We find ourselves facing a number of social policy problems at the moment – the government’s bungled NHS reforms, the scandal of social care for the elderly, the confusion over public sector pensions, and, most recently, the plans to put in place a £26,000 limit, per family, on benefits.
This last proposal, the benefits cap, is said to be very popular amongst the British public, and so the Prime Minister is relaxed about the House of Lords voting against the reforms earlier in the week, as he knows he can force the legislation through in the Commons. Of course this is all a bit odd – the chamber made up of a bunch of Bishops and Peers supporting the poorest in society while the ‘Commons’ is in support of it, but we live in strange times.
Intuitively as well, there’s something in the idea of a benefit cap that is appealing. Why should families receiving benefits get paid more than the average wage (that’s the £26,000 figure)? Why expressed this way, it seems to make a lot of sense.
However, perhaps we’ve lost sight of why we are paying these benefits in the first place. Why do we pay them?
I’m very struck that in philosophy texts, social policy is regarded as being something that is made towards people who are not fully competent. Strawson, for example, talks about situations where normal interpersonal expectations breaking down putting us in an ‘objective’ attitude towards others where they are unable to meet our normal expectations of them. Social policy is the means of supporting them if they are unable to ever meet those expectations (in the case of physical or mental disability) or if they are temporarily falling short.
This argument has a great deal in common with that made by Anthony Giddens around the ‘social investment state’, where social policy is used to support people between periods of worklessness, to enable them to get themselves back on their feet and back to normal. I think this is also very much the view of both New Labour and the Coalition Government – the norm is work and independence from the state. If this is your starting point, then it’s not much of a leap to saying that you want to limit benefits, not only in terms of the amount paid out or the duration you can receive benefits – benefits are meant to be there until you can get yourself back to work. If you have a disability, equally, benefits should be paid permanently, but not to put you in a position better than that of the average family. There is a logic to all of this.
However, I’m not sure the logic is quite right. If we go back to Strawson we can find the first problem. If we all had the same opportunities at birth, and we were all conscious of the need to work hard at school, then there would be grounds, perhaps, for saying that the state should provide only temporary support. But this simply isn’t the case – I was lucky to have parents (but don’t tell them this) who left me to my own devices, but also made clear the costs of not doing well at school. I’ve also had a safety net from them in case I mess up – I know there is always a bed for me if everything else goes wrong. I don’t think for a second everyone else had this – I was lucky.
If we think about this in terms of equality of opportunity, then I didn’t lose out too much as a result of coming from my family. I didn’t go to a posh school or have links to the rich, famous or powerful, but had enough security to make my own way. Some people have a great deal more than I had, but many people had an awful lot less.
If social policy is about supporting people unable to find work and be financially independent, then it seems to me we must first have offered them some degree of equality of opportunity. We (as a country) try and provide this by providing free education up to a certain point, and free access to healthcare, and some kind of access to housing in case of an emergency, but also, by supporting families through paying benefits. But this isn’t enough to approach equality of opportunity – there are families with vast amounts of inherited wealth, access to schools which have the very best results, faster access to high quality healthcare than the NHS is able to provide, and lots of safety nets in terms of money so family never have to worry about where the next pound is coming from.
If we fail to provide some degree of equality of opportunity – and we are an awful long away from doing this – then it’s not fair or reasonable to withdraw benefits from people, most of whom will have had few chances to become independent and autonomous in their lives.
If work is the arbiter of success and independence, then we have another problem. It isn’t as if pay always seems to make a great deal of sense. We give financiers who do little or no social good millions and pay teachers, nurses and social workers often derisory incomes. It’s pretty hard to argue that such highly qualified people should get paid so badly, especially when they are trying to do social good. It is also no accident that the very highest paid jobs tend to be made up on people who come from backgrounds of considerable wealth – another barrier to social mobility.
What should we do? If the key to this is equality of opportunity, then we need genuine lifelong learning where people are able to access education at any point, paid for by the state. We can set a limit on this (I think one PhD is probably enough) but we must give people the chance to retrain at any point in their lives. And we must pay them living support while they do so (is this really worse than paying benefits?). We must target support at the families which have the fewest opportunities – we can’t possibly expect them to be independent of the state where there are no jobs, no training opportunities and no expectations of ever participating fully in the economy. If people unreasonably refuse sensible opportunities there might be grounds for us suggesting that benefits be capped, but surely not before then.
We also need to take a big gulp and tax inheritances properly. Inherited wealth has to be a massive source of inequalities in outcome. Why on earth do we support families retaining advantage within their own members? There is something instinctive about wanting to give your own children the best possible opportunities, but if we all do this through inherited wealth rather than through their individual merits then we restrict social mobility and fix inequality. This can’t be right.
Equally, we must look at pay and work in this country. The market is not some semi-sentient, self-adapting system that is always right. Markets have led to bankers taking away millions while crashing the economy. I have argued elsewhere that responsible capitalism is about reducing the gaps between the richest and poorest. I think this is absolutely necessary – what kind of fairness leads to people going through years of training and education only to find themselves earning less than the average wage? Too often as well the best jobs go those not with the best ability, but because they are like (affluent, white, male, posh schools) those who went before them. Look at the cabinet for goodness’ sake! How on earth can we have representative democracy when these people come from completely different backgrounds to the rest of us. Unfortunately this goes for the majority of those in senior positions in large companies. There are exceptions (which we conspicuously celebrate), but the rule is that to be successful you need to be of a certain type. That’s got to be against the long-term (even medium-term) competitiveness of the economy.
I find myself with mixed views on the benefits cap. It isn’t fair for the state to pay families sometimes considerable amounts where they make no opportunity to give anything back. But it equally isn’t fair to expect people to be independent of the state where they have not had access to the same opportunities as many others. We need to remember what the causes of poverty are, not just treat its symptoms. And that’s why a benefits cap without a far greater equality of opportunity is unfair.