A Welfare State

I am 39 and on benefits; I’m not embarrassed to admit it at all. Being part-time because I’m a single dad means that my income is limited, so Universal Credit tops it up. I couldn’t cope without it, and thousands – hundreds of thousands – more across the country are in a smilar situation.

I enjoy the privilege of being with my son during his formative years; they will not come again and, if not for the welfare state, I would be forced to work full-time and not see very much of my son. In a society where privilege and financial wealth both give power, having the ability to enjoy time over wealth is a beautiful delight.

Our welfare state is relatively modern; it was created in 1948 with the aim of providing “cradle to the grave protection”. The intention was that welfare payments would help people through temporary periods of difficulty, such as sickness and unemployment. There was also going to be a contributory state pension system; the country’s first for everyone.

In 1948, the welfare state cost (in today’s prices) £11 billion; by 2016, that had risen to £217 billion (again adjusted to 2021 prices). Intriguing, by 2019, that had fallen a little (strange to talk about falling in concepts of billions) to £192 billion; probably to do with austerity, but it’ll be interesting to see any increases that have happened as a result of Covid-19.

These numbers almost seem meaningless when they are so huge; how can most of us begin to comprehend such a huge number? When each individual on benefits receives a small percentage – a very tiny percentage – of this massive total, even one billion is an unachievable goal.

This article is not an unequivocal love letter to the welfare state, nor is it arguing that the entire thing should be shut down, lock, stock, and barrel. Clement Attlee and his Labour government of 1945-1950 deserve huge respect for the beginning of such a compassionate attitude towards those who need support beyond which their wages give them.

On this point, isn’t is shocking that a wage still doesn’t give us enough income to live on comfortably? Why is that? There’s a lot of discussion about why this might be; look out for Owen Jones’ books on the subject, amongst others, but other costs are spiralling out of control – rents, deposits for flats, train fares – and wages are flat-lining or climbing by painful and miniscule increases that just don’t keep up. Even the Minimum Wage isn’t able to keep people away from the poverty line, and companies aren’t paying a healthy wage to their employees all the time.

I’m one of the lucky ones; I get a good wage from my employer, but only work twelve hours for them (a number that works well for us both). If I worked full-time, it would be a reasonable salary for my experience and the role I’m doing – but many people aren’t in the same situation as me; more than a decade after the recession of the early 21st century, many companies struggle with their profit margins, and those which aren’t struggling aren’t always thinking about increasing their staff salaries in place of their profits or shareholder payments.

Reading back what I’ve said so far, I probably sound like a socialist, but I’m not; I’m left-wing, certainly, but not socialist-left. The welfare state is also abused, and that’s shameful; an ethical system of payments to people who are sick, low-paid, or otherwise struggling is essential in a compassionate society. We should be proud of living in a compassionate society that helps people who deserve it, but ashamed of people who play the system; they deserve to be ashamed of what they are doing.

It’s sometimes asked, “Yes, but what about tax fraud by businesses and wealthy businessmen? That’s so much higher than benefit fraud.” I would agree; it is higher, but both types of fraud are a pox on our society – we shouldn’t ignore one type of fraud just because the other type of fraud is higher. Welfare must be given to those in genuine need, and those who work the system should be punished.

I couldn’t have a problem if my son needed to call on the welfare state when he’s older; if it’s essential, then so be it. Before I was a father, I had practically always worked full-time and paid tax into “the system”, that vast and nebulous black hole into which we pay a percentage of our salaries and, in return, pop out schools, hospitals, and housing. I want to work more hours in the future, but I’m gld to work in a country where reducing my hours to spend more time with my son as a child is considered acceptable and normal.

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