Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Deserving Poor

Cameron's speech today opens a Pandora's box, by suggesting that fairness involves what people 'deserve'. This is, on a superficial level, obviously attractive and intuitively right. But the moment you delve into the policy detail, it unravels pretty damn quick.

The Tory spinners were insisting tonight that the removal of child benefit for high earners and the cap on welfare payments reflect this notion of fairness and merit. So it is not fair that a 'man' (in Cameron's example) works long hours to pay taxes to sustain a family of welfare dependants next door. So fair so good. But what do you do about it? The welfare dependants will normally be receiving large amounts of benefits because they have children to support. But how can children be undeserving (as Jeremy Paxman pressed an uncomfortable Jeremy Hunt on Newsnight)? Similarly, it is intuitively sensible that families dependent on welfare should not receive four-figure sums in housing benefit to allow them to live in central London, when hard-working taxpayers have to commute miles to go to work. But if you cut their housing benefit, families (again, nearly always with children) will be forcibly relocated to different neighbourhoods, or even cities, leaving behind their schools and whatever social relations they may have built and creating ghettoes in the cheapest areas of our cities.

The notion of the deserving poor is therefore back with us. The sad thing is that we are talking about children here. The non-working poor without children receive very little from our welfare system (Jobseekers Allowance is £66 a week, which would barely keep my Oystercard going). So any serious cuts to the welfare system will penalize parents and children. Cameron's idea of fairness sounds great until you see homeless children out in the rain.