The Poor Law Mentality Raises its Ugly Head

There has been a lot of comment in the media about the programme "Benefits Street." This show was just another in a long line of interventions by the media at the behest of politicians aimed at hounding people on beneifits. Last year when the Mail and Express launched yet another attack on poor people and there was a threat to remove certain benefits from people, I wrote the following article for the Citizen, which is a journal produced by the Scottish Campaign for Socialism. It is just as relevant nearly a year on in response to the latest assault on the poor embodied in "Benefits Street". 

 The Poor Law Mentality Raises Its Ugly Head

 John McDonnell MP

When recessions begin to bite and unemployment and poverty mount, there has to be someone or something to blame. Initially it’s anyone or anything other than the real culprits or the real causes.

For three centuries the philosophy of the Poor Law has been drilled into the working class psyche. This dictates that unemployment and poverty are personal failings. It’s not the economic system that’s at fault or the distribution of wealth or power in society. There must be something lacking in the individual if he or she can’t support themselves and their family.

Poor Law morality determines that if people are poor because they are physically or mentally incapable of supporting themselves; they are to be pitied and become the grateful recipients of charity. On the other hand, if they are physically able and not working, they must be consciously avoiding work and therefore have to be chided, sanctioned and forced into employment.

Cast doubt on the assertion that poverty is a personal failing, then the whole question arises that if it’s not the individual to blame it may be the system.

This is exactly the collective thought process that British society went through during the last great capitalist economic crisis which caused the decade-long depression of the 1930s and produced the Second World War.

Two iconic scenes from Ken Loach’s recent film, “The Spirit of 45,” capture the discussions amongst the air raid wardens resting on their bunks between raids and troops returning from war, as they decide that it’s not the individual but the system that needs changing if the scourges of the pre-war unemployment and poverty are to be beaten.

This generation struggled to throw off the Poor Law ideological burden of personal guilt for poverty. After the experience of mass unemployment in the 30s, people understood better that the precarious existence they lived was caused by a system that held them in insecurity and limited their own and their children’s chances in life.

The catch phrase of the time of “Never Again” reflected the determination of working class people to secure change and never to return to the poverty and deprivation of the 1930s. The expression “We are all in this together,” stolen by the present day Tories, reflected not only the social solidarity of the times but also, more importantly, an understanding of the need to move forward to a new future collectively.

The Welfare State was created to reflect this collective approach. The Attlee Government ensured that nobody was to be excluded from universal access to the benefits of the Welfare State. In this way society would be bound together in a joint venture to improve the

quality of life for everyone.

This universal inclusivity secured much greater support and afforded much greater protection for this new social settlement for the future than if any class or group was excluded or singled out.

The Fabian Society’s report “The Solidarity Society” was published in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of the Minority Report that was written by Beatrice Webb to the 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Law. The Fabian report explains just why this concept of universalism was so central a foundation stone of the new welfare state. It cites three factors.

The first is that universal institutions are an expression of the core ideal of social equality and express our common membership of society and equality of status. Universal institutions do not differentiate between people whilst targeting and means testing make it all too easy for the disadvantaged to be stigmatised and treated as the undeserving.

The second is that empirically and possibly counter-intuitively, universal benefits are generally more effective at getting the help to where it is needed and overcoming problems of low take up. Apart from the administrative simplicity of distributing universal benefits, targeting divides the population into recipients and non recipients and helps create a perception that it is not respectable to claim benefits. The result, for example, is that that one third of pensioners do not claim the pension credit they are entitled to and one half do not claim their council tax benefit.

The third factor is that universalism shapes the support for the welfare policies. Targeting leads to segregation and a sense of “them and us.” The more a benefit is targeted, the more it becomes associated with a stigmatised group and the more its popular legitimacy is undermined. Whilst the wider coverage of a universal benefit can tap into middle class self interest as a source of support for the welfare state and align the interests of middle income groups with those on lower incomes.

The mass support for a universal welfare state was so deep that it outlasted the Attlee government and meant that no Conservative Government for three decades felt able to challenge it.

It also meant that Thatcher, and every neo-liberal since, came to understand that a frontal assault on the welfare state would not succeed because it would be met with opposition from a wide coalition of supporters from across society and most classes. Instead an incremental chipping away at the universal nature of the welfare state might enable a reactionary government to divide and rule.

This has been the exact policy of the neo-liberals in government over the last three decades pursued either consciously by Conservatives governments or, if we are being charitable, unwittingly by New Labour’s Blair and Brown. It’s worth recalling that means testing was extended by the Blair and Brown administrations with a vengeance and the concept of deserving and undeserving poor began to creep back into public policy under them.

An economic crisis makes it that much easier for right wing governments to dismantle the universality of the welfare state with the beguiling argument that the fewer resources available need to be spent on the poorest. This line of thought then leads almost seamlessly to a conclusion that these scarce resources must also be targeted at the most deserving.

With often the best of intentions, Labour politicians become drawn into the debate about the rationing of resources and invidiously into distinguishing between those in need and those that deserve assistance.

It is then that we discover the Poor Law morality of blaming poverty on the individual and not the system is quite shockingly not far beneath the surface. The irony is that there is no reason for Labour to even be drawn into this debate. There is no shortage of resources in

Britain, the seventh richest country in the world. Consequently there is no reason why anyone should live in poverty in our country and there is no insurmountable barrier or lack of a mechanism for mobilising these resources to provide for a fully funded welfare state, providing and distributing its services and benefits on a universal basis.

The introduction of a few simple mechanisms for redistributing wealth and raising the resources to invest to create jobs in our economy would largely obviate the need for much of this unnecessary debate between universalism and targeting. It only appears relevant when there is an apparent shortage of resources. All socialists should keep repeating “there is no shortage of resources.”

If this sounds unrealistic, then simply note that when the banks needed the equivalent of a large welfare benefit payment, the Bank of England and the Government found £1.3 trillion virtually instantly .

There is a standard checklist of how to raise these resources that includes amongst many others tackling tax evasion and avoidance, and introducing a wealth tax, a financial transaction tax on speculation and a land valuation tax.

As our people experience the ravages of the bedroom tax, the new council tax poll tax, the Atos led assault on benefits and the increasing use of benefit sanctions, it is the ideal time for Labour to commit itself not just to reverse these iniquitous attacks but also to a return to a welfare state in which we are all genuinely in this together.

 

This entry was posted in 2013 spring, articles. Bookmark the permalink.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.