Monday, 24 February 2014

Everyone's talking about benefits

Benefits have been dominating the media lately. Partly in response response to a controversial program called Benefits Street that has sparked interest from all over the globe. Then there are other sensationalist headlines such as benefits making people obese. The show focused on a few families and individuals that live on the same street in Birmingham, here in the UK, where the majority of residents clam benefits of some kind. The controversy has mainly surrounded the fact that most of the footage showed the claimants being idle or committing fellonies. Creating major sensationalism and much branding benefits claimants by the images shown on the t.v. A far cry from the true picture of those that need to use the welfare state for additional support. So today's post is all about addressing what the welfare state does/is and try and dissipate any generalisations about claimants.

First of all, what is a welfare state? There are many different welfare state, each according to individual countries. This post will mostly be referring to the welfare state here in Britain. However te concept of a welfare state is the government distributing money, mostly raised by national insurance contributions in latter times, into areas that will benefit its citizens. For example healthcare, education, old age pensions, which were introduced in 1908. In 1942, during the Second World War, the Beveridge report produced by liberal economist Sir William Beveridge to quote Wikipedia (yes I know, naughty, naughty, how very unacademic of me):

'Proposed a series of measures to aid those who were most in need of help or in poverty and recommended that the government find ways of tackling what it called "the five giants", namely; want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. It urged the government to take steps to provide citizens with adequate income, adequate health care, adequate education,adequate housing and adequate employment, proposing that "All people of working age should pay a weekly National Insurance Contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed.'

It is as a result of this that we get free medical treatment through the NHS, which although we often moan about I'm sure the majority of us are extremely grateful for. After the war the government introduced child benefits to help families afford to have children and in turn increase the country's depleated population. Council houses were also a means for couples to be able to afford housing and a place to raise their children.

So far the picture is of a concern to benefit the country's residents, with many acts being passed by the government to restore the country. To look after the sick for free, to provide for widows, to house the population in better and more affordable housing, rebuilding where many bombings had destroyed homes; to provide child benefit to help raise children and to provide them with free education. Whilst workers recieved sick pay, injury insurance and pensions. Things that to us, in this day and age, take for granted and perhaps would not class as benefits.

The welfare state must adjust and adapt with the times, concerning itself with the key issues facing society and deciphering how best to benefit it's residents in the current circumstances. However as we see now, our benefits system seems to be in uproar. With more money needed in the NHS, and the high levels of unemployment.

I believe a common argument regarding today's welfare state is who we all class as being in need of benefits. Well the answer is; all of us. The majority of us rely on the NHS, unless we have private medical insurance; and is that not a benefit? It is funded through the tax system aferall. Haven't most of us been educated for free? Aren't parents, regardless of their circumstances grateful for child benefits to help them navigate the ever increasing financial minefield that is raising children? Will those fortunate enough to reach state pension age be grateful for extra help towards the bills?

The major catcall being "why should I work so that others do not have to?" A notion that stems from the national insurance contributions funding benefits. These allegations are accelerated by programs such as Benefit's Street, that show claimants that may appear able to work being idle all day, often drinking and smoking as well. Well first of all this is not strictly true as the majority percentage of these funds goes towards pensions. Job Seekers Allowance, which is what claimants that are out of work but are able to work claim, makes up a much smaller percentage and is not enough for a claimant to live on long term. 

Those unable to work, in the majority of cases genuinely cannot do so but would most probably love to be working, rather than needing to claim DLA, PIP or ESA. And believe you me the actual process of trying to get onto these is rigourous. Again, it is only the negative and controversial cases though that tend to be picked up by the media, stigmatizing all claimants. People that know how to "milk the system" as it were.

All this being said, there are clearly many flaws with the current welfare state. Just take all the horrific stories you hear about disabled people that clearly are unable to work, that fail to get benefits that are left in poverty and worsening conditions. Surely these are some of the most in need people in society. It shouldn't be more financially sensible to not work and remain on benefits so that you have a higher income. That is nonsense. There are people working all kinds of hours, even with multiple jobs to try and earn enough to live comfortabley off. We also hear of the increase in use of food banks. In many areas there is a lack of social housing, unable to meet the huge demand for them. A problem highligjted by the introduction of bedroom tax, as there are no smaller houses available to move to. So claimants are being penalised for a problem that is beyond their control.

A follow up program on Benefits Street showed that the original show had not highlighted some of the key issues that prevented some residents entering the job market. A young couple struggled because of learning difficulties and poor levels of reading and writing. Indicating a problem with the education system; that many school leavers regardless of learning difficulties, dyslexia etc are not leaving with the skills needed to enter the job market. These are the people that  need more attention or better direction to help find a skill. Otherwise when they are competing against more educated and qualified graduates it lowers their chances even more.

Then there is a huge shortage of jobs. There seems to be very little job security anymore. Every week the news seems to show yet more companies, many of which are well known, either going into administration or making redundancies. Creating a mass of people all competing for the same few jobs in the same area. Causing many problems, inparticular for those with families and people nearing pension age.

I intend to do a seperate post about disability benefits. However I hope this post has helped to dispell some of the myths surrounding benefits and to prove that it is not a dirty word or shaming, as many claimants are made to feel. I do believe that the current welfare state here in the UK needs a radical shake up, but that is the responsibility of the government; not those on more benefits or those that do not realise that we are all benefits recipients in the original state of the word. 

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