Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Deserving and the Undeserving

The UK is now a country where there seems to be few bounds of morality on the basis that used to exist. People publicly take drugs, commit adultery, have illegitimate children, speed, lie in public, take bribes in monetary or other forms and this is just the politicians let alone 'celebrities'. Sixty-one Conservative MPs were improperly employing members of their families on salaries of around £40,000 paid for by the state; most of these family members did nothing to benefit the MP or the constituency, it was just a sinecure for them. People in the public spotlight seem to face only minimal censure. Possibly this is because so many newspapers and magazines rely on scandal to fill their pages and to press people too much to behave in a respectable way would be to cut off their supply of stories. The only journalist who seems to be raising these issues is Polly Toynbee and I am pleased at that, but she seems like a very lonely voice.

It is interesting that such moral constraints from which the bulk of the population are excused are still applied very heavily to the poor. The sense of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor dates back to the perceptions of the late Victorian era. These seemed to match social welfare with moral behaviour. More than that though, it was a sense that people could prove they were worthy of being lifted from poverty by adopting the correct frame of mind. They needed to compliant and grateful rather than seeking to challenge the situation they were in or the society that kept them there. Benefactors loved to see the needy bowing in supplication and gratitude for the benefits given to them. Anyone who did not behave that way was improper and so should be penalised by having benefits withheld.

Partly this association was due to the fact that it was felt that anyone could lift themselves from poverty if they just tried, so in fact, it was felt, the bulk of people still in that state were lazy, feckless or corrupt. This stemmed from the fact that having numerous children and drinking alcohol were seen as primary causes of poverty, when in fact they were more often the consequences of the things that people used to blot out the discomfort of living in poverty. In the 1930s when mass unemployment came to the UK, it was noted that consumption of alcohol and tobacco as well as gambling increased. In addition funerals became very elaborate. These are aspects that you can still witness in East London where I lived 1994-2001. Of course drugs have also long been part of the mix, laudanum was bought by the pint in the 18th century. These days that factor is more visible, but stems from the same cause. When you are living in a room in a bed and breakfast with no hope of work and little to do to pass the day, you just want to blot out the world in whatever way you can. I agree that addictions lead to poverty, but you must also recognise that poverty leads to addiction, and if you like, immorality. If you have nothing worthwhile keeping in the world, why bother to stay in the world? This is seen in the funerals. I have never seen so long corteges or as elaborate funeral tributes or horse-drawn hearses as when I lived in East London where people have the least money to afford these things. In more prosperous areas, people make less of a fuss. However, in poor districts it is a sense that at least at their death the person gets something decent in their life. It is a celebration too, that the deceased, unlike the mourners, has finally managed to shake off the burdens of debt and worry that continue to plague the living.

In the 20th century, from the 1910s onwards and especially from 1945, the state took over the role of aiding the poor. It tended to move away from moral judgement to a mechanistic approach. If you fit certain criteria then you receive the benefits, if you do not then the benefits are not paid. There is no question of how you use the money, whether you save it or what foods you buy. There have been some moves in this direction more in terms of health, which in the UK having a state-run health system which is often free at point of use, it can be counted as a 'benefit' though one that most people whether rich or poor, unemployed or in work, will use at some time in their life. There has been discussion whether the obese or the elderly or those who smoke should be refused certain treatments, notably IV fertilisation treatments or transplants. As yet this is still generally undecided, but it fits in with the growing attitude that there are people, who because of the lifestyle they lead, are more 'deserving' of treatment than others. How long is it before that extends to determining who gets treatment on the basis of the person's income or their ethnicity. This is a very slippery path, but one that many people in the UK are keen to progress down.

People in the UK often feel that they are both hard done by and that other people are getting more than they are, and usually without 'deserving' it. This is a natural gripe. It is difficult to comprehend how impersonal global economic forces impact on all of us as individuals. It is much easier to identify distinct individuals and blame them. Of course every single person you or I is going to meet today, tomorrow, next week, probably for the rest of our lives, has absolutely no control over the global economy. The people who do, do not mix with people like us. Even Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling should you meet them somewhere, have only limited power to influence what impacts on our bank accounts or whether we will be in a job this time next year. So, we blame other people and we assume, because we come from a superficially prosperous country, that if we do not have enough, then it must be that someone else is taking it from us. We do not blame the faceless ultra-rich who in fact are the ones squeezing it from us in the petrol we pay for (BP the largest British owned oil company post six-month profits of £6.75 billion [€8.5 billion; US$ 13.5 billion] today, equivalent to £37 million per day. They make enough money in profit in a year to pay the annual salaries of 225,000 school teachers, just under a third of the total) or the food we buy, rather we blame the immigrant family on the corner or that layabout family across the road.

