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'Welfare Dependency' Is a Symptom, Not a Moral Failing

25/08/2015 16:44 BST | Updated 25/08/2016 10:59 BST

As part of its assault on the UK's poorest since 2010, the Conservative party has been trying to develop stories to provide cover for its terrible policies.

Most of them centre on a concept of the 'immoral claimant', receiving benefits becoming a measure of a personal failing whether you are unemployed, disabled or sick. The one group excluded from this definition is the elderly, the always-voting team that put the Tories into power and kept them there, and they have been rewarded with above-inflation rises in pensions ever since.

Social security has been capped and cut over and over again in the last five years, and the pattern has already been continued in the new parliament when George Osborne set out his plans for more pain in his emergency July budget.

Osborne himself has contributed to the moral failing argument, talking of people 'sleeping off a life on benefits' to justify the cuts he introduced, cuts which have forced a massive rise in food bank use, homelessness and even deaths. Those people are sleeping forever as a result.

The generalised insults lack sophistication, so it is no surprise that another narrative has been introduced alongside it to bulk it up. Conservatives are fond of describing a concept they have called 'benefit dependency', and in their views this can almost be compared to drug or alcohol dependency in the damage it does to those who suffer it.

It has a more subtle appeal than the more direct insults, describing a condition that could be considered part immoral, part illness depending on which newspaper is reporting it. Department for Work and Pensions head Iain Duncan Smith favours this approach, different speeches to different audiences emphasising first his care for the workless and disabled, then his contempt for them even as he talks of the same policies.

But what does 'welfare dependency' really mean? On one level it is simply that some people need public funding because they have disabilities or illnesses that will not see a recovery, some people live in places where jobs are scarce and can't move, too many do not have the skills to gain work in the modern economy and have no way of getting them, and too many jobs do not pay enough for people to live on. It is hard to find the moral failing in that list.

Behind that though is the idea, perpetrated by the Tories, that the country cannot afford to keep up with long-term demand. But the main reason why the welfare bill has gone up - apart from the pensions triple-lock which sees above-inflation rises every year - is the rise in housing benefit for both workers and workless. Britain has seen rents rising hugely in some areas for years, so you might imagine that the welfare-averse Conservatives would want to address this. In fact, Osborne's 'Help to Buy' policy actually stokes house prices and leads to higher rents and higher housing benefit, another reward for the property-owning classes at the expense of the poor.

The dependency charge could more reasonably be laid at the door of some wealthy Tory MPs and donors who receive huge amounts of public money through renting out homes as this Mirror article shows. All housing benefit passes straight through the hands of claimants and into the hands of owners, and these already-rich people may have become dependent on this income. Any restrictions in public payments won't affect them; claimants will simply be replaced with private renters in the low-housing-supply UK and the money flow will continue.

If benefit dependency means anything in reality it is only that some workers, workless and disabled people have been disadvantaged for a while and need state funding for longer than others. As wages have stagnated for more than a decade and the value of benefits has fallen, and too many live in poverty whether they are working or not, the government has a straight choice. It can either do something about this through improving benefits and making employers pay real living wages, providing the right training and education, and making better investments in training, or it can think up snide stories to shift the blame onto those experiencing poverty.

Dependency is a symptom of poor government policy and a misfiring economy that delivers only for the richest. Rather than putting all their energies into developing propaganda as cover for the damage their policies do, the Conservatives could change direction and try to spread wealth and opportunity more widely. The smart money is on a continuation of the stories.