Once our society cared about poor people. Now we damn them

The Guardian, by Polly Toynbee

Hardly a week passes without a new report into Britain’s yawning social divide. And yawning is the response from the government and many voters who choose not to believe it, blame poor people themselves, or just don’t care that much.

Yesterday the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported an extra 400,000 children and 300,000 more pensioners falling into poverty since 2013, the day after the Social Mobility Commission resigned en masse, in protest at the government binning its every recommendation. This follows the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that 37% of children will fall below the government’s own poverty line by 2021.

Universities pump out facts about poverty, but what’s the use if the politics and public sentiment of our times sees a nation blocking its ears? Benefits Street (from the misnamed Love Productions) generated more hate than any statistics about hard-working poor people can ever repair. That’s just part of a 40-year post-Thatcher assault on the founding principles of the welfare state.

Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge report, remembered as a heroic beacon amid the darkness of the second world war, later helping Clement Attlee’s Labour trounce Winston Churchill in the 1945 election. But the spirit of 45 had a more prosaic beginning. Sir William Beveridge, an arrogant, prickly man, was shunted off into a minor job chairing a “tidying up operation” for sickness schemes. Has any civil servant ever so outrageously exceeded their remit?

Employed alongside people in the hardest jobs, I saw them sticking at it for little more than benefits would pay
What emerged in 1942 was a report that not only constructed an entire social security system, but a free health and education service as well. Its dry title – Social Insurance and Allied Services – didn’t deter people from queueing outside HM Stationery Office for a copy. Hard technical reading was embellished with an eloquent opening and conclusion, and it sold 600,000 copies. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching,” wrote this Liberal, who was no socialist.

The principle was social insurance – you pay in for support in times of need. That moral notion at its core has always chimed with public opinion. Though politicians keep trying to recreate the insurance idea, which lingers on semi-fraudulently in national insurance, from the start it didn’t solved many problems. Many, such as pensioners, needed support immediately despite never paying in, so supplementary benefit – means-tested – grew to pay people outside the system. Housing costs were an add-on, then as now, varying too wildly around Britain for a flat rate. There never is, was or can be a neat universal system. Besides, Beveridge planned for an all-male workforce when a man’s wage was enough: now median families need two earners.

But ever since Thatcher’s 1980s, the Tories have undermined Beveridge’s ideas. Nicholas Timmins, whose newly updated book Five Giants chronicles the history of the welfare state, tracks the language change that heralded declining public trust. “Welfare state” and “social security” fell out of common usage after Charles Murray, deviser of the word “underclass”, blamed poverty on moral and character shortcomings – he is quoted approvingly again in this week’s Sunday Times editorial. Tory ministers turned the word “welfare” into an abusive term, misleadingly branding the entire social security budget as “welfare” when most is pensions, not the dole, let alone scroungers.

A roll call of Tory ministers abusing “welfare” finally led to Iain Duncan Smith redefining poverty as lack of marriage and morals, not lack of money. George Osborne’s pernicious attacks on families with their blinds down while others worked disguised the fact that most of poor people are in work. Over the decades they torpedoed the idea of a good welfare state, with a “them and us” attack separating the services we all use from “welfare” – just for “them”.

Go back to the poor law and the dilemma is unchanged: how do you keep people from starving without the moral hazard of handouts corrupting work incentives? The workhouse was the perfect solution where poor people could work for their living – but they were phenomenally expensive, with little work done as most residents were very old, very sick or otherwise unfit. (Like most on benefits now.)

“Moral hazard” never notices the mysterious way that when jobs are plentiful, all able-bodied people work. But as soon as the economy falters or an area loses its industry, people turn overnight into morally derelict idlers, as if human nature shifts with the economy. In writing two books about manual work, 30 years apart, what struck me in every workplace was the strength of the work ethic. A near universal urge drives almost everyone to earn their living, even if the job pays little more than benefits. The mental depression caused by unemployment proves that paid work is an overpowering human need.

Working alongside people in the hardest jobs, I saw them often disrespected by callous employers, yet sticking at it for little more than benefits would pay. The work and pensions committee this week interrogates the savagery of how sick and unfit people are sanctioned to food bank starvation if they can’t work. Beveridge insisted on conditionality, but nothing like this.

Poverty facts are well known. What researchers need to find is the key to recreating the public generosity spirit of 1945, despite Tory ministers and a Tory press. Does it take a war to feel “all in it together”? The crash and this longest stagnation drives people further apart: unlike war, it has hardly affected the better off. Even Labour’s manifesto prioritised £10bn for student fees over repairing the £12bn benefit cuts.

Searching for new Beveridgean remedies, some suggest a universal basic income, paying everyone a wage regardless of need or wealth. But that too requires a revolution in willingness to pay higher taxes, to share more fairly and banish moral hazard fears. What level of inequality is too much for voters to bear? Time for some new Beveridge with a vision of society where most feel they have something to gain by a great collective endeavour. At least British Social Attitudes shows some movement towards a greater generosity of spirit. What’s needed is more social research into how to touch the human heart.