Welfare Dependency in Britain Needs Public Spending Not Vitriol [BLOG]

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By Shane Croucher | February 21, 2013 3:06 AM EST

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Investment is needed to stop the cycle of welfare dependency in the UK (Reuters)

We are all helpless victims of our own circumstance, born and then relentlessly conditioned by everything and everyone around us. In our childhood and formative years - the most important period for the moulding of human characteristics - we are as good as powerless against the forces influencing who or what we become.

This must never be underestimated. The struggle to reshape who we are made to be, to metamorphose as a person, is the biggest battle some will ever have to fight.

While we may be empathetic to another human's plight, it is very difficult to truly immerse yourself in the mind of someone else, see the world through their eyes, and understand how hard it is to change.

It is in this context that we must view families dependent on welfare, who think that an existence on benefits alone is an acceptable, even enviable, lifestyle. Rather than glare through a self-righteous lens, devoid of perspective or understanding, we must be both pragmatic and sympathetic to people trapped by their own personal situations.

Week after week, the same formulaic exposés appear in tabloid newspapers and glossy lifestyle magazines, those garish and gaudy sorts with eye-snatching front page stories that manage to be simultaneously moralising and nihilistic.

A journalist hears about a benefits-dependent family somehow, grabs a photographer, goes to the home, interviews the mother, father, or both, elicits some awful justification for a life financed by the taxpayer, draws up a list of handouts received, and assets purchased from the spoils of others - a flatscreen television seems to be the stock über-insult to hard-working Britons - and subsequently publishes a big warts-and-all journalistic assault on the family.

Then the hounds - fanged and bloodthirsty online commenters - are released.

"Scrounging scumbags," reads one comment on a recent story fitting the above formula, as another hurls "tramps".

Take away their benefits, come the yells. Crowbar them into a tiny home. Castrate the dads and rip out the mum's womb. Make them beg for food. Pack them off to Afghanistan with the army. Send them to a workhouse. Tear the flesh from their idle bones, and so on.

Yet it's this depressingly popular reactionary stick-grabbing politics that perpetuates the cycle of dependency they purport to loathe so much.

There may even be an argument against such criticism that, across a lifetime, most Britons take more out of our system than they put in regardless of whether we work or not.

Time after time you will see the same rationalisation espoused by the benefit dependent stupid enough to give a newspaper interview: that they're better off on handouts than in work.

Why bother getting a job, they posit, when you can earn more sitting at home on benefits?

Likewise, this attitude and justification is lamented by those who want to slash state spending on welfare and who would sooner adopt their Victorian utopia of two families to a room in multi-occupancy households than arrange appropriate and humane accommodation.

This logic is based on arithmetic, and they may well be right on the maths, but that is not the driving reason for this kind of worklessness.

No welfare system is perfect. There have been problems with the UK's system that certainly need reform, but it isn't simply a numbers game, no matter how much the willing long-term unemployed and the workhouseians say it is.

The real reason, masked by the sums argument, is cultural. It is about attitude, education, aspiration (or lack thereof), skills, upbringing, and social environment.

No reasonable, right-thinking person thinks it is okay to live a workless life funded by everybody else.

Those who have grown up without a role model, without a home where working is a priority, without a solid education as a basic expectation of you, very rarely become reasonable, right-thinking people unless there has been outside help or influence.

So what do you do to erase this culture, change perceptions, remould this section of society to break this cycle of dependency?

Many have it that taking everything away is the solution. Severely limit their incomes, put them in unsuitable housing, punish their irresponsibility. Give them the hairy side of the government's palm around the chops to snap the delusional entitled out of their madness.

There are two potential outcomes to this type of remedy for one of the biggest maladies in our society.

The first would be rational response, uncharacteristic of irrational people. Their awareness is sharpened by the sudden personal disaster. Their perceptions are shifted.

They immediately seek out a job, or skills training with a view of employment. Eventually, they find work. It is a glorious dawn in a new existence where they join the rest of society's "strivers", as is the favoured term these days, paying in to the system and virtuously winning bread for their family.

Of course, this rosy picture depends on them finding work in a country with almost 8 percent of the working-age population is unemployed, as well as being able to earn enough to exist as an individual or family in modern Britain, given the stinging basic cost of living for low earners - high rents, energy costs, food bills - and the cuts to welfare which gave the working poor much needed financial sustenance. Good luck. You'll need it. Though not as much as money in your hand.

A second potential outcome, and much more likely, is that each of these troubled families will be pushed even deeper into a poverty trap, sucked down as if mired in quicksand, unable to ever escape as generation after generation is born, left to rot, and spawns again.

That is, hopefully, an abhorrent idea to most people.

Helping poor children through education, through providing them stability in what could easily become an unstable home, through raising their aspirations so they know they can achieve and become functioning members of society, and giving them the resources they need to flourish will free them from the generational cycle of impoverished misery.

Offering support to parents and helping them to help their children grow into a different life to the one they have had, to encourage their offspring to lead better, more fulfilling, productive and happy lives than the generation before.

It is vital that intervention comes when a child is young, so they do not fall behind before they have even entered the education system, something that can damn their future before they've even learnt to spell their own name.

All of this, though, requires investment. This is a bigger hurdle to overcome, in terms of public opinion, than it should be. At face value, arguing that the people who are already too reliant on state handouts - the source of the ire against them - should have more public money spent on them seems like insanity.

However, if you actually care about what happens to these people and where the children unfortunate enough to be thrown into such a pitiful existence scrabbling at the bottom of society end up; if your ideal is equal opportunity for all and that people are not trapped in the same social class as they are born in, but can overcome obstacles and make their own way in the world; then you must take the hit to public spending that is required to intervene and give people a hand up, rather than holding them down with a foot on their head.

We are watching the dismantling of a support network that helps social mobility, such as the cutting of funding for Sure Start centres and the closure of the aspiration-raising AimHigher educational programme for deprived children, to name but two assaults.

A new approach, based on the flawed assumption that if you make people poorer they'll be incentivised to become better off, is being favoured.

This is the same logic as healing a wounded hand by lopping off the arm at the shoulder joint, then expecting a new and improved limb to grow back.

Past governments have failed those at the bottom of society. Yet these blameless few - the "scroungers" according to some - are always blamed for the ineptitude of the political elite.

Things won't change. The investment needed will only see results in the long-term, and would actually end up bringing down the government's overall bill on many levels.

People in gainful employment pay more in to the system and take less out and this would be the end result of hard work and public investment in helping the section of society that needs aid most.

But long-term results aren't of much use to politicians who rely on a popular vote every four or five years.

Money is what matters most at this time of government austerity, and populist self-defeating rhetoric is cheaper in the short-term.

Shane Croucher is a business reporter for IBTimes UK.
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