The new Fabian Society report For Us All provides a timely, and very welcome, reappraisal of social security in the 21st century. Necessarily, it approaches this very human subject from a financial angle, but it is refreshing, nonetheless, to see a serious report using the term ‘social security’ rather than the far more pejorative ‘welfare’.
If you are unfamiliar with the current benefits system, it can immediately strike you as a chaotic, confused jumble of often mutually negating allowances, which people with years of experience can struggle to understand. More worryingly, it pays scant regard to the way in which our lifestyles have changed in recent years.
There are many people working hard and doing their best who still struggle to meet daily needs; people such as those locked into zero-hour contracts, or otherwise self-employed, for whom actual paid assignments are few and far between. The red tape of declaring earnings while claiming can make getting those bits of work more trouble than they are worth.
This is the reason there is increased interest in the idea of the universal basic income, which I wrote about here. To say it would make no difference to low-income households is wide of the mark. It could provide a level of income without stigma, and allow those who can to work on an ad-hoc basis without worry.
Issue should also be taken with the assertion that social security for pensioners is on a strong and stable footing. That area, too, has serious flaws for those who have worked hard all their lives, but never made it above the lowest income level. This is an all too common scenario in many low-wage rural areas, where retirement onto the basic state pension can bring enormous challenges. The lack of social housing, coupled with high rents and, for many, the need to maintain a car and buy petrol, just to get to the nearest shop, means day-to-day life can be a daunting prospect. In this context the state pension does not go far at all, and, with no prospect of further income, it can take just one event, such as a broken cooker, or a road accident, to bring real hardship with no prospect of relief.
Quite rightly, though, the Fabian report picks up on the issue of housing costs as one of the biggest challenges facing the current system. As younger people need to earn ever more to get a foot on the ladder, and rents keep rising, the means by which the lowest earners keep a roof over their heads vanish beyond reach. Those who are left having to rent often end up struggling in later life as benefits income barely covers those costs. This is not a warning for the future, it is happening now, and unfortunately, for many it is already too late.
It is also clear that we put too much emphasis on household income, rather than individual income when means-testing. Family life is complex, with relationships coming and going, while the benefit system still reflects a culture of lifelong marriage. Difficulties occur when a claimant fails to declare their partner’s income correctly; something they may not even know. They then incur expensive repayments that they’re still trying to meet long after that partner has left their lives.
Often this system delivers young women in particular, into dependence on men who do not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Indeed, it promotes such relationships when the soaring costs of rent, and childcare, make the next unsuitable man seem like the best show in town.
All in all, this report is to be welcomed and applauded. It begins to ask questions that need to be asked, but the approach that takes affordability as the starting point should if possible, be avoided. The social security system must always be need-driven, and backed by the state. After all, surely it is the most in need who should be at the front of the queue.
Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist. She tweets @Christabel321
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