The British people hate benefits, right? Wrong, in fact. Actually, it's almost a dead heat - 36% say the government's too tough on welfare claimants, 38% not tough enough. A majority of Brits - 52% - say it's the government's job to redistribute taxpayer's money across the income range. 74% say the government should provide a 'decent minimum income for all'; 78% want the government to help poor children get ahead.
The survey that produced this data doesn't specify whether we link those phrases to the word 'benefits', or worse, 'handouts', loaded terms that provoke a certain kind of reaction, but it does show that we're more generous than usually assumed towards the idea of moving money around the economy towards those who struggle. This is in spite of a media culture that is unremittingly critical and judgemental towards those on benefits - witness tabloid articles on the scroungers stealing thousands of pounds in taxpayers money, or TV programmes demonising the very poorest by highlighting the worst examples they can find. Never mind that merely 2.1% of the welfare bill is estimated to be claimed fraudulently (the public believes it is actually 27%) or that tax-avoiding companies cost the Treasury more in a year than any dodgy scrounger can expect to pocket in his or her lifetime. Today's hot potato is the 'skivers'.
Many politicians think there's political capital to be harvested by looking tough on welfare, and, despite the figures, they're probably right. The reasons why an intent to 'crack down on benefits' resonates are twofold. The first is that it appeals to our personal sense of injustice. The second, however, is much more important - it's to do with proximity. People get annoyed when footballers get paid £300k a week to look like perma-tanned Ken dolls with hairdos resembling a low-grade oil slick, or when ivory-tower bankers earn double their salary in bonuses, but there's a general acceptance that these sorts of individuals operate in an inaccessible, distant stratosphere. If you have the family two doors down apparently getting money for free when you're getting up at six for an over-crowded train to God knows where, the sense of injustice is heightened, because it's so much more visible.
The error that the politicians have made in targeting welfare, though, is that they have identified fertile political ground but are attempting to plough it in entirely the wrong way. People in this country are annoyed by a 'something for nothing' culture when they're getting no help in hard times - that's a fact. But hitting the welfare system won't make any difference in alleviating this annoyance, because it does nothing to help the people who've been getting so irate.
Imagine the scenario. The coalition continues to blindly slash at the welfare bill. Does this mean that the uppity couple down the road who've been ranting about benefit Britain have any more money in their piggy-bank? Does their rent come down? Does the amount of money they pay for petrol or food come down? Does their wage packet get bigger? Of course it doesn't. The only result is more people struggling in a stagnant economy to get by on even less than what they had before. And who pays the price? Enemies of the welfare state complain frequently about the working-age adults who scrounge off the system and relish the idea of hurling them off their sofas - but in practice, it's the children of these people who will pay the price. Child poverty costs this country £29bn a year (compare that to the £3.5bn overpayment in welfare) and damages the social fabric of our communities for years and decades to come. Political posturing on benefits doesn't just hit the irresponsible, the lazy and the useless.
The supposed national obsession with welfare is a symptom of austerity Britain. While the majority suffer, anyone who appears to be coasting along unscathed is attacked and victimised, and the government's narrative on the issue shows that they have well and truly jumped on this bandwagon. The trouble is that their approach isn't productive and doesn't help the problem in the long run. Making life worse for the poorest won't make people less angry about their own falling living standards and falling incomes. What the government should be doing is embarking on projects to bring growth back and restore job opportunities for people. Take one example. Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis, with high rents, high prices and a drastic shortage of affordable stock. People want more cheap housing: if the government were to initiate a mass house-building programme (which could be financed through borrowing, thanks to the low interest rates we currently enjoy) then jobs would be created in one of the industries hardest-hit by the recession (construction), growth would return to the economy and the welfare bill would come down as people moved into work. This is obvious to so many people - house-building is a frequent applause-line on BBC One's Question Time - and yet the government continues to stubbornly cut. Housing is just one area in which the UK's infrastructure is in a dire state, but nothing is being done. Big bold projects could help to restore growth and jobs - and give the government more long-term political capital than any media-pleasing attacks on benefits. Cameron's cuts mob may refuse to accept it, but job creation is the only way out of a slump, and giving people careers, good wages and prospects for the future would be so much more rewarding than taking another pop at the 'scroungers' next door.