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“Deserving” is a politically divergent word if there ever was one. The Conservatives have used it to apparently wage an all out class war, using austerity as a smokescreen.

They certainly don’t take the side of the proverbial underdog. In fact the more need you have, the less this government considers you “deserving” of support and sympathy.

Policies aimed at people with what are politically regarded as “additional needs” are largely about ensuring their compliance, conformity and commitment to “behavioural change”, based on the absurd assumption that people somehow erroneously “choose” to need financial support.

Claiming any form of state support has come to entail a deeply hostile and extremely challenging process that is causing psychological distress and often, physical harm, to our most vulnerable citizens.

Such a disciplinarian mindset is now embedded in social security. But we’ve been here before, back in 1832, when the Poor Law Amendment Act was aimed at categorising and managing “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Those considered “deserving” were unfortunately placed in workhouses and punished by a loss of citizens freedoms and rights, in order to try to deter people from being poor. (See also The New New Poor Law, 2013.)

I’ve yet to come across a single case of someone being punished out of their poverty. Someone ought to send every government minister a copy of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and remind them all that our post-war social security was originally designed and calculated to ensure people could meet the costs of basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter.

It was recognised back then, that people struggling with basic survival requirements were highly unlikely to fulfil other higher level psychosocial potential, such as looking for work. If we want people to find work, we must first ensure they have the necessary resources to do so. 

Poor people don’t create poverty, state decision-making does. The economy and labor market conditions do too. This punitive approach to poverty didn’t work in the 1800s and 1900s, and it isn’t working and can’t possibly be made to work now. It’s an ideological dead horse. It died because of the brutal and unrelentless use of too much political stick and no carrots for poor people.

Being poor is itself punishing enough. Now the poor are being punished for being punished with poverty.  No-one chooses to be poor, our overarching socioeconomic organisation is founded on the very principles of competition.

Neoliberalism invariably means there will be a few “winners” (1%) and a lot of “losers” (99%). It’s embedded in the very nature of such a competitive system that emphasises individualism, rather than collectivism, to create increasing inequality and poverty.

It’s worth considering that people on low pay, or with part-time hours in work are also being sanctioned, if they claim “top up” benefits to supplement their exploitative rate of pay or poor and unstable work conditions.

This fact is hardly a good advertisment for the Government’s claim of “making work pay”, unless of course we refer back to the poor law reform “eligibility principle” of 1834. Making welfare punitive is how we make work pay, not raising wages in line with the cost of living. Silly me. It seems old ideolologies die hard, with a vengeance.

Apparently it’s an individual’s fault for not “progressing in work”. Nothing to do with increasingly precarious employment situations, executive decision-making, or a deregulated labor market, of course.

In-work benefits have effectively subsidised employers’ wage costs. Yet low paid workers are being punished by the government for this state of affairs.

It’s not so long ago that we had a strong trade union movement that used collective bargaining as a method of improving wages and working conditions. But the free market ideologues don’t like trade unions, or welfare provision. They like a neat, tidy and very small, limited interventionist state. Or so they claim.

The paradox, of course, is that in order to reduce supportive provisions, to fulfill the conditions of neoliberalism, the government has to implement strategies that ensure citizen compliance. Many of those strategies are increasingly authoritarian, rather than “non interventionist”, in nature.

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