Bleak age — 1983

Answering questions recently in Parliament about Conservative intentions towards the Welfare State, the Prime Minister spoke of government determination to give individuals and their families more choice and freedom to exercise responsibility. According to the proposals drawn up by senior Cabinet Ministers, this means encouraging families to reassume responsibilities taken on by the state. The idea that the Welfare State takes care of all our needs is in stark contrast to the suffering of the growing numbers of people forced into dependence on social security, for at least part of their income. If a figure of 140 per cent of the supplementary benefit level is taken then around a quarter of the population is living in poverty or close to it. For those in doubt there is the evidence of the DHSS final report on deprivation.

In 1972 Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Social Services, made a speech in which he expressed concern that, despite the growth of “affluence” since 1945 there was still widespread prevalence of personal and social problems. He suggested that a lack of appropriate parenting skills might be partially responsible. As a consequence of that speech the Social Science Research Council and the Department of Health and Social Security set up a Joint Working Party to carry out a programme of research into transmitted deprivation. The final report by Muriel Brown and Nicola Madge was published last July. Despite the Welfare State is the result of nearly ten years of enquiry involving 37 studies and including surveys of existing statistics and literature. (There are 17 pages of references.)

The original subject was problem families but the scope was widened to cover many aspects of deprivation and ways it might be transmitted across generations. Various “separate” states of deprivation affecting many families were studied including low income, bad housing, unemployment, poor health and family problems. People experiencing an overlap between these states are suffering multiple deprivation! One estimate gives over one million families in this condition. Not surprisingly “those individuals or families who are deprived in income or occupation are most likely to have other deprivations”. Inadequate living accommodation contributes to ill health, which in turn adds to the difficulties of coping with family relationships. People on low incomes have no alternative to seeking help from state social agencies. Studies failed to reveal a common identity for “problem” families.

The measurement of social deprivation is both inexact and controversial but “quite definitely substantial in amount”. The Report gives a conservative estimate of roughly ten million people suffering poverty, four million of those in families with children. About one-quarter of the workforce hold unskilled or semi-skilled jobs “with attendant deprivations of insecurity and poor work conditions”. 1.8 million households are living in physically unsatisfactory housing conditions in terms of overcrowding, shortage of amenities or general unfitness, and “a small minority” (about 50,000) are officially regarded as homeless in any one year.

For the families concerned poverty means an actual shortage of necessary goods, including food. Not starvation but limited diets, going hungry and missing meals. “Many surveys” indicate severe shortages of furniture, especially beds. A smaller proportion of those on low incomes own or have use of fridges and washing machines. Among poor people a drop in income level is a major cause of debt. Failure to pay fuel bills and keep up with hire purchase payments can mean the disconnection of electricity supply and the loss of goods. Rent arrears are a factor in homelessness. There is chronic anxiety and despair with the added fear, especially for single parents, that the consequence of debt or acute financial difficulties may mean children taken into care. Approximately seven out of ten families whose children were fostered, adopted or placed in residential homes “had been judged to have a precarious or very precarious financial situation at the time of reception into care”.

In summarising the studies made by the Joint Working Party Brown and Madge deal sympathetically with the deprivation and disadvantages suffered by several million people. They are unable to fully explain it. finding that there is no single form of deprivation and no single cure. They believe that “there will always be some worse off than others”.

Everyone on a low income is not considered to be suffering special hardship. All those in low-skill occupations, unemployed, in the “worst of housing”, with large families, single parents, do not have problems which make them turn to the social services for help. (Not being “problem families” they are really outside the areas considered by researchers.) This does not mean that they do not have problems or that the difficulties of “problem families” are not the result of poverty.

All forms of deprivation occur most frequently within the lowest “socio-economic groups” but similar problems are experienced by families not in low-skilled occupations. This does not invalidate the relationship between income and life-style opportunities and expectations. But looking at problems in relation to individual families and classifying people into separate socio-economic groups according to occupation and income level, ignores the common economic identity of these groups. People who need to work, no matter how their skills and payments differ, all belong to the same class.

The working class does all of the work of society, produces the social wealth, but does not own the means to produce that wealth. On the other hand the capitalist class which owns the means of production, and therefore what is produced, does not need to work — or to claim social security. The motive for production is sale and profit and for the working class access to what is produced is limited by the amount of their wages — or social security benefits. This fact restricts choice for the majority in all areas of life. It hardly needed a ten-year programme of enquiry to discover that people on the lowest incomes are likely to have most problems coping with life, and the greatest difficulty in improving the position for their children. Whether or not particular deprivations are transmitted across generations of individual families, poverty-based problems are certainly experienced by successive generations of working class families.

All the aspects of deprivation and disadvantage investigated by the DHSS Joint Working Party are related to the role of the working class, in a social system which lacks the motive to provide for human wealth, dignity and contentment. Capitalism needs a varied workforce, people to do all kinds of work, including menial unskilled work which requires little training. It is not necessary for everyone to be qualified to do the highest paid jobs. And while there is “a great shortage of trade” some 3½ million people are unemployed.

Members of the working class unable to work, whether through unemployment, sickness or old age, are dependent on the state social security system. The hardship which they may face is an aspect of the relative poverty of the whole class. Workers looking at the deductions on their own payslips, for income tax and national insurance contributions, are far from sympathetic to any increase in their contributions as a means to improve social security benefits for others. Myths about the generosity of state welfare provision, and its abuse, are widely accepted, together with the idea that the poor have only themselves to blame — or they are not poor at all. When David Donnison was Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, complaints about supporting layabouts and scroungers, which arrived by the hundred each month, were “rarely on headed notepaper from leafy suburbs” but were mostly from “ordinary voters and taxpayers” (The Politics of Poverty).

If the DHSS report is not enough the mass arrest of claimants, during the infamous Operation Major at Oxford, further revealed the opportunities for “getting rich” on social security: 175 people were accused of drawing £67.20 board and lodging allowances, by giving bed and breakfast addresses at which they were not staying. In March a judge dismissed the case against one man who had changed to cheap accommodation which did not include breakfast. According to the DHSS his money should have been reduced to £52.75! Who would turn to the DHSS, in the hope of getting meagre and qualified help, if they had another option?

Government exploration of possible changes in the welfare state is not concerned with remedying the failure to end poverty, but with finding cheaper ways of running welfare services. About £2 billion has been cut from benefits affecting pensioners. families, the sick, disabled and unemployed, but social security now accounts for 29 per cent of all government expenditure. During a debate in the House of Lords last November Lord Trefgarne (Under Secretary of State for Health and Social Security) said that the government was committed to protecting the needs of those who relied on social security benefits, but that the success of the economic strategy meant limiting the growth of social security as far as possible. (The Times, 25 November 1982.)

Piecemeal reform, within the existing social services, is seen by the authors of Despite the Welfare State to be the only realistic solution to deprivation. Even without a recession reforms cannot end working class poverty. But there is an alternative.

Pat Deutz