If you ever work in a government department as I have done (the Department of Employment and the Inland Revenue as they were named in the 1990s) you know that every day letters arrive at every single revenue or benefits office from people telling on their neighbours who they are convinced must be defrauding the government. In the bulk of the cases they are wrong as the civil service is pretty efficient at catching people defrauding them, they do not need the public to keep pointing out people, in fact it wastes their time as they have to process these 'reports' from the public when they could actually be chasing down fraudsters. The popular media always talks about 'scroungers' and people (often foreigners) supposedly defrauding the state. It never talks about the billions of pounds of unclaimed benefits. In 2007, 2.1 million retired people were deemed to be below the poverty line, a rise of 200,000 from 2006. However, each year, that is each and every year, £5 billion in benefits targeted specifically at people over 60 years old, are unclaimed. People are either ill-informed about what they can claim, or, and if you know British people of that age group, reluctant to claim because of the stigma attached, that they would rather live in poverty than go for this money. Surely any person who has worked in the UK through this past decades 'deserves' all the help they can get, even if you stick to that criteria which I feel is an unsound one.

All of this is going to get work. David Cameron, from his elite public school background, is reviving the rhetoric of the 'undeserving poor' from the Victorian era and rehashed through the Thatcher years. There is no indication on how you can prove you are 'deserving', but as in the past it seems that you must be willing to enlist your family members as free childcare and then go and take lowly paid jobs with long hours in order to prove that you are deserving, that you have sufficient self-sacrifice for the state to deem to come and help you. As I have noted before, the bulk of the UK population, about 25 million of which are working age, want to work. Around 35,000 of them do not. This still leaves 1.55 million unemployed people in the UK who want to work. Many will work in jobs with poor wages, but of course they have to earn enough to live on and pay the ever increasing fuel and food bills. People forget that in the Victorian era a lot of the worst paid jobs came with food and housing as part of the pay, that is not the case any longer. You cannot move to a Victorian economy unless you go to it wholesale, which is to say, men dying at an average age of 45 so having no need for unemployment, children going into employment from the age of 6 onwards without having education, an infant mortality rate somewhere around 15-20 per 1000, accommodation that could be afforded even on pauper wages from factories, a 12-hour working day; cheap adulterated food, and so on. You cannot expect people in the modern UK to somehow behave as if they were living 120 years ago when the rest of society is enjoying all the benefits and advances of the 21st century and also dangling these things in front of people constantly, telling them they are nothing unless they own them.

Is 'deserving' or 'undeserving' a stamp to be placed on people's foreheads? The father of the UK welfare system, William Beveridge, was aware that all people go through ups and downs in our lives. All of us will be ill, all of us will get old, many of us will have children, many of us will find ourselves without work at sometime or another (even managing directors get laid off at times). So this is why he came up with 'national insurance', to insure us against the mishaps of life. There was no question of morality, we just paid in when we could and then drew out when we needed, that was the approach of the welfare state, not taxes feeding into benefits. Obviously it worked better when there was full employment, but it should be working now as employment is still reasonable. However, as with all insurance claims, there are people who feel that they should check the claims. Their judgements are to be not based on how much you have paid in insurance (nor how much you will pay in the future) but whether you have somehow lived the 'right' way to get the money. This is arbitrary. If this is the basis of judging benefits paid to poor people or those just temporarily without a job or with children, I think we should begin applying it to the rich as well.

How would the wealthy respond if we began taking away their salaries and bonuses if they fail to invest in their companies; if they take drugs, drink and drive dangerously; if they produce children who have not bothered to study for qualifications and are a burden rather than a benefit to the country; if they do not pay their workers a wage that reflects their contribution to company profits (no company makes any profit without workers)? I think it is time to come down hard on the undeserving rich. Make them feel embarrassed and guilty for what they suck out of the UK and waste on things that generally damage the environment - big cars, numerous flights, developments in tropical countries, the drugs they take. They do far more harm both to the UK and the world as a whole than any number of families or individuals below the poverty line. Of course we are going to move even further away from anything of this kind. Wealth in the UK buys you exemption from moral criticism. Poverty, however, thrusts you right into the spotlight and even if you do receive the measly benefits you are obliged to feel guilty and oh-so-grateful for them. That is a perverse state of affairs and riling me so much I am going to have to cease this post.

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