'We All Pay Your Benefits' must become a permanent TV fixture
From Brother Ivo:
The BBC documentary We All Pay Your Benefits has been an interesting and revealing exploration of attitudes between those drawing state benefits and those of similar status who go out to work, some for less net income than the claimants.
The twitter storm #WeAllPayYourBenefits that accompanied the broadcasting was also worth following, partly because it demonstrated outrage at some of the injustices of the anomalies revealed but also as a warning about how spiteful people can become when addressing issues of this kind. People may be making poor decisions; they maybe directed towards them by poor policy formulation; but a community which seeks to bring people into the fullness of civic participation, not least economically, needs to retain a degree of respect.
Not all the abuse was directed at claimants: Iain Duncan Smith, who has devoted more time to this issue than most of his detractors, was described as a 'self-righteous arrogant pig' by one twitter respondent. Whatever the merits of his policies, he has devoted some years to the problem of how to balance compassion for the needy with incentivising and stimulating those who have settled for a sedentary lifestyle rather than developing their God-given talents. He has, moreover, visited and engaged the people of the most deprived areas in direct dialogue to understand the issue better. The number of people who have that direct experience is smaller than those passing judgement.
The programme had good low-key presenters who took what they heard seriously and were plainly interested to understand rather than drive any predetermined agenda. Their contributions were not, however, the most telling.
The heroes and heroines of the programme for Brother Ivo were the ordinary working people who went to see the lives of their fellows in modest circumstances, and shared their knowledge, experiences, advice and encouragement. This is far more interesting and instructive than the tribal banter of the chattering classes. With some 75 per cent of all MPs qualifying as millionaires (and worryingly many not entering politics as such), we are going to learn far more of the needs, challenges, merits and faults of those estranged from work in the dialogue with those who share similar lives. Such folk can offer empathy where a problem is genuine, but they can also spot a bluff at a hundred yards.
If the welfare debate is to be intelligently advanced, we probably need this programme to become a permanent feature on television. A second season that included those within our ethnic communities, suitably paired with working folk from their own culture, would greatly add to our knowledge and perhaps dispel prejudices as we get to know the strangers in our midst better. It would help to know about those who have not learned English.
One of the aspects which the programme revealed was how long and hard some people have to work for a low take-home pay. This is a challenge for liberal and conservative alike.
Those on the Left turn to one of two policies: either the state must pay a supplementing benefit (or more often a confusing blend of benefits with differing rules, allowances and disqualifications which even the bureaucrats and experts cannot always reliably and predictably identify); or they propose a politically and arbitrararily selected minimum/'living' wage. The former carries the problems of the cost of bureaucratic infrastructure, arbitrary cut-off, fraud, and the 'poverty trap', whereby claimants are disincentivised from taking different or additional work through either consequent loss or unacceptable complexity. In sectors where international wages may compete, the latter carries the risk of pricing oneself out of a job.
On the Right, the free market does not always make for happy outcomes.
When a working population grows faster than either the economy or the housing supply there is a downward pressure on wages. 'A labourer is worthy of his hire', the Bible teaches us, implying a duty of care and concern for the welfare of those toiling long and hard to make ends meet.
Often the better off are the beneficiaries, as they can hire child care, workers, domestic staff etc without a pressure for higher wages, particularly when they support the free movement of labour. It is not xenophobic or racist to state that when immigration is liberalised in a context of welfare benefit availability, rents rise, wage pressure is downwards, and demands on healthcare, schools and other public services are felt most keenly by those who perhaps especially deserve our concern but often do not receive it.
In fairness to Archbishop John Sentamu (whom Brother Ivo has recently criticised) he has indicated an especial concern towards these folk individually.
Economist Frances Cairncross recently described immigration as 'a sign of economic success', and at one level it is: the country has created jobs - but the majority have been taken by newcomers. This does not help the low-paid, and neither does it impact positively upon those amongst the 'underclass' who do not seek to work. It is easy to be either lazy or dispirited as a result of lengthy economic inactivity. This programme demonstrated that well.
There was an interesting response to the programe from The Guardian. Lucy Mangan plainly resents the unusual arrival on the nation's television screens of ordinary workers looking into the lives of the economically inactive and offering comment.
One can imagine Ms Mangan urgently telephoning Owen Jones about these ordinary folk and protesting the outrage: "They come on the telly, taking our jobs...!" Because that is the problem with the chattering classes. Whether of the Right or Left, they are not only remote and frequently poorly informed about the lives of those they discuss; they tend to use their relative economic advantage to buy off their consciences.
They might be able to afford an extra penny on the income tax pound, but the mother getting up at 6.00am to get her children off to school before spending the day sensitively delivering intimate care to the elderly and disabled cannot, and her indictment was all the more powerful of the young man who had been unemployed for nine years because would not take a job 'beneath' the 2:1 Media Studies degree of which he was inordinately proud, even though it had left him quite unsuited for gainful employment. He had internalised the 'entitlement' narrative all too prevalent among the client class of the Left and those who apologise for him.
If we are to have a national debate on these issues, the voices who will bring the greatest insights, the most telling observations, the most relevant experiences and the clearest challenges may well be those we see rarely on our screens. We need to hear from those who work just above the benefit line but are in sight of both their own insecurity and the abuses they can see within the communities in which they also live.
Brother Ivo knows that the likes of Ms Mangan may not like this. No doubt the commissioning editors of our broadcasters will privately express fear that such folk will prove inarticulate. Brother Ivo suspects that the real fear of the chattering classes is that they will not.