Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
- Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- 1. They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- 2. They do not want, at all, to reduce welfare dependency
- 3. They are not interested in getting people into work...
- 4. ... because they don't know what to do with people when they are working
- 5. They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state
- 6. … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- 7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- 8. They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- 9. They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- 10. They are winning ...
- 11. ... and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- 12. They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- 13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- 14. Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
- 15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- 16. No-one asked for welfare
- 17. Against welfare: for class independence
- ADDENDUM - On proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income.
- All Pages
14. Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
Social Security was the name given in the 1940s, in the UK and in the USA, to a certain pattern of welfare provision. Men (women were an afterthought assumed to be dependent on their males and provided for mainly as widows) paying into a state run insurance scheme could receive relatively generous, non means tested, benefits in the event of unemployment or incapacity, and on retirement. Even on its introduction in the UK, in 1948, it soon became clear that Social Security could not and did not provide for a wide range of people and the role of the means tested National Assistance scheme, originally intended as a residual safety net, was more substantial than expected. Post war demographic trends - increasing numbers of single parents, increasing lifespan especially for disabled people - then increased the role of what, in 1966, became Supplementary Benefit.
Nonetheless Social Security survived intact for the first thirty years after 1948 because unemployment was, for most of this period, a forgotten problem in the post war boom. Only in the 1970’s did the strains start to show and only in the 1980’s did the Thatcher government draw appropriate conclusions. Margaret Thatcher did not embark upon the sort of all-out assault on ‘welfare’ that her successors are engaged in. Indeed her government were happy to oversee the massive expansion of welfare as a safety valve after they had deliberately recreated mass unemployment. Instead they did two things - they systematically chipped away at Social Security, time-limiting Unemployment Benefit for instance and restricting the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS), while expanding means tested welfare in the form of Housing Benefit, Family Income Supplement (the precursor of Tax Credits) and Income Support. The last rites for Social Security are now being gabbled through at indecent speed by the Coalition with the time limiting of contributory ESA, from April 2012, and the forthcoming abolition of SERPS.
The replacement of social security by welfare (which to anticipate objections is neither an American word nor a neologism - if you really don’t like ‘welfare’ though I won’t quarrel if you just call it ‘benefits’) has been an accomplished fact these thirty years. Recent Labour Party gestures - one proposal is for a slightly enhanced rate of contributory JSA for those with five years or more of NI contributions - are an attempt to create a nostalgic backlash pitting the respectable working class of Frank Field’s fantasies against the welfare horrors (“Is that all?” is the invariable cry of someone pitched from secure work onto the dole when they learn what they will get). It will fail because there is no real nostalgia for social security which was at best a grudging, convoluted, bureaucratic and sexist scheme, funded by a regressive tax (National Insurance), which locked in existing patterns of inequality and couldn’t cope at all with international labour mobility. We waste our time by mourning it. Instead we need to rethink the whole history and experience of the English Poor Laws, past and present, and come up with something better.