The Daily Mail describes Mick Philpott as “the vile product of Welfare UK”. For George Osborne, “There is a question for government and society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who subsidise the welfare state, paying for lifestyles like that.”
The first accusation is that welfare produces the sort of behaviour that Philpott engaged in, most obviously the decision to have a very large family. I reviewed the evidence for the effect of benefits on family size this in an earlier posting. The evidence shows the opposite – there are slightly more large families on benefit than in the wider population, but people who get benefits for longer periods are less likely than others to have further children. In May 2011, there were 1,354,280 families with children in receipt of benefits: 25,980 had five children, 8,780 had six, 3200 had seven, 1080 had eight, 360 had 9, 130 had ten and 50 had 11 or more. Those figures add up to less than 3% of families on benefit. A large family is not itself a sign of dysfunction – my grandmother was one of twelve, large as many families were before the Great War. If there is a problem, it’s a small one – but there is no clear sign here that there is a problem.
The second comment invites us to ask whether people who receive benefits are deserving or undeserving. The only way to decide that is to have a system which checks people’s moral worth, and to do that, we have to ask questions. It’s been obvious for centuries – I mean that literally – that this approach does not, and cannot, work. It does not work because because the vast majority of poor people are not poor because of any moral fault – in the days of the Poor Law, it was because of old age and sickness; because the minority who are undeserving are still in need; because the administration required to make the judgments is insufferable; because there is no way to hold the boundaries fairly; and because the moral judgements poison the system. I don’t want to have to live with a system that is intrusive, presumptuous, expensive and ineffective, even if George Osborne does.