It is not enough to oppose these reforms simply because they hit the poor
We spent last week publicising our JRF-published report on council tax support. Summarising what we had found about each of the 326 English local authority schemes, it attracted a lot of attention and was an easy story to tell: 2.4 million of the poorest households in England – 70% in poverty already – face an average rise in their council tax of £140 a year. Almost two million households are having to pay the tax ‘for the first time’.
And yet is this type of argument enough? Is it sufficient to oppose a reform simply because it hits, sometimes even exclusively those with very low incomes, in or near poverty? We don’t think so.
Firstly, and most obviously, it appears not to be a particularly persuasive argument. With ‘welfare’ accounting for around 30% of all public spending, it was inevitably going to be in the firing line once the Coalition had succeeded in winning popular consent to the idea that the budget deficit had to be cut.
Defenders of those on the lowest incomes failed to establish the idea that the poor should be spared, even in part. The kind of line needed – “if your back is to the wall, even a pound is too much” – is clear but if anything like it was ever attempted, it failed to gain a foothold. In fact what is in many ways its antithesis, the overall benefit cap, is one of the Coalition’s most popular policies.
From the June 2010 budget onwards, the Coalition promoted the idea that a ‘fair’ program of cuts would be one with a broadly uniform proportional impact across the range of incomes. This approach was endorsed, at least implicitly, by that most influential of independent commentators, the IFS. Once this measure of fairness is established, it is impossible to oppose any individual reform simply because it hits the poor.
Attempts to frame things differently have not always helpful either. We have great reservations about the rhetoric of the squeezed middle, because it is politically ambiguous. If the squeeze is ‘from above’ then the politics points left whereas if the squeeze is ‘between’ (rich and poor) then the politics points right. But whether left or right, if the middle is being squeezed, the idea that the bottom should be spared is asking a lot indeed.
Similarly, attempts to show, quite correctly, that many benefit recipients are in work merely extend the definition of deserving poor, making those out of work look ever less deserving of support.
It is also seems that the entrenched defence of the poverty line left important building blocks of the benefit system dangerously exposed. When the government abandoned the long-standing rule that working-age benefits should be uprated in line with inflation it did provoke a storm of protest. When it abandoned the rule that those benefits would not be required to cover either rent or council tax it did not. This is presumably because the latter took effect through the very obscure concept of the ‘applicable amount’. Yet for those affected, the undermining of the applicable amount is more important than the retreat on uprating.
Against this background, opposition to any specific welfare reform needs other, more technical arguments, such as whether it will really save money or what the adverse, unintended consequences might be.
But even arguments like this may not be enough because they imply that what is being proposed is wholly without merit. Yet as we think about April’s changes in some cases at least, a genuine problem motivates and so justifies the reform. When this is so, a merely reactionary opposition both strikes people as unrealistic and pits the interests of those who are poor against social progress. This is highly damaging.
Over the rest of this week we will therefore subject each of the main changes – CTS, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the shift from DLA to PIP and the sub-inflation uprating to working-age benefits – to scrutiny under three headings. First, what about the money arguments? Second, what are its likely consequences? Third, if a real problem lies behind it is this a good way to address it? Midway through, we will link to a new report giving comprehensive estimates –for the first time – of the numbers of people hit by more than one of these reforms. That such estimates have not been published by government is shocking.