The myth of the “welfare scrounger”

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A little noticed piece of DWP research shows that four out of five claimants spent at least three quarters of the past four years off unemployment benefit.

BY IAN MULHEIRN PUBLISHED 15 MARCH 2013 14:58

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.
A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

 

In its effort to save money on the working age welfare bill, the government has used some bold imagery. The Chancellor is fond of saying

“where is the fairness…for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”

And the Prime Minister has talked of the benefits bill

“sky-rocketing”

while

“generations languish on the dole and dependency”.

The benefit scrounger is the bogeyman of British politics, stalking the corridors of Westminster.

In the real world, it’s pretty hard to find families that have never worked, let alone generations of people on the dole.

But as well as being political cover for the public spending squeeze, this rhetoric reflects an apparent hardening of public attitudes.

The British Social Attitudes survey shows that in 2011 54 per cent of people thought that if benefits were lower people would “learn to stand on their own two feet”, more than double the 26 per cent who felt that way just 20 years earlier. It appears that the idea of dependency is almost synonymous with the dole in many people’s minds. As a result, moves to erode benefits, through things like the 1 per cent up-rating plan, garner widespread public support.

Into this rhetorical maelstrom, was last week released a fascinating – and little noticed –piece of research by the Department for Work and Pensions on the benefit histories of dole recipients.

It’s a precious piece of evidence in an argument that tends to be fuelled by anecdote, prejudice and fear (on all sides). And it rather undermines the picture that our welfare system is awash with people taking advantage of its ‘something for nothing’ deal.

The analysis looks at the benefit claims history, going back four years, of people who made a claim for unemployment benefit in 2010-11.

For a sample group of 32-33 year olds who claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in 2010-11, 40 per cent of them had not made a claim before in that period.

Sixty three per cent had spent no more than six months of the previous four years on JSA.

And almost four out of five claimants had spent at least three quarters of the past four years off the dole.

The idea that these claimants are ‘trapped’ in a ‘dependency culture’ is absurd.

What all this implies is that the overwhelming majority of people who claim unemployment benefit each year spend at least three-quarters of their time in work.

And for 40 per cent of claimants, the need to claim JSA clearly comes as quite a shock since they have no recent history of having done so before.

But you would never tell that from the tone of the debate.

Only a small minority of adults – 11 per cent of claimants in 2010-11 – have a history of spending more than half of recent years on the dole.

The government is right to want to take action to help that 11 per cent achieve sustainable employment rather than spending half their time on the dole. But when four out of five claimants draw benefits for an unemployment spell that is obviously an unfortunate aberration, it’s clear that the excoriating rhetoric isn’t based in reality.

If all claimants are to be labelled ‘scroungers’, then today’s striver is tomorrow’s scrounger – and that could be any of us.

It’s worth remembering that the next time we hear a welfare squeeze being justified by a pervasive ‘culture of dependency’.

The New Statesman 

 

Comments
  • NoOneIsListening March 19, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Thank you to The New Statesman for an intelligent perspective and observation. We need much more reality and truth from politicians and across the media sector. Another observation is that there are many scivers actually in work who make a poor contribution to performance keeping a job that someone else might do better, not to mention the famous and rich who simply fail to do their job and then receive enormous financial pay offs when they are shafted! Where is the fairness in this mad, mad, world?

  • Charissa Malcolm March 19, 2013 at 8:51 am

    I have been made redundant 4 times yet have never claimed JSA, my eldest worked from being just 13 until 20 when he became unemployed. He has been unemployed for over a year yet will not claim JSA. It is about time this myth of the ‘doleite’ was put where it belongs; in the pile of lies that comes continually spewing out of this governments mouths.

  • Michael March 19, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Its never been any different where millionaire tories are concerned. They always support the posh v peasant mentality and liberals are worse. The saddest part is how Labour have joined this mentalit too. They have long forgotten why and how they came into existence. There are not 3 parties in mainstream politics today , just one with 3 aliases.

  • Laz March 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    When you work and pay into the system you are in effect paying into funds so if you loose work then you will have support till you can find a new job . I have never begrudged paying taxes even when on low wages whilst filling in between better paid jobs because as belonging to a society where we started looking out for each other after the 2ndWW .You are entitled to JSA BECAUSE YOU PAID FOR IT,THERE IS NO SHAME IN CLAIMING. If you pay car insurance and have a prang you claim so what is the difference.1 thing ,brainwashing by media and rich snobs who incidentally dodge taxes as much as possible and even employ people to help them do it .I am 57 yrs. this year and now my health is stuffed, but no way is some bunch of Etonian Nazi TW-T going to deny me my rights. I worked for them and often accepted bad conditions or treatment regardless to keep working. It bloody annoys the hell out of me when people say such things.

  • Humanity2012 March 20, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Nazism in All it’s Perverted Ugliness who Used to Speak of the So Called ” Work Shy ”
    Forcing People to be Slave Labour is the Whole Propaganda Pahlava about the
    ” Welfare Scroungers ”

    Welfare Exists to Provide a Safety Net for those without a Position of Employment

    I am Bloody Well Angry and Incensed how Bone Headed People like Idiots Brainwashed
    by Nazi Propaganda Victimise the Alleged ” Welfare Scrounger ” and Yet Turn a Blind
    Eye to the Real Scroungers the Arrogant Politicians on the Expenses Gravytrain

    Idea behind National Insurance Contributions is to have Money for Welfare in Case
    of Needing It

    Sack Idiot Politicians and Doctors who Do Not Care about the Plight of the Poor
    and Vulnerable

    Slave Labour is Not Therapy it is Misery and Oppression

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