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Stop Me if You Think That You've Heard This One Before

10/04/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

On Monday the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was challenged by a northern market stall trader to live on £53 a week. This concept caught fire as an online petition was set up and quickly received over 450k signatures.

It's bad PR for the former arms salesman who claimed he had 'been there, done it' [sic] as regards to living on the edge. There is a slight panic over benefits at present, especially with well publicised Philpotts case - where the killer appears to have been a conniving benefit cheat.

But it's often the case that welfare claimants (and I've been there, done that) find their situation more appalling then their peers do. I know how IDS feels - once I spent five months out of work; waiting around in sterile jobcentres, scouring the web and scrimping for every penny. Every day was like Sunday - a tiring, languorous trudge.

This topic is a light that never goes out for the Right, and I'm not surprised - they often seem to resent paying taxes and appear to see people based on their monetary value to society. But to come down particularly hard on welfare recipients seems to lack a little perspective.

To put it one way - it's a bit like writing a damning article on the England rugby team after they got smashed to bits by the Welsh, and surrendered the Grand Slam. You can break your pencil tip waxing lyrical about how awful they were, but I suspect that these individuals feel worse about losing than the writer does.

The disappointment of personal failure is harder on the individual than those around them, and the weight of public disapproval adds to this shame. How can anyone possibly know how they feel?

Ultimately, I believe IDS when he says that he could and would live on £53 per week, but it strikes me that to focus on this misses the point. To many British families, living hand-to-mouth is the only reality they know, and despite IDS' rhetoric, I doubt that he or any member of the Cabinet has genuine insight on this.

After all, a cycle of poverty is about a mindset; it's about your big choices counting early on - and it's often about luck. It's rarely about being feckless or lazy and it certainly isn't about 'abusing the system', as ghastly cases like the Philpotts' suggest.

Many will ask 'What difference does it make?' if IDS refuses to rise to the challenge. But I say that if you start off with money, then it can be very difficult bring that spend down to, say, £7 a day. Being super-frugal is a mindset that we can come to forget as much as expect. As for whether IDS could do it now, we have to look at it from the perspective of welfare that has reduced from a fifth of average earnings to around a twelfth. In this context, his words could be seen as bigmouth strikes again.