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Frances O’Grady

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Government Assault on Our Welfare System Is Based on Myth and Prejudice, Not Evidence

Posted: 04/01/2013 11:51

With the government's poll rating faring almost as badly as its economic strategy, the Chancellor has hatched a cunning plan to win the next election. No, not bold new initiatives to promote jobs and growth, that would mean admitting that plan A has failed.

Instead, the government is planning a nasty tabloid assault on our welfare system, which will be ratcheted up next week with the government's Benefits Uprating Bill.

Having already frozen child benefit for three years, reduced various tax credits in real terms and changed the measure by which benefits are uprated every year to a lower measure of inflation, the government now wants to restrict annual rises in working age benefits to 1% until 2016.

In total, these measures could reduce the incomes of many low-paid working families by thousands of pounds a year. And yet the government believes it has public support for its plan. Why? Because as new TUC polling published today finds, public attitudes to welfare and benefits are largely based on ignorance and prejudice.

People vastly over-estimate the generosity of benefits, do not know who receives them and have largely swallowed the dependency myth that fuels so much hostility to welfare claimants. And, of course, this also serves to deflect public anger away from the big money scroungers in society - tax dodgers at the top.

Take attitudes to unemployed people. On average, people thought around two fifths of the welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people. In fact, Jobseeker's Allowance - the main unemployment benefit - represents just 3% of total spending. If 41% of welfare spending really did go on JSA it would be worth £1,000 a week - not the £71 that most people actually get.

And eight in ten people believe an unemployed couple with two school-age children would be no better off if one of them got a full-time job on the minimum wage, even though they'd receive £138 a week more.

Of course it's right that we should debate social security spending. After all it constitutes nearly 30% of all government spending - over £200 billion a year. But the arguments should be based on evidence, not myths. And arguments should address the root causes of the growing welfare bill - not least the lack of affordable housing and the need for a living wage.

It's bad enough that right-wing tabloids peddle lies about benefit fraud and 'fake' disabled people on the sick. It's downright immoral that ministers encourage these lies - deliberately misleading the public with one hand and cutting their entitlements with the other.

The good news is that it's possible to change public attitudes once then facts are known. Public support for capping the increase in benefits collapses from overall support (+16) to outright opposition (-10) when people are told the cap affects low-paid workers. We just need more people to know that 60% of the benefit uprating cap will fall on working households, or 'strivers' to use the government's own language.

The TUC faces a tough challenge in defending a decent welfare system in the face of constant onslaught from right-wing newspapers, government ministers, and their advisors and spinners. But we know have the evidence on our side - and that knowledge has the power to change people's minds.

 

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