Secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith this week gave a speech entitled 'Getting Britain Working', outlining the changes the Government was making to welfare and the difference he felt it would make to people's lives. But the picture he painted is one hugely at odds with the lives of the millions of ordinary people who are supported by benefits in the UK - many of whom are in work, but on low pay, caring for others, need care themselves or have lost their jobs.
On behalf of the government, Mr Duncan Smith spoke of - without distinction - people supported by benefits as 'on the side lines of society', welfare as a 'lifestyle choice' and people 'trying to get more money from the state'. These are phrases loaded with stigma and woefully out of touch with the reality for people who need support from benefits.
Firstly, let's look at 'lifestyle choice'. We know from the millions of people our organisations represent that many individuals supported by benefits are in work, but struggling with low wages and high living costs. Time after time we hear stories from people supporting the Who Benefits? campaign who struggle to make ends meet on a low salary: "My wages have always been quite low compared to many. I have often struggled with paying rent and have relied on Housing Benefit frequently. This support has enabled me to maintain my tenancy at times when my income was so low I could barely afford essentials and pay bills."
Within the speech it was claimed that many people on benefits try to get more money from the state or resort to criminal activities, suggesting some kind of dishonesty or greed. Evidence shows the vast majority of people who make a claim for a benefit do so for genuine reasons - for 2011-12 just 0.8% of total benefit expenditure was overpaid as a result of fraud. Individuals applying for working-age benefits have to go through increasingly complicated processes, often involving long forms and assessments, and having their benefits withdrawn if they fail to meet all the requirements.
These phrases add up to deeply harmful stigmatisation of the many ordinary people who need or have needed support from benefits at some time in their life. Research carried out by Who Benefits? found that the overwhelming majority (81 per cent) of the public support for the principle that benefits should be there for those who need them. But more than a quarter (27%) of those who currently claim benefits say they have hidden this because of what people will think. These figures just go to show that the negative public portrayal of people needing support from benefits can lead to stigma and shame, all on top of the other challenges people might be facing - such as redundancy, illness and even homelessness.
Steve*, who has also shared his story with Who Benefits?, faced so much stigma that he stopped claiming benefits altogether. "I have worked all my life and never claimed benefits. The company I worked for went into liquidation. I then became very ill and was quickly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I claimed Jobseekers' Allowance for one week only as the stress and stigma I was put under caused my MS symptoms to worsen."
It's time politicians of all parties commit to being accurate and respectful when talking about benefits and those supported by them. It's vital they do more to understand the real lives and challenges people face by refusing to promote harmful stereotypes. After all, we can never be sure what's round the corner - any of us could find ourselves falling upon difficult circumstances where we need a safety net to help make ends meet.
Paul Farmer is Chief Executive of Mind, and a spokesperson for the Who Benefits? campaign
*Names changed to protect identity
• Who Benefits? is a coalition founded by five charities - The Children's Society, Crisis, Gingerbread, Mind and Macmillan Cancer Support - whose aim is to give a voice to the millions of people supported by benefits at some point in their lives.
• Since forming last year, we have the support of over 100 charities, professional networks and community groups.
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