The simplest way to explain the concept of the welfare state is to say that it exists to supply provision to those people who are either unable to work, unable to find work or unable to earn a living wage within work. Benefits are means tested and generally pay out more to families with children as a consideration of the expenses involved in raising a child.
The primary criticism levelled at the benefits paid to welfare state claimants is that the claimants are not making enough effort to look for work. This has led to popularist accusations
of there being an "underclass" of people who refuse to work and enjoy the benefits of...ahem benefits...while other people earn money to pay for the idle privileges of the unemployed.
Such hostility came to a head the other Monday when a televised debate was screened on Channel 4 exploring the views of people on both sides of the issue. The debate led to much shouting and little reasoned argument and few intelligent comments were made - though my hopes weren't high, we are talking about Daily Mail readers. My twitter feed went into orbit with a steady stream of contempt that I would not have believed my fellow man capable of. Claimants were even referred to as "scum" and "not fit to live." The vitriol was as shocking for its venom as it was for its entirely unsubstantiated political grounding.
The group of people most scathing of the way the welfare state is managed tend to be
the self righteous folk of middle aged England. You know the type - middle management, £30-£50k earning bracket, 3-4 bed house, some but limited education, holidays in Spain, links the size of their television to their general level of happiness, votes Conservative and thinks anybody with a tattoo is "up to no good." Generally the sort of person who doesn't read books (but thinks they do), starts a good many of their sentences with: "I'm not racist but.."
and worst of all believes everything that is printed in the Daily Mail. The reason this particular group of people tend to be the most critical is because they believe they have "made it" on their own merit and therefore so should everybody else.
But you know what - effort and personal motivation only play a small part in a person's overall chances of achieving worldly success. And I'll tell you why by using myself as an example. I was born in an age where school taught us that if we worked hard, we would get a job at the end of it. This was entirely true, there were plenty of jobs around, the internet was taking off, the economy was picking up and the future really was rosy for those about to embark on their first careers. I was born to parents who cared about my education and bothered to take the time to help me with the things I struggled with (maths!). I was born to parents who had a decent income and who could afford to give me the tools I needed for my education and then as I grew older, parents who were able (and willing) to pay for my years at University.
I was lucky enough to be born healthy with no physical or mental problems that may have impeded my ability to work for a living and I was also lucky enough to be born intelligent and articulate with (relatively) good social skills.
In short, I'd have had to screw it all up pretty royally not to get a good job.
So when I look at the advantages I have had, my respectable job with a good salary isn't actually my achievement at all. It is merely the product of a very positive and very lucky set of circumstances. Given the support from my parents, the education system, the political and social climate of the time and my own 'luck of the draw' natural attributes, getting a good job was entirely inevitable. And because it was inevitable rather than earned through hard work my moderate success doesn't give me the right to look at other people who haven't had my very lucky circumstances and blame them for not achieving what has quite naturally fallen into my lap.
The thing is, it's a tough world out there. Some people are on benefits because they haven't been given the skills to get a job. They've been let down by their parents and the education system. Others do have the skills to get a job but they have been let down by commerce
who seem determined to replace all the people facing jobs with machines (think self service tills). Others have genuine mental health problems and suffer from depression, making holding down a full time job impossible (they've been let down by the Government and the NHS cut backs with a view to privatising the health industry to generate profit). Physical health rules out another huge sector of people. It is no doubt easy to be scathing of those with injured backs from the perspective of your own healthy working body but for those living with pain on a daily basis, I'm not surprised they need to claim disability benefits.
And those people who do manage to get jobs are thwarted by an industry hell bent on handing out part time and zero hour contracts. Even the most diligent of workers would struggle to make ends meet with these levels of income. Why is anybody surprised that such people are forced to look to the government to increase their income to above starvation levels?
My point is that this situation is not indicative of an underclass who want to sit on their backside and not work, it's indicative of a society that is letting down those who live within it. The media feeds on the pomposity of the affluent middle classes, smug in the security of their own success, but such propaganda is painting the wrong picture. The truth is that those people on benefits are no different to you and I and the vast majority are decent people who want to work but simply cannot do so.
I think our pompous Daily Mail readers know that really. What I believe really inspires their hatred is not superiority but a sense of fear. Statistics show that the average worker in Britain would be eleven days from the breadline if their income was to stop. Our Daily Mail readers don't so much hate those they have cruelly labelled the underclass, they fear becoming part of them. It is easier to believe that people end up on welfare from a flaw in themselves rather than accepting that an unfortunate set of circumstances leading to job loss could happen to me, to you, to anyone. All I hear through the spouting and the name calling is the fear behind the voice, the fear that one day it might be them sitting on a threadbare sofa trying to make the decision between using the last tea bag tonight or tomorrow. It terrifies them and they lash out with the hatred in determination to set themselves aside, not from the people they despise but from the situation they fear.
There is of course some truth in the criticisms against the welfare state. A small amount of benefit payments are made to those not entitled to claim them. This is estimated by the government to be 1% of the total bill. I pay tax and the view I take on the tax that I pay is that I would rather contribute to the welfare of the 99% of genuine claimants and risk the fact that the odd fraudster slips through the net than stop welfare payments and see 99% of claimants suffer as a result. And if some of my tax does end up being spent on drink and drugs then in all honesty I'm not all that bothered. Because if I was sat in the abject poverty our government subjects our welfare claimants to I know I would be taking every pill and draining all the booze I could get my hands on. And so would you Mr Daily Mail reader, you've just got your head too far up your own backside to see it.
I sound bitter, I am bitter. I'm bitter because I hate watching people written off and condemned through no fault of their own. I hate the pomposity of those who mistake their natural advantages for the fruit of their own efforts and think they have a right to be so damn smug about it. I want a world where we don't judge people by what they earn and I want a world where instead of calling people scum for going through hard times, we offer a bit of sympathy and a helping hand while understanding the simple and sobering thought - that could be me one day.