The Daily Telegraph is sometimes less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the welfare state. Today they complain:
A system designed as a safety net for the most vulnerable has swelled into an all-consuming client state which stifles aspirations and dignity … The percentage that could be defined as “dependant” on state provision of some sort or other rose from 46 per cent when Labour took office in 1997 to 52.5 per cent by 2010. Under the Coalition, it has fallen marginally to 52 per cent. Clearly, these include both cash payments and benefits-in-kind such as access to education and health care. Also, as the population ages, more older people will be drawing state pensions. Yet, even looking at non-retired households alone, 38 per cent still claim more in benefits than they pay in taxes. Since the Second World War, in other words, a welfare system established to end privation and act as a safety net for those in difficulties has become all-pervasive.
The starting point for this comment is a mistake. The Welfare State wasn’t founded as “a safety net for the most vulnerable”. We had a system like that for 350 years beforehand. It was called the Poor Law, it reserved provision to people who were in the most serious need, and it was generally hated. The British Welfare State was intended to be its polar opposite. Asa Briggs, in a classic essay, identified three main ways in which the Welfare State operated:
First by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work, or their property. Second by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain “social contingencies” (for example sickness, old age and unemployment) which lead otherwise to individual or family crisis, and third, by ensuring that all citizens without distinction of status or class are offered the best standards available in relation to a certain agreed range of social services.
There is a world of difference between offering ‘the best standards available” to all citizens and providing “a safety net for the vulnerable”.
In that light, we might interpret the figures the Telegraph cites in a very different way. A substantial part of the dependency they are complaining about is concerned with health, education and security in old age. Why is that a problem? They also complain that the level of support went up during a major economic slump. What else is it supposed to do?
When it comes to people of working age, 38% are net beneficiaries, which presumably means that 62% aren’t. If that means that the top two thirds are supporting the bottom third, I’m not terribly upset by it; most of the population will have passed through the bottom third during the last ten years, and it seems an eminently sensibly way to manage our collective affairs.
I think we should all be much more upset by the Telegraph‘s misuse of the word “dependant”. Whatever happened to their ancient standards of grammar? Are there no retired school-teachers looking for opportunities to write Letters to the Editor and waiting to pounce?