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".

IDS: We are engaged in possibly the most radical and wide-ranging welfare reform in a generation

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 Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I'd say that this is an extremely bad time for David Cameron and the conservatives to be pointing a finger and accusing them of greed. We've seen right through you and yours Dave and we want you out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Entitlement to tax-free inheritance income; entitlement to risk-free profit, even if harmful to community, nation or wider environment; entitlement to own and rent out arbitrary amounts of land there long before humanity even appeared; entitlement to have these entitlements protected by the state at the cost of the workers who pay a reasonable rate of taxes.

    We must deal with entitlement culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    If you let your employer "wreck your health" then you have only yourself to blame

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Every time Cameron talks about the "entitlement culture", I think about his pals in big business who avoid paying taxes, and his friends in the banking industry who demand massive bonueses for their failure, at the taxpayers' expense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Regional benefits rates? That will help in the Scottish Independence debates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "it is about encouraging citizens to do the right thing - to work, to save, to take personal responsibility."
    Love to, BUT:
    They took away my right to work when they and those working for them wrecked my health.
    I've never claimed all that I have been entitled to, so I don't save.
    I can't take personal responsibility because governments gave away my right to do so - to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @25.Ron: 95% send their kids to state school and NHS. This is, technically, not "affording" your baby.

    As someone who went to private school and has enjoyed private healthcare but who unabashedly supports the welfare state, I have decided to start issuing invoices to benefits-bashers for the tax I've paid to support their health and education.

    (Nah, I'd help you even if you wouldn't help me.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    "the Conservative leader paints a picture of "them" and "us"

    Divide and conquer, it is his only way to stay in power. What you need to realise is that when he talks about "us", you are allowed to believe you are included but you are never included. You don't matter at all. "Us" refers to himself and his posh friends. Stop believing him, and vote for your own interests next time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Germany’s effort to rein in its expensive social welfare system has been ruled unconstitutional"
    “The court said that it’s not enough to have food, clothes, and a roof – people also have to be able to participate in society, otherwise they become outcasts,
    “Germany is not just an economic place. It is a place to live. The message of the ruling is that it should stay that way.”

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    A sensible debate on welfare: how about mentioning the £119Bn that Leeds University estimate carers contribute to the economy for free? Perhaps the amount of business subsidy - with multibillion pound companies being subsidised by working tax credit? Perhaps the benefit of the personal allowance - maybe that should be different outside London? Cameron is not being sensible - just evil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    "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?" (9. Jon)
    A fair point - but perhaps part of the discussion to be had, e.g. whether to 'force' people to move to cheaper areas / areas with jobs (cited as a reason not to cap housing benefit in London etc).

    #15. any figures to back that up? Sounds nonsense

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    4. alex
    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.

    There you go prime example of it’s my entitlement! You should have not had a baby if you couldn’t afford it. It is not up to the working people of Briton to fund your family. This is a debate not action but I would support it all day long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    No person in their right mind would chose a lifestyle based on the minimum provision of the welfare state. Universal benefits seem to be Cameron's sacred cow alongside a futile war in somewhere called Afghanistan, Trident replacement and HS2. When private sector workers retire it will be on welfare to compensate for the stolen pensions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Cameron's vision of welfare is creating an underclass of cheap labour and providing multi-billion admin contracts to useless, leeching middlemen.

    Universal Credit stops if you save, unlike Tax Credits. Contribution-based ESA is limited to one year. Cameron is doing precisely the opposite of rewarding savers.

    The idea that two tax-avoiding trust-funders teach about responsibility is laughable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I've always assumed that the welfare states was designed to give the poor an alternative to burgling our houses and littering our streets with beggars.
    Just spend a day in a city in a country where there is no welfare state and you'll see what I mean

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Welfare state should be there so no-one in this country is denied a Home, Essential food, Water, decency (essential clothing), healthcare, eduction and warmth. Basics. Not SKY, not holidays, not fashion, not phones ... not a lifetstyle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Well, Cameron could start taking personal responsibility if he wants to. He could start by paying the taxes his father avoided. Then he might be in a position to lecture people

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    First you need to leave people with a reasonable living before paying tax. (e.g. a 15-20K personal tax allowance).
    Then you need to work out who is too disabled to any work (and get it right) and provide adequetly for them.
    For the rest, there always needs to be somewhere to turn when things go wrong (but nothing too comfortable) so they are far better off working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The people's reliance on the Welfare State began under Thatcher who introduced mass unemployment. Tony Blair's nuLabour stuck a band aid on it.
    and now the conDems have ripped the 'gaping wound' of poverty wide open with their bullying measures masquerading as 'encouragement'.

    Work hard and prosper - but where are the jobs? People are being forced to work for JSA for heaven's sake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The welfare state should be there to catch people who have fallen on hard times to help them recover, it should not be there as a lifestyle choice.


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