Why does the UK still have such a shameful attitude to poverty and benefits?

·5 min read

What is the matter with this country? A rising tide of poor families is cast into deeper deprivation because of the meanness of Britain’s benefits system and our punitive public attitudes. We have mislaid what George Orwell thought was our “common decency”, in a culture where politicians and the media have conspired for years to stir up fear of the moral hazards of paying benefits to “scroungers”, damping down public sympathy for misfortune.

That’s why our benefits are now more stringently unsurvivable than at any time since the 1930s, according to The Transformation of British Welfare Policy, by Tom O’Grady, associate professor of political science at University College London. That alarming regression is what happens when the government takes a staggering £37bn out of the benefits system, targeting its austerity cuts on those who can least afford to bear them.

The Guardian’s heat or eat diaries chronicle the harsh lives of people sinking below tolerable living standards. But I always find – however often over the years I have reported on this – that I come across a new revelation that shocks me all over again.

This week it was finding doctors appalled at growing numbers of distraught parents with seriously ill children unable to bring them to urgent hospital appointments because they can’t afford the travel or to take a day off the agency work they do. Camilla Kingdon, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, tells me this is now so serious that they are assembling the evidence for warnings to her members. With unprecedented waiting lists, paediatricians prioritise their most urgent cases, but families of these sickest children often can’t scrape together the £31 she says each hospital visit costs on average. That should shock a public that believes in a free NHS.

Attitudes have softened somewhat in austerity years. But the social research group NatCen and Prof O’Grady find opinion tracks the media discourse more than the objective reality of poverty statistics. Although people are more forgiving during recessions, research shows that most blame lies with Daily Mail-style shock benefits stories – such as someone on disability payments caught running a marathon – which fail to highlight the very low benefit fraud figures. I once caught Iain Duncan Smith feeding these stories to favoured media but missing out the Guardian. Poverty porn reality-TV programmes bear heavy blame, too, with their selected colourful characters and highly selective editing – Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits, Benefits Britain and Benefits Street being among the culprits.

The social security secretary Peter Lilley’s notorious song about scroungers, from the platform of the 1992 Tory conference, marked the opening salvo in the fight against the postwar safety net. He announced, “I’m closing down the something for nothing society,” with a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof mocking “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue”. As inequality soared and union power crumbled in the 1980s, attitudes to benefits hardened. That caused Labour in power to approach benefits on tiptoe, giving quietly to take a million children and pensioners out of poverty, but waving big sticks threatening “conditionality”, “no fifth option”, “a hand up, not a hand out”. They never dared change the discourse to talk of empathy, kindness or human bad luck.

Take just one sample cut of the past decade, the two-child limit that, uniquely in Europe, abolished benefits for having three or more children. Pandering to populist prejudice, here’s a prime case of the Tories’ evidence-free policymaking. Breaking the notional link between benefits and need, this alone propelled another 1.1 million children into poverty, finds O’Grady. Here’s the language George Osborne and the Department for Work and Pensions used to see those on benefits “make the same choices working families have to make every day”. Osborne even used Mick Philpott, convicted of the manslaughter of six children, as ammunition against benefits: “There is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that.” The Mail labelled Philpott, the “vile product of welfare UK”, symbolising all claimants.

But last week, new research by the London School of Economics yet again exploded bogus justifications for the two-child limit. There has been no noticeable fertility effect but a slight rise in abortions among relevant families. A majority of affected families are in work. Half never knew of the two-child limit before conceiving. Many were not claiming benefits when they conceived, later losing a job or a partner. As predicted, many conceived while being subject to abuse they dared not declare. Maximum damage was caused to already poor families, with none of the moral improvements propounded by the DWP, which claimed that the changes would “enhance the life chances of children as they ensure that households make choices based on their circumstances rather than on taxpayer subsidies”.

Related: Look around, the Great Conservative Experiment has failed in the UK | Andy Beckett

Similar humbug suffuses other Conservative poverty-causing policies: the five-week wait for universal credit; debts from that wait scraped back from benefits; the frozen benefit cap crushing families as costs rise; rent allowances falling even further behind rent rises; and the £20 cut of the universal credit “uplift”.

Our shaming poverty rates have produced world-respected research on its nature, causes and cures, reaching back to the poverty maps of Charles Booth, the York surveys of Seebohm Rowntree, the continued work of the Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Michael Marmot’s health studies and a plethora of university research that draws on Britain’s unique longitudinal studies monitoring cohorts of babies for all their lives. The untimely death of the academic John Hills marks the loss of the greatest authority, auditor of every aspect of inequality, arbiter of each government’s progress, or now regress. We know everything we need to know.

This simply makes this government all the more despicable. Sympathy is growing – though only, according to NatCen, among Labour voters, not Tory supporters. Marcus Rashford shows the dial can move, but it needs more such champions.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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