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Max Wind-Cowie: There is such a thing as the deserving and undeserving poor

Max byline image Max Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury waded into the debate on welfare he did so from a Leftwing perspective.  It may or may not be that it was also a Christian perspective – that’s not for me to judge – but it was certainly the language of the old-fashioned Left that he used to denounce the quiet resurgence of the seductive language of "deserving" and "undeserving" poor’.  And it was that self-same language that Iain Duncan Smith used to defend himself in his riposte – With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept.’  Despite Tim’s efforts to explain that notions of desert are crucial to reforming welfare, still it seems that the Archbishop and the Secretary of State would both rather pretend that there is no such thing.

The trouble is they’re both very, very wrong.  There is such a thing as the ‘deserving poor’ and we’d be serving them a whole lot better if we had the gumption to admit it.

It’s not just Tory policy wonks like me who believe some people deserve our help more than others – it’s what counts as common sense out there in the real world.  I recently published a report – Of Mutual Benefit – that argued we should be rewarding those who, through insurance, protect themselves from unemployment and lessen their risk to taxpayers.  In researching the report we ran focus groups with medium earners (Ed Miliband’s much maligned ‘squeezed middle’) to try and get a grip on what they thought the benefits system is there for.  And guess what?  They have no problem discerning between those who deserve taxpayer support and those who do not.

They felt overwhelmingly that any job on offer should be taken and that those who refuse to work ought to be penalised.  They were certain that there is a clear difference in need, and in justification, between those incapacitated through illness and disability, and those who are unable to work because of addiction.  They did not believe that it was reasonable or responsible for those who subsist on benefits to use their children as cash-points for handouts from the state.  None of this was conveyed to us in the language of ‘scroungers’.  Instead it was communicated with genuine exasperation, sympathy and righteous dismay; our ‘squeezed middle’, those who pay for the welfare state, don’t hate benefits claimants but they are sick of a welfare system that does not discern between those who are morally entitled, and those who are not.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the seething anger about the lack of reciprocity in our welfare system.  The most ‘deserving’, our focus groups told us, are those who have contributed, who have ‘paid in’.  And these are the very people who are most let down by UK welfare.  Middle earners – especially those who have mortgages to pay and fixed outgoings – are unable to survive Britain’s benefits system financially.  Many lose their homes, some even their families, as a result of unemployment and reliance on a welfare system that pays little regard to how much they have contributed to it.  These people would benefit from opting out – buying an income protection policy to safeguard their finances – because British benefits simply do not acknowledge that significant contributions over a lifetime of work make you any more ‘deserving’ than anybody else.

The truth is that the Government would do better to listen to the anxieties of taxpayers than the handwringing of the Archbishop.  There is such a thing as the ‘deserving and underserving poor’ and it is in trying to treat each equally that the popularity of the state safety-net has been unspun.  Only by acknowledging the difference between those who try and those who don’t, and between those who work and those who won’t, can the Government restore trust in the benefits system.  Britain doesn’t shy away from judging the right from the wrong – nor should Government.


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