I must recently have made some passing comment about welfare, because a certain @DocHackenbush replied: “Memo to Helmer: Unless you’ve lived on social security, you don’t get to have an opinion on it”. That’s about as sensible as saying “Unless you’ve been hooked on cocaine, you can’t mention drugs”. So I responded “No, Bush” (he seems to call himself Bush, for short, perhaps in honour of George W.) “I’m entitled to an opinion on social security because, like most of us, I pay for it”.
This response was felt by a close family member (of mine) to be somewhat lacking in compassion. Yet is seems to chime with public opinion. I was rather surprised to find in a recent opinion poll that 62% of respondents agreed that “unemployment benefit is too high and discourages work”. The public understands that the welfare budget is out of control, and that we cannot solve the country’s fiscal and debt problems without dealing with the welfare issue.
I often argue that UKIP is neither right nor left, just common sense, and I applaud the great British public for their own common sense on this issue. Compassion is all very well, but if we allow the costs of compassion to run out of control, it can do more harm than good. You don’t eliminate poverty by bankrupting the country. I was particularly struck by the case of the single mother of eleven, Heather Frost, who has a new £400,000 house being built for her and her eleven children, all living on benefits. Hard-working tax-payers who couldn’t dream of having such a house built are paying for Ms. Frost’s house — and have every reason to be angry. They will be asking “Why do we have to pay? Where are the men who fathered those children? Why don’t they pay?”.
This point, however, seems to have escaped our new Archbishop Welby, who has written to the papers saying that the government’s welfare policy will have a negative social impact on children. Of course in the short term, and assuming a static view of the economy, he has a point. Take money from a family, and if nothing else changes, that family will be worse off. But the good prelate ignores the positive impact on the wider economy from getting debt and government spending under control.
To this extent, he’s like BBC’s reporting of the spare-room subsidy (aka the bedroom tax). The BBC constantly runs tear-jerking stories about disabled couples who will be disadvantaged (although special provision is being made for them). Yet it never cites the potential benefits to homeless people on the waiting list for social housing, currently “bed-blocked” by small families in large houses.
I remember years ago talking to the (then) Prime Minister of Singapore, who was being challenged on the City-State’s rather limited welfare provision, by the (then) Labour MEP Richard Corbett. The PM’s reply should be carved in stone. “We find that if we pay people to be unemployed, we get a lot of unemployed people. And if we give apartments to teenage single mothers, we get a lot more teenage single mothers. So we don’t do those things”.
His point, of course, was the perverse incentives created by welfare. Why did the feckless Heather Frost continue to have babies, when she had neither the husband nor the means to provide for them? Because she knew the State would pay. I don’t say that she had the children purely in order to get the welfare (although for all I know she may have done), but it’s a safe bet that the security provided by the promise of welfare made her less eager to take care and behave responsibly.
Welfare will not end poverty (the Archbishop may like to recall Our Lord’s words “The poor ye have with you always”). Indeed it may quite possibly entrench poverty and dependency. It undermines self-confidence. And it creates perverse incentives and unintended consequences.
Of course in a compassionate society we should always be ready to help those who through no fault of their own fall on hard times, perhaps by reason of illness, or temporary and unforeseen unemployment. But (and here I agree with IDS) we should not allow living on welfare to become a lifestyle choice.