Monday, 6 February 2012

Living on benefits

I recently read a newspaper article by a certain John Bird, explaining how essential it is to get those people living on benefits to start working, even if they receive no actual payment from their employers in return. Long-term unemployed people living on benefits, it was argued, are more likely to be addicted to alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, to suffer mental health problems, and to have their children underachieve at school.

I am always suspicious of arguments which use a great deal of emotive language: in this case, "the hell-hole of benefits", benefits as a "Bastille", whole communities "ghettoised", whereas governments supplying benefits to the unemployed have the adjective "caring" firmly in quotation marks: terms like these always suggest that the argument is neither very strong nor particularly logical.

I can only speak from personal experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to retire early, and my wife gave up working several years earlier. Neither of us has ever regretted this: the only defect I can see in not working is that it doesn't pay so well. There is no reason whatsoever for those without work to stay vegetating at home, for in our experience there are plenty of things that can be done at minimal cost. The unemployed could get involved with the local church, or volunteer to help at a charity shop. They could start their own keep-fit schedule, cultivate the back garden if they have one, or, for intellectual stimulation, join their local U3A ("University of the Third Age", aimed specifically at the retired and or unemployed, costing the vast sum of £8per year, plus £1 for every meeting attended). As for their children underachieving at school, they would seem to be ideally placed to help their children with homework or, more enterprisingly, learn new subjects alongside them.

There seems on the face of it to be no reason why the long-term unemployed should be idle, even if out of work. Unemployment stems from economic causes, but idleness is a matter of choice. Or is Mr Bird in fact arguing that those living on benefits are likely to be the dregs of the lumpenproletariat, completely feckless, lacking any internal stimulus, and needing the discipline of formal work to save them from the weakness of their own characters? In that case he is possibly right: I wouldn't know.

I think the best comment ever made about the allegedly demoralising effects of living on government handouts was made in a Parliamentary debate on the subject around 1930, following the Wall Street Crash and the coming of the Great Depression. Lady Cynthia Mosley, who was, rather improbably, the Labour M.P. for Stoke-on-Trent, answered someone who put forward an argument similar to that of Mr Bird by saying that all her life people had paid her large sums of money for doing nothing at all, and she didn't think it had demoralised her!

(Footnote: "Lumpenproletariat" was a term used by Marx in the "Comminist Manifesto" to describe the lowest section of the working class: unskilled, frequently unemployed, semi-criminal. Marx considered them useless for revolutionary purposes; in fact he was as contemptuous of them as Mr Bird is)

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