Friday, 10 January 2014

Demonising the poor

You would almost think it was a co-ordinated action: in the same week that another documentary is aired on television – ‘Benefits Street’, which portrays the poor as scroungers and thieves - Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a further £25bn of cuts to public spending, with at least half being targeted at those on benefits.

Like the disgraceful BBC documentary ‘The Scheme’, which portrayed the entire Kilmarnock housing estate of Onthank as work-shy, drink and drug-addled spongers dependent on state-provided benefits, the latest ‘poverty porn’ offering, broadcast by Channel 4, gives the same treatment to a street in Birmingham.

It is, of course, deliberate. It benefits (no pun intended) the right-wing agenda of the UK Tory-led Government and much of the England-based media to demonise those on welfare. Like immigrants, the poor are blamed for the economic ills afflicting the country. Tory Ministers regularly attack the unemployed by describing them as lying in their beds while decent, hard-working people get up and go to work. In reality, the vast majority of those who find themselves unemployed are decent and desperate to find work, but that task isn’t made any easier when 6.5-million people are looking for full-time jobs in the UK. Again, the situation isn’t made easier when employers are only offering low-paid, part-time work, often on zero-hours contracts where there is no guarantee of hours or wages.

While demonising the unemployed and portraying them as the undeserving recipients of welfare, the UK Government hides the fact that most working-age benefits are paid to people who are actually in employment. Because of the practices adopted by employers, and endorsed by the Tory-led Government – again, we’re talking about poverty-level wages and zero-hours contracts – many workers are so poor they qualify for benefits. The reality of the situation is that taxpayers are subsidising employers who refuse to pay a living wage or provide regular hours for workers. The real state spongers are the company bosses who exploit workers and rack-up profits while their hard-working employees live in poverty.

Also hidden by the UK Government and broadcasters of documentaries like ‘The Scheme’ and ‘Poverty Street’ is the fact that most of the welfare budget is made up of payments to pensioners. Those pensioners have paid tax and National Insurance all of their working lives and are receiving their entitlement (in fact, Britain pays one of the lowest state pensions in the western world).

So, what of the people featured in ‘poverty porn’ documentaries, some of whom are shown to be manipulating the system and claiming more benefit than they should actually be getting? Of course it happens: there will always be people who try to get a bit more, particularly when what you have is grossly inadequate. However, when we look at the facts on benefit fraud it puts things in a very different light to that portrayed by the Tory Government and the right-wing media. In the last full financial year for which figures are available, benefit fraud cost £1.2billion. That is a lot of money, but it pales almost into insignificance when seen against the figure for benefit that went unclaimed - £16billion. That is money to which some of the poorest people in the country were entitled, but no-one told them, so they went without.

Then there is the much-publicised ‘benefits cap’, which we are told was introduced to prevent work-shy spongers from pocketing benefits in excess of £26,000. Again, the reality behind the Tory-generated headline is a bit different.

There are very few families outside of London who are in receipt of benefits totalling anything near £26,000, and those in the English capital who come close do so because they have to pay the hugely-inflated rent charged by private landlords, often for cramped and sub-standard housing. The benefit-claimant does not ‘pocket’ the money, it goes directly into the bank accounts of the real state spongers, the free-market, private landlords so lauded by the Tory Government.

The bottom-line is that the poor did not create their predicament: those on benefits did not bring about the collapse of the national economy. It was greed-driven, free-market, capitalist banks and financial institutions that caused the economic catastrophe from which we are still suffering. It was private institutions that imploded, yet Labour and Tory politicians at Westminster decided to use public money to bail them out. Because of that decision, ordinary, decent people – in work and unemployed – are still being forced to pay the price for the collapse of capitalist money-markets and enterprises.

When we talk of spongers and free-loaders, no-one comes close to the multi-millionaires behind some of the biggest businesses operating in the UK. Richard Murphy, a Chartered Accountant and author of a number of books on corporate tax avoidance, calculates that the amount big business in the UK avoids in tax every year is in the region of £70billion. Every penny of that is money stolen from me and you. It is also worth comparing that £70billion total against the official UK Government figure for benefit fraud - £1.2bn.

Tell me again, who are the spongers and thieves?

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