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 156.

    During the slump of the 80's like many in my hometown of the north it was a choice of either benefits or move south. I was able to go to uni but without benefits in the 80's the family would have starved. I'm lucky my free uni education has allowed me to not only repay those years my whole family were on benefit but also cover my disable sister. This is why we have a welfare state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    From memory, Cameron's speech quoted figures of £10 billion spent on the disabled (about 18% of the population), £80 billion spent on working-age people (57% of population), and £110 billion on the elderly (21%). Looks like the seniors are doing well. Yet they seem protected from cuts; most of Cameron's speech was about disabled and working people. Why not start by cutting the biggest spend?

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Divide and rule - get the lower classes arguing about how to spend the limited resources whilst cutting taxes for the rich. Keep doing it until things get so bad the Conservatives become unelectable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    being an active member of the labour party it is not very often i agree with a tory prime minister but i do this time something needs to be done about these young girls who see having children an as an occupation and a route to a free furnished flat they then expect the state to pick up the tab they then seem to have as many kids as they like with as many different fathers .

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    139. Stamp

    'Stop paying DLA to millionaires like David Cameron.'

    Indeed & stop paying taxpayer funded welfare benefits of £300 'Daily Allowance' to all the unelected rich social parasite peers in the feudal House of Lords.

    Ditto the unelected feudal multi-millionaire UK Monarchy & all the scrounging Royals & their Royal scrounging hangers' on in the Palaces

    That should save a few bob!

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    'Strivers versus skivers" may appeal as a slogan, but the world isn't that simple. '

    When the minimum wage is more than benefits, working people wont need to apply for benefit to top it up. People who work will be better off & have pride in being a worker. HOWEVER until there is some job creation there will not be work to do. Public works need to be started and jobs that last are required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    The welfare system needs change but Cameron's approach is more the like of the "nasty party". HB is high because we have no rent controls & a lack of social housing - treat these first. Claw back the universal benefits from high tax earners via the tax code/self-assessment. Give HMRC effective & motivated staff to target tax evaders & avoiders - W&P to target benefit cheats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Why should those who enjoy of productive employment *necessarily* receive a lot more than those who are spending all day looking for work? DWP stats confirm welfare fraud is negligible, i.e. people want to work.

    If people abused in their jobs are bitter that some people aren't working "enough", surely the solution is to deal with your workplace, not to make the weak suffer more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    'Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class* character' (L.T.)

    *Tory class war!

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Which goes to show that there needs to be a vast increase in pay for the poorest and a vast decrease in pay for the richest, so that all have the opportunity to pay a decent amount of tax.
    This will instantly correct the problem of hugely rich people 'subsiding' the poor, and the previously 'poor' will regain their pride, being able to pay a decent whack of tax too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Surely the best way to make sure that the workless are not better off than the workers is to make the minimum wage a living wage. A maximum wage would bring in a a more proportionate amount of tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Isn't it strange that it's always the poor people who know how rich people ought to spend their money?

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Interested to read Kenneth Clarks's comment about the "..feral underclass.." This from a man who immediately after he was Minister of Health, grabbed a job as head of British American Tobacco. A complete moral zero, imo. As for Cameron, all these assaults on "..the benefit scroungers.." hardly deflect from the disarray of his government.

    the real job of a governmentmemmemt tacianhealthafter

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    The pre-WW2 generation were self-reliant as those with money & power denied the rest access to it.The alleged benefit of the war was a society re-balanced away from the few & towards the many.It worked for a while, but since Thatcher there's been a reigning in of the poors ability to climb from the pit & a re-emergence of the Eton toff telling us how to behave.Give us the tools,& we'll do the job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Any suggestion of reform provokes ill-informed hysteria.

    A recent suggestion that disability benefit claimants should be reassessed provoked claims that the disabled were being victimised.

    Surely, the worst victimisation of the disabled is perpetrated by those who claim disability benefits to which they are not entitled, meaning less for the genuine claimants?

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    @133. frenchman: Who the tax is "taken" from is just an accounting detail. e.g. NICs comprise "employer" and "employee" part, but it's meaningless to say that the employer paid one part and the employee paid the other - it's simply an amount paid from the company via PAYE to HMRC.

    Similarly, director salary reflects how much he is paid - his liability is immediate, and the money is never "his".

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    'The decay of capitalism denotes the decay of contemporary society with its right & its morals.The “synthesis” of imperialist turpitude is fascism directly begotten of the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy... Remnants of democracy continue still to exist only in the rich capitalist aristocracies “60 Families” dominate the democracy of the United States'

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Stop paying DLA to millionaires like David Cameron.

    He should never of been allowed to claim it for his son.

    DLA is to pay for the extra help you need due to illness or disability, I'm sure he had that extra help in place & could afford it anyway.

    Now he's punishing the people who don't have any help or choice and need to claim benefit.

    He is targeting the wrong people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    I shouldn't worry too much about all this. Cameron hasn't a hope in hell of getting elected at the next election

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Do we really have another two-and-a-half years of putting up with this hypocrisy from a PM who hasn't done a 'real days work' in is life, simply because he was born into a background of 'entitlement' that was grown on 'tax dodging'.

    If the LibDems sign off on this one Nick Clegg can expect to lose his seat, and so can the rest of his party. Shameful proposals. LDs better block them!


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