At the start of last week, Ian Duncan Smith hailed our so called 'social recovery.' By the end of it, this supposed recovery was looking doubtful at best, as the Sunday Times ran a front page exposition on the rise of half a million 'problem families'. The article itself was full of the sort of scandalous statistics designed to get Middle England's hordes of NIMBY's in an uproar, from the nearly 90,000 families without an adult in employment to the cost of £30 billion to tackle what they called:
those who are blighting neighbourhoods with their dysfunctional behaviour.
The article hosted a selection of the worst examples of criminal activity, morbid obesity and a shocking case of domestic abuse and while the latter stages, on a separate page took a more caring note, the emphasis in the big bold headline and opening paragraphs sought to remind you that your hard earned carefully sheltered tax payments were going to 'the depth of the malaise', people whom our society are seeking to ostracise.
Sensationalist reporting aside. I'm not seeking to knock results of the program, which has been finding stable employment for individuals involved, lowering crime rates and increasing attendance in education. Its author, Louise Casey herself has spent over 20 years helping to fight poverty in this country. What shocks me is that since there were 18,200,000 families in Britain as of 2012 according to the ONS, this means at least that 1 in every 36 families, or 1.8 million people who were being depicted as parasitic, backward social group that needed the firm hand of government programmes to prevent them from going to bedlam. This message is the polite face of a wider epidemic that has taken hold in the eyes of the well to do public of late, one that might well be referred to as 'scum shaming.'
This particular idea, formed on television screens, in our newspapers and in the speeches of our political establishment, seeks to emphasise the difference between that most beloved of political catchphrases, the hard working family and those seen by those families as a burden. It is seen programs such as Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle, that work on the dual premise of highlighting the plight of those involved while framing it as light entertainment. It's found almost daily in tabloids, running scare stories of the cost of benefits fraudsters while ignoring the £15.3 billion in unpaid income tax carried out by those that they'd deem as upstanding members of society. It is dehumanising, discriminating and creating a divisive rift in our society.
Ian Duncan Smith's speech did little to ease these tensions. He spoke in radiant terms of the scrapping of a welfare dependency culture that he believed lay at the heart of our benefits system. Now, we have record numbers in work (helped by inclusion of the zero-hours contracts that mean someone can boost government employment data without receiving enough money to live on). What was strangely lacking was any attempt to treat those on the receiving end of these payments as anything more than a financial statistic. They are depicted as outcasts, whose poverty and problems exclude them from being a part of wider society.
This picture of austerity in Britain has been supplemented by a draconian set of measures designed to actively prevent those in poverty from receiving their benefits. Job Centre staff were told to try to trip people up over accessing benefits, people have been found dead from hunger or an acute lack of medicine, both of whose benefits stopped for not taking their search for work seriously enough (one of whom died next to a pile of freshly printed CV's. We are actively punishing the worst off in our society, those who are suffering most, and all the while George Osborne wants to take another £12 billion from the welfare pot (possibly to help pay for the £430.072 billion in government borrowing over the previous four years).
In the first wave of 'problem families', 32% had a disability or long term illness and 82% had a problem related to education, while 15% had children with a problem of substance abuse. This suffering can not be combatted by slashing budgets, but investing time, care and resources into tackling the root causes of these problems, as well as their aftermath. It is not enough merely to cry shame when the extreme scenarios are dangled in front of our eyes, we should work to limit and prevent these poverty inducing scenarios before they happen, not turn the victims into a source of entertainment. Social recovery depends on more than numbers. It relies on a shift in cultural and political attitude.
We are meant to be shocked by the benefit fraudsters, those who try to scrape a little extra to support themselves. The £2.2 billion of fraudulently claimed benefits during 2012-13 is a social problem, one that the tabloids seek to remind us is rotting the core of our country The £95 billion of tax avoided and evaded during that same time is apparently not a social problem but an economic one. It seems that stealing off the state isn't as bad as denying the state its lawful gains. I'd even go so far as to wager many of those who have fiddled their taxes have had a rant or two in their time about those on benefits, the unemployed and the disabled for leeching off society.
Does it surprise you that Ian Duncan Smith's speech on our social recovery failed to mention the watchdog investigation into what was meant to be the Conservative's landmark social project, the big society, currently under investigation for misuse of government funding and inappropriate payments to directors including a Tory donor. The scheme itself has now collapsed.
It seems where state handouts are concerned, your background matters more than your eagerness to sign on to work.