Iain Duncan Smith recently suggested that the previous government’s attempts to raise people above the poverty line were flawed. In the Keith Joseph Lecture he claimed that addressing the reasons for being without work was more important than money transfers, intended to raise our poor above some arbitrary level defining poverty. So far so not too bad. Anyone who wishes to fight poverty must look at the social reasons why people end up in that situation.
He also claimed however, that sometimes giving extra money to the poor made things worse because the cause of the problem remained, for instance where the recipient was addicted to drugs. There are no doubt cases where this is true, but it is dangerous in the extreme to formulate policy on worst-case scenarios, generalizations based not on the general. What about all those groups who are below a reasonably agreed poverty line without it being explained by an addiction? Non-drug addicts would appreciate a bit more money and probably use it very well. The implication behind this idea is that the poor cannot be trusted to run their own affairs. As a justification, it works just as well for reducing payments as opposing increases. If giving more money to the poor is a mistake because they’ll only waste it, then why give them anything at all?
The Big Society, David Cameron’s big idea, involves reducing the size of the state. That means removing state provision of all kinds of programmes and services designed to help the poorest, most vulnerable, and consequently the most in need in the hope that these services will be replaced from within the voluntary sector. On a wing and a prayer, support for the addicted, support for the homeless, support for virtually anyone needing it will be withdrawn, without any guarantee that someone will step into the gap. Without that state-supplied safety net, chipping away at welfare payments as the government appear to want to do will leave many with nowhere to go, whether through their own fault or not. Will an unfunded voluntary sector be able to provide anything better than the decentralized institutions meant to house those unable to support themselves, formally abolished after the end of the Second World War – sometimes known as the workhouse?
If IDS can sort out the social barriers to gaining work, and achieve full employment among the poor, then more power to his elbow. Until that happens, welfare payments need to be maintained or increased and the vulnerable protected from themselves, not abandoned and left without even the current scant support provided by the state.