Are benefits adequate or too much – what does the BBC say?

The Programme to explain it all?

4 households on benefits pitched against 4 households on low incomes but who are in work. That’s the BBC’s recipe for a rational debate about the adequacy vs defensibility of benefits.

A mini-series is fronted up by Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer; both of them come from backgrounds (certainly in terms of education and career) which could be described as privileged. Both of them have a long association with Lord Sugar and Amstrad in various ways, not least because they were advisors on the UK version of ‘The Apprentice’. Both of them state clearly at the beginning of Episode 1 that they know nothing about the benefits system and that between them they have worked for over 80 years. Given their ages, that’s not surprising. Given their careers that won’t have been on low wages or in jobs that are utterly unsatisfying.

The format is easy enough: chose 4 benefit claimants all living in what is seen as a representative type of town, in this case: Ipswich.

Pair them up with people who are not on benefit but have some similarities in their background (though that’s debateable in one of the cases) and let them see each other’s lives. The ‘workers’ get to judge whether the benefits paid to the ‘claimants’ is fair and just.

Episode 1 aired on Thursday, 11 July and Episode 2 follows on Thursday, 18 July.

So was it a fair portrayal of the situation?

The first ‘claimant’ is a young man who had graduated from an unspecified university with a 2.1 in Media Studies; there was some indication (though this was not spelled out in the programme) that he might be the first member of his family to have gone to university. Certainly, and in addition to his £ 3600 benefit per year, he has much support from family, including living rent free with his grandfather.

He was shown as having loads of designer shoes, expensive computers, mobile phone and the like; and although he said early on that some of this gear had been purchased when he was at university and had worked there was a clear indication that both the person he was paired up with and the programme itself were not in favour of him having all this stuff.

He had not been able to find a job and indicated that he did not want to do anything mundane; he wanted to start his career – though there was no discussion as to what that career might be.

He is paired up with a woman who works hard as a care worker.

There are a lot of questions that are relevant to this claimant’s story that are not addressed by the programme:

  1. Why did he choose to study Media Studies? What did he want to do with that? What information did he have about job opportunities in this field?
  2. What jobs has he applied for since leaving university and how many other applicants has he had to compete against?
  3. How many jobs are available given the geographical area he is in and what constraints does he have – realistically or by choice – with regard to mobility? One consideration would certainly be that if he moved he would have to pay for his housing and any job would have to be paid at a level where that is possible.

He does ‘voluntary work’ in a youth club 5 days a week – pretty much full time. This snippet comes out pretty much at the end of the first episode; and his ‘partner’ seems to think that he shouldn’t be able to do ‘volunteer work’ in a role which ‘he enjoys’ whilst she has to go out to work.

That raises another set of questions:

  1. Why is that role in the youth club not paid? Is it not necessary to have this youth club? Is it something that contributes nothing to society? If it operates more or less full time, I would argue that it is fulfilling an important social function. He does the office work there (as well as interacting with the young people who use the club); why is he not being paid a proper wage for this? If he were paid, he wouldn’t be on benefits. So is the problem here more to do with the expectation that certain social goods (in this case the youth club) are provided at no cost to the taxpayer or the community. So is that the real reason why the benefits system is footing the bill? And is it reasonable for him to get £ 3600 in benefits rather than a decent wage?
  2. And the suggestion that he enjoys this ‘volunteer work’ (which he is doing because he hopes it will enhance his CV) and he should do something that he doesn’t enjoy, suggests a view of work as punishment (for what?) rather than an important part of life. But of course there are jobs that are more enjoyable than others. And so it might be important to look at how to deal with this. If she is not enjoying her job as a carer, why not? And does that mean that something in the care system has to change so carers get more job satisfaction out of the work they do; and would that not benefit the cared-for, too?

The second ‘claimant’ is a single mother with two children. They are both school age by the look of them but their actual ages were not mentioned in the programme. She left school aged 15 – one assumes without any kind of qualifications – and has only ever worked part time.

She is paired up with a single mother of two teenagers who has her own cleaning company. She works very hard, no doubt.

There is much discussion about the fact that the ‘claimant’ has a dog, four cats, a bearded dragon, and two hamsters. The ‘worker’ can’t understand how she can afford to feed them all on her benefits and the implication is clearly that she should not have them.

They go shopping together and there is much discussion about a chicken; the ‘claimant’ wants to buy a whole chicken whereas the ‘worker’ suggests she should buy chicken breasts without bone as this is cheaper pound for pound. One could argue with this point of view! But the view of the ‘worker’ isn’t challenged on the programme.

