One of the most pernicious straw men in modern politics is the argument dragged out last week by Rowan Williams. He accused the Coalition Government of using
“the seductive language of the deserving and undeserving poor”
This is almost exclusively a phrase used by the Left – in literal terms, the Government haven’t used that language at all. The reason the Left use it is to try to close down any discussion of distinct problems and solutions for different groups within the mass of Britain’s least advantaged people. In essence, it’s a justification for continuing a blind, blanket policy of handouts, handouts and more handouts, regardless of whether they work or not or the harm they might be doing.
We on the Right should be clear – all of the poor are deserving, but they are deserving of a range of different things.
Those who are unemployed but are keen to work are deserving of our support to get a job. That means financial support, but also access to job opportunities and support through the personal trauma of losing your job. Proud, ambitious people need their pride protecting and their ambition nurturing.
Those who are trapped in addiction to alcohol or drugs are deserving of help to overcome their problems. That should not mean the current policy of handing them cash as if they are automatically going to spend it on food or clothes for their family rather than their next hit. Instead it may mean a voucher system of benefits which is better controlled. The last thing they need is the welfare state giving them the cash to fuel their addiction when we should be helping them to overcome it.
Those who can work but have no interest in doing so, or knowledge of how to do so, are deserving of an escape route from the trap they find themselves in. Given that some people find themselves the third or fourth generation in their family to live on benefits rather than go to work it is no surprise that so few manage to break the pattern. These groups are deserving too – but not deserving of the money and opportunity to simply carry on like this.
It is frankly wicked that the welfare system effectively makes it easy to continue with that life and – even worse – punishes people for trying to escape it. Those who are trapped in long-term or even multigenerational unemployment are deserving of a better education system, training to introduce them to a life of work and explain its benefits, access to job opportunities and, crucially, the removal of the penalties for choosing to break the pattern and get a job. We need to be honest and say that yes, in some cases they are deserving of some tough love, too.
Helping people to overcome their challenges, whatever they may be, and get into work is good for them, it’s good for wider society, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for the Exchequer. Unemployment kills people, it impoverishes them economically and in terms of quality of life, it deprives them of hope and a sense of self-worth. The blanket one-size-fits-all benefits system and the barriers it places in the way of those who try to get work has ended up reinforcing that harm for many people. Pernicious attempts by the Archbishop of Canterbury or anyone else to deny that this is a challenge that needs several, targeted solutions are dishonest.
Let’s be honest about the issue – we are all deserving of that.