Book review: For whose benefit?

Claire Sewell

For Whose Benefit? The everyday realities of welfare reform, Ruth Patrick, Policy Press, 2017, £19.99

Since the general election, poverty has been hitting the headlines. The most recent critics of Conservative welfare cuts have included PM Gordon Brown who has warned: “There will soon be more people in poverty in May’s Britain – 15.7 million citizens – than ever there were in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.” Indeed, food bank usage is at an all-time high as the Tory austerity measures continue to make it harder for the poorest to get by.

A founding principle of the welfare state was ending poverty through a system of social insurance. Yet, twenty years on from its birth, Fabians Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend published research finding the welfare state had not been successful in eliminating poverty in Britain. This ‘rediscovery’ of poverty put the issue back on the policy agenda and in the same year, 1965, the Child Poverty Action Group was founded to tackle the issue.

In 2017, it is once more crucial that politicians and policy makers rethink their approach to welfare and focus their attention on ending poverty. Ruth Patrick’s brilliant new book, For Whose Benefit? provides a considered and constructive starting point and should be essential reading for social policy reformers. Ruth – who facilitated the Dole Animators project – interviewed a group of benefit claimants to track both the efficacy of welfare reforms  and the everyday realities of living on benefits. By ‘walking alongside’ a group of benefit claimants for five years she is able to evaluate the welfare reforms introduced by the coalition and Cameron governments – and allow this often marginalised group to describe their experiences in their own words.

From stigma to sanctions, Ruth presents a stark picture of the challenges, setbacks and hardships faced by benefit claimants who are experiencing the emotional, health and financial costs of welfare reform. For those interviewed, the social security system is experienced as one of social insecurity: they fear benefit cuts, face tough choices when trying to manage on a low (and often falling) income and they feel “looked down on” by society. For Ruth’s interviewees, poverty is a semi-permanent state. As Karen put it: “You only get so much money a month just to live on and once you’ve paid your bills and your food and bus fares and stuff you haven’t got much money to live on.”

Benefit sanctions – intended to encourage ‘welfare-to-work’ transitions – often result in very real hardship. Adrian explained: “I’ve lost weight because of it. That’s really put me down… I’m having like one, one and a half meals a day.” Sanctions also have a knock-on effect for claimants with children. Mother-of-two Chloe told Ruth: “Four weeks with no money is pretty alarming when you’ve got kids and bills and a house to run.” Chloe also explained: “I go without my meals sometimes. I have to save meals for the kids. So I’ll have, like a slice of toast and they’ll have a full meal.”

Ruth critiques the hollowness of the ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ policy mantra. Indeed, Rosie entered employment but her poverty persisted: “I think about [money] all the time and sometimes I do worry about it, especially the week before pay day . . . Washing powder you get on pay day when you do your big shop, and then it starts running out and you’ve got no money.”

In 2010 Cameron painted a picture of benefit claimants ‘sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefit cheques to arrive.’ But it is clear from Ruth’s interviews that for many recipients, claiming benefits is not a lifestyle choice – and that Cameron’s comments did more to increase stigma than to reflect reality. James said: “[On benefits] you’re just existing, not living. That’s all your doing.” And Sophie explained: “People don’t choose to live on benefits – it’s not our choice. It’s just the way that things have happened. We don’t choose to live on benefits, we don’t want to live on benefits.”

To eradicate poverty in the UK we need to protect – and reform – the social security system and the broader welfare state. Many feel that Corbyn’s Labour did better than expected in the recent general election because voters were tiring of Tory austerity measures and  Labour’s manifesto ‘for the many’ resonated with them.

For Ruth, a reformed social welfare system should be based on dignity and respect, providing “compensation for social insecurity” and “the situations that lead to insecurity emerging.” This new vision for social welfare would fit well alongside Labour’s anti-austerity agenda and could help the party to both retain and build upon the votes they secured on May 8. Debbie Abrahams, shadow work and pensions secretary, has said Labour could scrap the household benefits cap which would be a step in the right direction.

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