The questions in this case that are not addressed are:

  1. How many jobs are there in Ipswich – or the surrounding area accessible by public transport – which the ‘claimant’ could apply for given her education and work experience?
  2. How much would she have to earn in order to be able to make ends meet, given that she would have to pay for some childcare if she were to work full time?
  3. Is there childcare available?

The third ‘claimant’ is a family; they have three children. The husband has lost his job (though the programme did not reveal what job he had or why he lost it) and has been unemployed for over a year. They are paired with another family where the husband has experienced unemployment but is now in work.

It was interesting to see that because there was the experience of unemployment in the ‘worker’ family, there was more sympathy evident in the encounter.

The family were shown at one point in the programme receiving a delivery from a food bank. It is quite extraordinary that anyone in England should be dependent on food banks but it is a fact that the use of food banks has increased dramatically in the last few years and that both households on benefits and households in work have to rely on them more and more.

The interesting aspect of this case is the fact that the husband was asked to talk about the kinds of jobs he had applied for (in very general terms) and the kind of salary he would expect to make in work.

He indicated that he would have to earn a minimum of £ 18k to have enough to support his family.

Let’s look at this figure in a bit more detail (something the programme should have addressed a little more factually than it did):

£ 18k doesn’t sound that much. Not for a family of 5. So how does this compare to the minimum wage? The current rate is £ 6.19 per hour for someone over the age of 21; it will increase to £ 6.31 from October.

So if someone works 38 hours a week then on the minimum wage they would get £ 235.22 per week. On the assumption that the job includes holiday pay then annually that translates to £ 12231.44 at the current rates. That is just short of £ 6000 less than the ‘claimant’ says he would need to earn to make a living for his family.

So the minimum wage is not enough to live on apparently if you have a partner and children to support. You might argue that both parents should work but then there is childcare to pay for and then that needs more money.

Are there any standards against which any of this could be measured. As it happens, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just released an update on their Minimum Income Standards research.

http://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/mis?gclid=CJ_Yra2CsLgCFVIQtAodPhEAxQ

The essence of this research is that through consultation with a wide range of members of the public a standard of living has been define which is considered the minimum standard households should have.

This research shows that in 2013, the amount of money needed in order to have that minimum income standard is:

  • A single adult                           £ 273.86 per week
  • A pensioner couple                 £ 322.63 per week
  • A couple with 2 children        £ 714.61 per week
  • A single parent with 1 child   £ 524.57 per week

So, the minimum wage earned for a full working week would not even be enough for a single adult to reach a minimum living standard.

But the programme did not look at this; in my view, it should have in order to put the discussion about income into some sort of perspective.

If a person working full time at the minimum wage does not achieve even the most basic minimum living standard, then there is something seriously wrong; but it’s not something wrong with the benefits system but with the wages in this country. And who benefits from low wages? The employer. So who is the taxpayer subsidising?

So the question that isn’t being asked with regard to this ‘claimant’ is why are the available jobs paid so little that he can’t afford to feed his family if he takes them.

The last ‘claimant’ is a single father; it’s interesting that this is a single father who has brought up his first child pretty much on his own from the age of 19 when the mother of the child left; there was no discussion about why that happened.

Even more interesting is the fact that he has 3 other children; two of them apparently live with their mother part of the time and with him part of the time; the youngest, still quite young, appears to be living with him. Congratulations to the BBC for finding him. He must be quite a rare case. Congratulations to him for sticking with his kids. It must be said that I would be surprised if most 19 year-old men were prepared to give up their potential career and life to bring up a child.

The ‘worker’ paired with him is someone who was a single parent, was on benefits, but did further training and got back to work; she is now married, has more children and both she and her husband work hard and have good jobs.

So far, the ‘worker’ conveys the view that he should have tried harder to work. Essentially, she suggests, he could have done what she did. There is too little information in the programme to know whether he could have tried to get work or further training when his first child reached school age for example and, indeed, whether he tried.

The other question that is not addressed is the cost to the state, which would have been incurred if he had handed over his son to the care system and pursued his career. The ‘worker’s’ husband says at one point: ‘They take the benefits and don’t contribute anything’. Well, bringing up 4 children in what appear to be difficult circumstances (however they have been caused) seems to me to be a contribution to society.

Essentially, the programme starts from the premise that the government’s divide and rule approach to ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ is ok and we just need to check if individuals are correctly classified in each category. And what better way to do this than to let loose some hard working people who also have a hard time making ends meet rather than to address the underlying social issues and the inequality in our society which has increased remarkable over the last few decades.

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About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
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