Moral judgements have no place in the benefits system
If there’s one thing that David Cameron is clear about, it’s that he wants us all to do the ‘Right Thing,’ a phrase that popped up no less than seven times in his deeply moralising speech about the benefits system earlier this week.
In order to help us identify the exact nature of this elusive moral mcguffin, he issued us with a detailed inventory of Wrong Things, a lengthy laundry list of the feckless. Straying from the state-approved path of righteousness now includes: moving out of one’s parents’ house before one’s thirties; having more than two children, becoming a single parent; experiencing back pain whilst failing to procure physiotherapy, and worst of all, enjoying a general feeling of ‘entitlement.’ It’s a list that would trip up most of us at some point in our lives, including the majority of the cabinet.
Positioning himself yet again as the political wing of the Daily Mail, Cameron told us that those doing the ‘right thing’ will be rewarded by his government (and by extension, those doing the ‘wrong thing’ will be punished.) The benefits system will be like a giant state-sponsored employee incentive scheme- righteous actions earn you a quarterly bonus! A lifetime of government-endorsed moral choices wins you the chance to apply for two free tickets out of poverty! In setting up this simplistic vision of reward and punishment, he made clear his belief in a dangerous principle – that welfare benefits should be distributed on the basis of morality rather than need.
Attempts to divide the poor into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ are nothing new. It’s a form of social control that dates back to the Poor Law of 1834 and before. It’s also an idea that despite its popularity, has never really worked to combat poverty, or shame people into living orderly lives, because it fundamentally fails to take into account what human beings are actually like.
The paths we take, and the reasons we take them are complex. The myriad of circumstances, obstacles and choices, advantage, disadvantage and tragedy which lead to any given situation in life are virtually impossible to categorise in any meaningful way. Broad generalisations by politicians about people’s moral character, by necessity end up falling into the realm of caricature. Consequently any attempt to determine the moral worth of a person with any level of subtlety via the benefits system would be clearly be impossible.
What ends up happening, is that rather than dealing with individual situations, policies based on moral judgements tend to stigmatise groups. Old equals good. Young equals bad. Married couples good. Single parents bad. But these categorisations are so flimsy, they topple with the slightest bit of analysis. Far from being irresponsible, single parents (for this, read single mothers. Nine out of ten lone parents are female, so the phrases are functionally synonymous) are usually the ones picking up the dreary pieces of the irresponsibility of others. If anyone should incur the wrath of a preaching government it’s the parent who left them.
Under 25’s claiming housing benefit to set up home on their own are motivated by as many reasons as there are individuals. They may be attempting to free their parents from the financial burden of their care, fleeing physical or emotional abuse or may simply have no cosy childhood bedroom option. Even Cameron acknowledged that there should be exceptions to this draconian piece of social engineering, for instance in the case of “those leaving foster care or with a terrible destructive home life.”
But once the possibility for some level of complexity and exception is acknowledged, how could this possibly work in practice? How would the state be able to determine what was or wasn’t a ‘terribly destructive home life’ and on what criteria? How would the parents be assessed? Apart from the fact that it would be virtually impossible to administer such a system, at a more fundamental level, what business does the state have deciding what does or doesn’t constitute a poor domestic set up, or who should and shouldn’t be living with their parents? What value system would any such judgements be based on?
Any attempt to impose a moral framework on the benefits structure would need either to be based on sweeping generalisations about entire groups of people, or involve a level of micromanagement of individuals’ personal choices that would constitute a serious incursion into civil liberties.
To whip up some vote-winning righteous anger amongst his core supporters and illustrate his binary system of right and wrong, in his speech, Cameron pitted two fictional families against each other. We’ll call them the Goods and the Bads. The Goods work hard, the husband as a hospital porter, the wife as a care-worker, and they live on a limited income. They have no children, after prudently having decided to wait until they are more financially secure.
Across the street live the Bads, who don’t work, and appear to have spent their state-sponsored 24-hour leisure time producing no less than four children. They receive generous benefits, a higher net income than the hard working Goods. Is this fair? thunders Cameron, with a righteous rhetorical flourish. Well, yes, broadly it is. Unpalatable as it may be to those with an appetite for resenting their neighbours, the allocation of benefits to the Bad family, as with any family, should be based on current need, rather than an assessment of their moral back catalogue. They have four children who need to be clothed and fed. Punishing children for the choices their parents have made, particularly when it is unclear why and how they made those choices, benefits no one.
There is only one reasonable criteria on which to judge who should and shouldn’t receive benefits, and that is need. Like the unpleasant debates that resurface periodically about allocation of funds in the NHS (should we treat people who smoke or overeat or hunt crocodiles? Do they deserve treatment?) which are usually given short shrift by anyone who matters; the idea that the benefits system should be administered on the basis of moral judgement is a dangerous road to go down.Tagged in: benefits, class, cuts, david cameron, entitlement, morality, nhs, poverty, privilege, welfare reform
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