Winning public support for spending on benefits will not simply be a matter of some new eye-catching policy proposals. First the whole debate on benefits needs re-framing. There is a growing belief that poverty is due more to individual failings than to injustice, as well as diminishing support for redistribution through the tax-and-benefits system, and a growing belief that benefits are too high, discouraging work incentives and encouraging ‘scrounging’. All appear to be undermining any sense of solidarity with benefit recipients. Public attitudes are mirroring pretty consistent messages from government (New Labour as well as the coalition). For some time politicians have denounced a supposed ‘dependency culture’ and irresponsible benefit claimants, while ever more punitive rules appear to have increased mistrust in the benefits system rather than allay it. The current government’s individualistic behaviour-based diagnosis of the causes of poverty has triumphed in a country where public attitudes have always been more prone to blame ‘the poor’ than in continental Europe.
Public attitudes are clearly not fixed but that does not mean it will be easy to shift the tide. A first step in re-framing the debate could be to reassert a clear structural analysis of poverty and an understanding of how individual agency is constrained. Then we need to stop talking about ‘welfare’, which has taken on such divisive and pejorative meanings, and reclaim the language of social security or social protection. This could speak to the growing sense of insecurity felt by many citizens. We need to remind people that social security is not just about poverty relief but about guaranteeing a degree of economic security for everyone. This points away from such heavy reliance on means-testing, which ‘others’ recipients and creates resentment among some of those who do not qualify.
Evidence of the value the public attaches to reciprocity has rekindled interest in the contributory principle. A recent TUC Touchstone pamphlet makes the case for strengthening contributory benefits as one (though not the only) means of addressing the crisis of public confidence in the social security system. Instead of a negative case based on attacking ‘something for nothing’, it considers ways of increasing the returns to contributions. Another option might be that aired by the Commission for Social Justice: allow payment of higher contributions in return for higher benefits. ‘Premium’ national insurance might be sold as superior to private insurance and bind more people into the scheme.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 Fabian Review