Yes, I want the Welfare Budget Reduced

There has been a bit of a palaver in the church-y corner of the news recently, with articles saying that most Christians, or at least most Anglicans, “think the welfare budget should be reduced”, see the welfare system as being in trouble, blame scroungers and foreigners for some of that trouble, and so on and so forth. This is being used in some instances to criticise the Bishops of the Church of England for their (mild, I thought) letter about ending hunger; apparently, our episcopal leaders are “out of touch” on this, as well as on issues like equal marriage.

So, what’s the story here? There is some research from Theos, which I haven’t looked at yet, and some from Linda Woodhead which I have. Linda Woodhead’s research is available from and the question on welfare is stated as such:

Which of these statements comes closer to your view?
The welfare budget is too high and should be reduced
The welfare budget is about right and should be
The welfare budget is too low and should be increased
Don’t know

Which of these statements comes closer to your view?
Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of
dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families…
Most people who rely on welfare benefits are victims of
circumstances beyond their control. The benefits they receive…
Don’t know

The numbers are all available, and are being reported accurately, as far as I can tell. Just over half (52%) of self-identified Anglicans thought the welfare budget is too high and should be reduced; the other 48% thought it too low, or about right, or they aren’t sure. In the more ideologically weighted second statement the numbers are more stark.

I have a few issues with this. One is that really, the fact that ordinary people have been swayed by government rhetoric on scroungers is totally unsurprising. The C of E is mostly made up of ordinary people. Yes, some of them even read the Daily Fail. It would be unrealistic to expect a church made out of ordinary people to hold, as a group, extraordinary ideas about government spending. Similarly, it is misleading, and perhaps dangerous, to imply (as some commentators seem to want to do) that it is somehow distinctively “Christian” to hold these beliefs. I’m sure the current government would love for that idea to take hold, but Christianity is about following Christ, and one can have a number of political viewpoints while still faithfully attempting to follow Christ. The numbers for Anglicans and indeed for other religious groups are not that far away from the totals. So the media storm-in-a-teacup (and it really is a teacup, one of those little dainty ones with a matching saucer) over it seems to me like shouting from the rooftops that Anglicans are mostly just ordinary people. Thanks for that. I suppose this is useful information for left-leaning people who make the error of thinking all Christians are like them.

However, for me the biggest issue is that the questions asked are — still — the wrong questions, dressing up the welfare system as a Very Hard Practical Issue. Triage is hard and rationing is hard, but we’re not talking about difficult edge cases in what is being done to the social security system, we’re talking about overhaul to the entire way the system works.

So, just for the record: I am a Christian, and a member of the Church of England. I DO think the welfare system is a bit rubbish. I DO want the welfare budget reduced. I just don’t think it should be done by cuts to social security.

Here’s a short list of what we could do instead:
-raise the National Minimum Wage to match the Living Wage, which would reduce the amount of in-work social security paid
-tighten regulations on zero hours contracts — as above
-ditch “workfare” and other mandatory unpaid work schemes: companies should pay for their own labour, not get a subsidy from the taxpayer which also leaves the workers destitute.
-ditch or overhaul wasteful PFI schemes: too often these are hideously expensive and don’t deliver.
-build a lot more social housing (real social housing, not housing that is “social” but actually completely inaccessible) near places where people work, so that there are fewer people in housing poverty — saving on housing benefit. For a while this would also help with employment.
-institute rent caps or controls of some sort; perhaps for landlords with more than one rental property — also saving on housing benefit, which in the instance of multiple buy-to-let landlords, is a lovely way of funneling taxpayer money to banks through mortgage interest.

I don’t think the cuts to social security we’ve seen in the last few years have been anything to do with reducing the welfare budget. I think they’ve been to do with reducing the cost of wages, so that companies can have a cheap pool of labour from the ever-increasing precariat class, so they can keep making poor quality stuff most people don’t need and many don’t want, to sell to people who are borrowing money to buy it because there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. Who wins? Big business and bankers. Always.

None of what this government has done is really about reducing the welfare budget, or about “making work pay” by dismantling a welfare system that rewards inactivity. It’s about reducing costs, and increasing taxpayer subsidy, for those who already make the profit. And the ones who suffer as a result are those Christ tells us to care for, to feed and clothe, to love and welcome and treat as the beloved children of God they are.

It’s enough to put me off my tea.

8 thoughts on “Yes, I want the Welfare Budget Reduced

  1. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of Woodheads ‘Anglicans’ aren’t practicing members of a local church, and some are atheists to boot.

    1. David,

      I’m not in front of the document at the moment but if my memory serves me correctly, in the attendance breakdown occasional and non-attenders were *less* likely to agree that the welfare budget should be reduced.

      It’s still the wrong question, though.

  2. “so that companies can have a cheap pool of labour from the ever-increasing precariat class” – this is the nub of the issue. Conservative rhetoric is about making work pay, but omits (even rejects) the idea of job stability. The idea is to get a work force that does the best work at the lowest price and where there is such a fear of losing jobs that people are put off from joining unions. Remember in 2012, the Tories tried to push through measures to make it easier to fire people.

    It’s hard to change a corporate culture, and working in a FTSE company, I see the desire to “get someone in to work on this project for 3 months” with no long term plan for that person. The priority is the task in hand, get the resources in and then move on to the next thing, which may not need the same specialist contractor that was just used.

    A while ago, I tried to make a proposal that would use the language that business likes (tax breaks) to the advantage of the employee and which may help reduce government expenditure. In short, if a person who has been unemployed, is hired and stays in that job for a year, then the company can get an additional tax break on any recruitment costs and their first year salary. The trick is, making that tax break cost less than saving that is otherwise made by their now paying income tax and no longer in receipt of benefits.

    1. Sipech,

      Interesting idea — maybe changing the system so that e.g. short-term contractors and zero-hours employees are more expensive options would change the dynamics so that it is still possible to employ people on fldxible terms, but this only happens where the cost to society of this flexibility is offset?

      So, people employed on 3 or 6 month contracts have a “contract tax” which pays their NI etc for a year; zero-hours contracts demand a weekly minimum stipend (say, £40/week)?

      I’m not sure such changes wouldn’t just exacerbate the shift to “self-employment” though. I say this as a self-employed person who is ultimately paid far below the minimjm wage.

  3. How many whole families on benefits do you know? I don’t know very many and they don’t cost us nearly as much as landlords and people who take tax credits.

    The people who stay on benefits usually have confidence, mental/physical health problems so we need to help them but ho will do that? Thanks to the media we must treat them like helpless scum. Mental health is very neglected, the most people can get is 6 weeks counseling with a trainee, so for maybe 30 years of problems you get 6 weeks to sort it, or happy pills that make people slightly happier but don’t solve anything.

    I think all we can do is hope this short sighted government with reactionary pub politics gets voted out, they don’t want to really help anyone, they want cheap labor and to wash it’s hands of responsibility for the poor. They don’t see health and housing as the foundation form witch people need to start to make a success because deep down most people want to do well, and if most people earned, paid tax and were housed we could show compassion to people who never will, let’s face it a few will never work, but do we want to see them starve either?

    1. Exsugarbabe,

      In case it wasn’t clear: I agree that social security should exist. Nobody should be destitute, or live in fear of destitution. I don’t think full employment is necessary or reasonable.

      The current welfare budget is not supporting people who need help but rather going to support the profits of a select few.

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