Opinion

With the new government comes a new opportunity to rethink welfare and benefits 

For too long, too much emphasis has been given to sticking plaster policies but not to social transformation

Signing on at the Labour Exchange in Elephant and Castle, London, 1976. Image: Homer Sykes / Alamy

I suppose I identify mostly with those who are leading a drifting and broken life of poverty. Those who in my younger days I was most like. Moneyless, hopeless and often antisocial. Restless, reckless, feckless and lost. Not sure of anything other than trying to get by. Appalling education, appalling social skills and appalling futures.   

The big difference between now and my young times is that there was, then, no government relief to rely upon. You were on your own. You had to fit in, get a job, find unsavoury work; you had to find the means to pay your way.  

All that has changed through the years since the ’70s when I was a young man. Now, especially since so many redundant workers were put on social security when Thatcherism closed down basic industries, social security has become the place to warehouse people. To keep them ticking over. Never to lift them out of the poverty that they find themselves in.  

But so much else has also changed. Even as a n’er-do-well you could always get a reasonably cheap room and find a job that enabled you to make enough to support yourself. More difficult for families, especially large families, often dependent on one wage earner. Then, poverty ate away at life and made people old before their time.  

The state increasingly encroached on poverty – did not get rid of it, but made it almost liveable. But still it was poverty, and social security was used as a means of keeping people out of the streets and homelessness.  

The rescue packages that various governments of different political persuasions handed out to people in poverty rescued no one, but took away the wretchedness of destitution. Took away the worst vestiges of slum dwelling – but not its entirety.  

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What social security has done for the kind of restless lostness I suffered from as a youth and young man has been to support the condition but not end it. An underinvestment in getting people out of poverty has enabled people merely to survive in this underfed, under-employed, under-utilised life. Millions await the opportunity that never arrives.  

State-funded and state-supported poverty has meant tying up billions not on changing a situation but on maintaining it. The status quo rules OK. And virtually every government since the loosening of social security provision has accepted this waste of human talent because they do not seem to be able to get people out of the poverty they suffer from.

Yet if we had kept the strict rules that stopped people from getting social security, meaning that even the most unsavoury job would have to be taken, we would have done nothing to get rid of poverty. People would still live poverty lives. And even today, with over 60% of universal credit recipients in work, you can see that all the support offered through social security has failed to address the central problem of how you get people out of poverty. 

Poverty dismantlement has been made more complex and less attainable because all of the big social intervention money is spent on just holding the hands of the poorest and not on getting them out and way beyond the reach of poverty’s pernicious toxicity.  

None of us now, or certainly none who have a heart, would stop social security. But unless we face up to how little it has done to get people out of poverty then we are kidding ourselves that our social security pound is doing some magic and wondrous job.  

What I see when I see people lost with nothing to do because they have their rent paid and some money given to live on – never enough – is desperation. I see mental illness. I see self harm.  

So let’s not kid ourselves that giving people some form of support that does not help them get beyond poverty is enough. We have to revolutionise state support so that it can bring people out of poverty through education and social training. It cannot leave them empty and devoid of opportunity.  

Will the new government tackle the ‘treading water’ reality of social security that does not give people anything secure, other than a pittance?  

When I see young men lost and seemingly outside of things I only wish we had spent more time since the creation of the welfare state on breaking their poverty. Too much emphasis has been given to relief but not to social transformation. For too long we have failed to provide the schooling that embraces the proficiencies needed for the new industries that we need. And our governments have not looked at examples from around the world that have shown other governments committing themselves to social justice through raising people out of poverty, not maintaining them in it.  

Will the new government embrace breaking people out of poverty by education and child support, by skilling into new jobs – and creating industries that will provide the well-paid jobs that have to go with any exit out of need? Let’s hope it’s not more of the same, which would be a great shame. Most of us look for poverty to be ended, not maintained on the state-sponsored drip feed.  

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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