Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Mythbuster: Tall tales about welfare reform

Ben Baumberg, Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney tackle some of the most common welfare myths

August 26, 2012
7 min read

Welfare reform is almost inevitably contentious. Answering the question of who should receive how much financial support relies on often competing conceptions of fairness, with rival views about who needs, and who deserves, our help, not to mention the most just and efficient way of providing it. These issues are worth debating – but the current debate is being conducted on shoddy terms. Myths and stereotypes abound. These serve not only to unfairly stigmatise claimants, but to obscure the questions we might want to answer about how best the state can provide support to people who need it.

Myth: There is a major problem of ‘families where generations have never worked’

Reality: The academics Paul Gregg and Lindsay MacMillan looked at the Labour Force Survey, the large-scale survey of households from which we get most of our statistics about who’s in work. In households with two or more generations of working age, there were only 0.3 per cent where neither generation had ever worked. In a third of these, the member of the younger generation had been out of work for less than a year.

When they looked at longer-term data, they found that only 1 per cent of sons in the families they tracked had never worked by the time they were 29. What’s more, while sons whose fathers had experienced unemployment were more likely to be unemployed, this only applied where there were few jobs in the local labour market. So ‘inter-generational worklessness’ is much more likely to be explained by a lack of jobs than a lack of a ‘work ethic’.

Myth: Most benefits spending goes to unemployed people of working age

Reality: The largest element of social security expenditure (42 per cent) goes to pensioners. Housing benefit accounts for 20 per cent per cent (and about one fifth of these claimants are in work); 15 per cent goes on children, through child benefit and child tax credit; 8 per cent on disability living allowance, which helps disabled people (both in and out of work) with extra costs; 4 per cent on employment and support allowance to those who cannot work due to sickness or disability; 4 per cent on income support, mainly for single parents, carers and some disabled people; 3 per cent on jobseeker’s allowance; and 2 per cent on carer’s allowance and maternity pay, leaving 3 per cent on other benefits.

Myth: Benefit fraud is high and increasing

Reality: The latest Department for Work and Pensions estimates show that in 2011/12 just 0.7 per cent of benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud, including a 2.8 per cent fraud rate for jobseeker’s allowance and a mere 0.3 per cent for incapacity benefits. Even if we put together fraud with ‘customer error’ – people who are not entitled to benefits but not deliberately defrauding the state – the rate of false claims is 3.4 per cent for JSA and 1.2 per cent for incapacity benefit.

The claim that benefit fraud is increasing is similarly false. Because there have been changes in how fraud has been calculated over time, we have to look at combined fraud and ‘customer error’ for JSA and income support. This declined from 9.4 per cent to 4.8 per cent of spending from 1997/98 to 2004/05, and has since stayed roughly flat.

Myth: Couples on benefits are better off if they split up

Reality: This one has recently been comprehensively disproved by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who concluded: ‘The simplest question that can be asked in testing the couple penalty is: does the benefits system provide a different proportion of a family’s daily living needs if they live together and if they live apart? The clear answer from the calculations in this paper is no. The benefits system provides very similar living standards to families living together and apart.’

Research in 2009 for the Department for Work and Pensions looked at whether different benefit systems had any impact on people’s decisions about whether to stay together or not. They concluded that ‘on balance, the reviewed literature shows that there is no consistent and robust evidence to support claims that the welfare system has a significant impact upon family structure’.

Myth: The welfare bill has ballooned out of control

Reality: The government has repeatedly claimed that welfare expenditure grew unsustainably under Labour. In fact, total expenditure on welfare was 11.6 per cent of GDP in 1996/97; under Labour it averaged 10.7 per cent up to the crash. Afterwards benefits for children and working age adults rose from an average 4.9 per cent of GDP up to 2007/08 to 6 per cent. This is what you would expect during a recession.

Myth: Most benefit claims are long term

Reality: The government persistently frames benefit claimants as ‘languishing in dependency’. So how much of the benefit caseload is long-term? It depends whether you count people at a single point in time or look at people moving on and off benefits over a period. The numbers paint a completely different picture. For example, in 2008, some 75 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants had been receiving the benefit for more than five years, and only 13 per cent for less than one year. But over the period 2003–8, only 37 per cent were long-term while 38 per cent were on benefit for less than a year. So if you count claimants at just one point in time, as government tends to do, you will overestimate how much of the caseload is long-term – and underestimate how many people move on and off benefits over time.

Myth: Social security benefits are too generous

Reality: Out of work benefit levels fall well below income standards based on detailed research into what ordinary people think should go into a minimum household budget. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that while pensioners do in fact receive 100 per cent of what people think they need, a single adult of working age receives 40 per cent of the weekly minimum income standard and a couple with two children receives 62 per cent of the weekly minimum.

Myth: Most people who claim disability benefits could be working

Reality: There are two main kinds of disability benefits: disability living allowance (to cover the extra costs of disability) and employment and support allowance (income replacement for those not in employment). The most basic misunderstanding is that the latter is only for people who are ‘completely incapable of work’. The welfare reformer Sidney Webb commented in 1914 – in the midst of one of many previous panics about ‘true disability’ – that the only people who could do no work at all were ‘literally unconscious or asleep’. The question is whether suitable jobs exist, and whether these people would be able to get them.

Once we understand this, three problems face us. First, just because we’re living longer doesn’t mean we’re in better health; improved medical care means that many people born with impairments or suffering traumatic injuries are able to live longer. Second, jobs are in some ways worse than in the early 1990s: people have to work harder and have less control over their job, which makes it more difficult for people with health problems to stay in work. And while we now have anti-discrimination legislation, this only forces employers to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments; the evidence not only suggests these are often limited, but that employers are less willing to employ disabled people as a result.

Finally, many of the people claiming incapacity benefits are people with low employability in areas of few jobs. These are the very employers that are less likely to make adjustments. Some people end up in a situation where they are not fit enough to do the jobs they can get, but can’t get the jobs they can do.

Completely incapable of work? Not necessarily. Penalised for their disability by a labour market that has no place for them? Definitely.

You can download this article as a PDF to print and share.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


1,725