich on JSA, which pays just over £10 a day. The vast majority of people being squeezed don’t need a ‘stick’ to force them into work – they want and need decent, secure jobs paying a living wage.
The Five Week Wait is the real threat to our cherished welfare system.
The figures speak for themselves. The fraudsters targeted by Duncan Smith’s ‘Five Week Wait’ are a drop in the ocean. The people who will really bear the brunt of the wait are the very people the welfare system was designed to support. These are the millions of people in the growing number of badly-paid, temporary and insecure jobs that characterises the current employment landscape in Britain.
The nature of casualised, insecure work means many of them are at almost continuous risk of becoming unemployed, and on such low wages that they have little ability to save or survive without income for a period as long as five weeks. They could so easily face the prospect of rent arrears, food shortages and falling back on payday loans that could tip them into spiralling debt. The DWP’s own analysis suggests as much, yet they plan to press on regardless.
This is the real story of welfare today, and one with which we should be challenging the government at every available opportunity. Starting now.