Tuesday 8 November 2011

The real cost of welfare

A couple of weeks ago, John Humphrey's investigated the 'Future State of Welfare' for the BBC. You can find his report  HERE .
He went back to Splott in Cardiff, where he was raised, to listen to the people who have been out of work for years or have never had work. His report is balanced, instructive and eye-opening. While the people who are unemployed get the chance to tell their side of the story in the documentary, listening to them evoked feelings of pity and despair in me. 
Curiously, what was absent from their views was the damage unemployment causes to themselves and their offspring. While they were very vocal in asking for higher benefits and adamant that they would never work as long as they only get a minimum wage, they seemed to reflect little on the fact that being unemployed placed them outside the mainstream of society in many respects with the attendant consequences. 
The debate on social rights has taken a wrong turn somewhere, to the extent that some of the interviewees in the programme were clear that they have a right to be unemployed which we would have to respect. This idea is a strange one. Rights entail obligations. So if there is a right to chose worklessness then there must be an obligation on somebody else to finance this unemployment. The people Humphreys interviewed were clear that everyone else had to support them. 
But what about right of the rest of society to decide whether or not we should carry this obligation in the first place? In effect, what has taken hold in the public debate, and is neatly reflected in the responses of those unemployed mothers and fathers Humphreys spoke to, is a culture of claims made against society coupled with impunity for their own actions. In their view their 'choice' to remain out of work does not entail any consequences for themselves. They are convinced that those who decide to work day in and out (and sometimes for the minimum wage!) have to shoulder the responsibility, not just for their own choice, but also for the choice of the others who are unemployed. 
Yet, this topsy-turvy view of personal responsibilities is not all there is in this confused worldview. What is often less commented on is the damage to their own lives they cause by remaining on benefits. Effectively they are condemning themselves to life without any occupational pension, old age poverty and increased chances of mental health problems. 
Arguably, no one can refuse to observe the main standards of society without detrimental effects to their psychological well being. It is this disregard for their own lives that provides the strongest argument for the radical shakeup of the benefits culture in our society. The people who are damaged most by continuous worklessness are the people who chose to settle into a life of idleness. In a sense, eerily similar to how we treat drug addicts, we may have to save them from themselves. 

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