Is the welfare state about need or nudging?

David Cameron

To William Beveridge it was about eradicating evil - the "giant evils" of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. To David Cameron it is about encouraging citizens to do the right thing - to work, to save, to take personal responsibility.

The prime minister urges us today to go back to first principles in thinking about what the welfare state is for.

For some it should be the mechanism by which the state seeks greater social justice. For others it should be a mechanism by which the state seeks to promote individual morals.

Mr Cameron's starting point for a national debate appears to echo the view of the high Tory thinker and journalist TE Utley, who described the welfare state as "an arrangement under which we all largely cease to be responsible for our own behaviour and in return become responsible for everyone else's."

Instead, the Conservative leader imagines a welfare system where ministers in Whitehall pull fiscal strings which encourage people towards his party's core values of hard work, saving, marriage and having children (when you can afford to).

To Mr Cameron, the machinery of state benefits is less about need and more about nudging. He wants to end the "culture of entitlement" and focus on those "who have no other means of support, or who have fallen on hard times".

In order to strengthen his argument, the Conservative leader paints a picture of "them" and "us". He talks of a "welfare gap in this country - between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it."

It is a view that plays directly to ancient anxieties about the residuum of society, the shadowy people who remain in poverty because of their indolence, incorrigibility and moral corruption. Mr Cameron notes the division and resentment "amongst those who pay into the system" against those who are "getting without having to put in the effort."

This battle between "strivers versus skivers" has underpinned British attitudes to poverty since the Poor Laws. Ministerial rhetoric about scroungers, benefit cheats and what Kenneth Clark recently called "the feral underclass" presses the point.

The man who invented the welfare state

William Beveridge
  • William Beveridge (1879-1963) was an economist and social reformer whose 1942 report formed basis for post-war welfare state
  • He named five "giant evils" for governments to tackle - Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness
  • Copy was reportedly found in Hitler's bunker

There are two problems with this argument. First, those in poverty are not part of some clearly defined group. Many people move in and out of welfare all the time as their circumstances change. Secondly, because it is not that simple, there is a significant risk that measures designed to kick the feckless up the backside end up hurting the poorest and most vulnerable.

The Conservatives want to make the welfare state simpler - the Universal Credit introduced next year is a bold attempt to do that. They also want it to cost less - the chancellor has already made it clear he wants to save a further £10bn from the welfare budget in the first two years of the next Parliament.

But the welfare state is complex because it is trying to do a very complex thing - provide tailored support of exactly the right amount and type only to those individuals who need it. "Strivers versus skivers" may appeal as a slogan, but the world isn't that simple.

Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Personal moral responsibility - does that also mean paying your taxes even if you can legally get away with not paying them, because you realise that you are stealing from society?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Welfare payments are probably a drop in the ocean when compared with the salaries and expenses of politicians and civil servants in the bloated public sector. This is wealth recirculation NOT wealth creation and this is practiced throughout Europe, especially Greece. Self-interest prevents politicians of ALL parties from tacking THIS outrageous expense. Easier to attack the powerless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    this like the government before talk a great story and earn too much to honestly be called in touch with the grass roots of this country.

    First employment needs resolving and there are many ways to solve this issue, then welfare reform needs to be hit looking at those in need not looking at how much they can save.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    "it is about encouraging citizens to do the right thing - to work, to save, to take personal responsibility."
    I'd love to do all of the above, the only things preventing me have been a number of British governments and those who worked for them and us (or so the claim goes). When convenient, they can even forget their own laws as well as Human Rights and International Laws & "obligations".

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The 'welfare state' is part of the machinery whereby the government meets its duty of care to the citizens who employ it to administer the country on their behalf. It should be based on 'need' rather than 'entitlement' so that no citizen is left without a roof over their heads, warmth, clothing and food. Absent such provision, the government is failing to meet its obligations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I don't see why any real British people should be getting any less in any benefits while all UK govts keep the flood-gates open on UK immigration as foreigners take everything we've got as including some stopping British people from getting jobs in their own country.

    I realise that this coversation is above the intelligence level of those at the BBC.

    Cut the foreigners first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "encouraging citizens to do the right thing to work, save, take personal responsibility."

    Strivers versus scivers may be your mantra Dave but many more would vocalise another Have lots versus the have nots.
    The middle class in this country are gradually being routed out leaving people either loaded or skint.
    Low pay which has to be bolstered by tax credits or HB is not the solution is it Dave!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I'm actually in favour of reform. But this is not the right time when the economy is in collapse and people cannot always get work straightaway.

    For examaple - can we stop housing benefit for young people when many of them need to move about the country to have any chance of working?

    By all means reform ... when we next have a credible government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    He's never going to win over people why he is perceived to be letting off the rich.

    Sure get tough on the lazy, but at least come out with a rich tax avoider bashing policy too. Otherwise we're not all in this together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The argment about the deserving and undeserving poor started with the Elizabethan Poor Laws in the 16th century and is still going on.
    Despite what they say about deregulation, The current govt appears to belive they know best and wish to make moral judgements on how other people live.
    Encouraging growth in the enconomy and ensuring oppourtunity for all is th way forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This nudge idea comes from highly flawed interpretation of game theory.

    This is the implementation they follow.

    While I think there are too many dependent on benefits - to pretend that it is just lack of motivation stopping someone getting a good job and house is utter rubbish

    Don't have the right to die but you do have the right for forced work MWA! This is amoral unadulterared ideology

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    More important than rethinking the welfare state which is often a euphemism for cutting support for the poorest in society we need a rethink on the way the economy is managed and how we get back to full employment (i.e. 3% to 4%). The reason so many are dependent on welfare is the lack of jobs and jobs that are fairly paid. (PS fight two futile wars does not help).

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I am disgusted with this im 20 and my partner is 20 with have a new born baby have set up home struggling all the time i go to work and work 35 hours or more a week pay my taxes ect and get a little bit of help with housing benfit if we loose the housing benfit we would be made homeless straight. I think the goverment need to re-think this and stop living the high life Grrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    They would be better off creating employment

    When there were decent jobs in Britain most people avoided welfare apart from the 3% workshy

    Most people WANT jobs but successive governments are simply not delivering

    There's too much regulation nowadays, crushing self reliance

    You can't even wash a window or sell a cabbage until you've jumped through a bunch of council hoops

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I also believe it is time to look at the system and for once, we probably need to look at the long game, not just the situation now. I'd much rather the money of the state was spent on education, health at the point of need, infrastructure for the long-term gain than keeping people in dependency that they have no need or wish to escape from. The welfare system needs a rethink to make it work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The elephant in the room is called unemployment but nobody seems to want to talk about it but yet some how everybody on welfare is supposed to find work. Then again those who find work many cannot afford to live without the support of the state. When many private sector workers having had their pensions stolen retire it will be the state that will have to support them. Divide and rule is the game


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