By Helen Barnard
Cutting benefits for groups who receive little public sympathy may make for a good conference speech, but it risks increasing poverty and hardship.
And unless there is a follow up 'master plan' for creating more and better jobs, massively increasing access to them and sorting out the housing crisis, it's not likely to reduce the deficit or people’s dependency on the state.
There were no big surprises in the welfare cuts proposals made by George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith yesterday. The core intentions seem pretty clear:
· Welfare will be cut by a further £10 billion, on top of the £18 billion announced earlier.
· The new cuts will come exclusively from benefits for working-age people, not from universal benefits for pensioners.
· Two groups are in the firing line:
- Out-of-work families
- Young people on housing benefit
The recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that these kinds of cuts may well be in line with public opinion as views have hardened towards perceived 'benefits scroungers'. However, the proposals are driven by more than this. They reflect a set of underlying beliefs about people's choices and motivations:
· Young people can and should live at home until they are earning enough to buy or rent somewhere else to live.
· People who are out of work could be in work if they tried hard enough.
· People have absolute control over their reproduction; poor people who have more than an unspecified number of children are making an irresponsible lifestyle choice.
At the risk of ducking some fun arguments on Twitter, it's the evidence behind the first two that I want to question right now.
Both are true in some cases: some young people could stay living at home and some people who are out of work could get a job. However, the evidence suggests that they are not true for a great many people.
Earlier this year Kathleen Kelly blogged about the idea of removing housing benefit from the under-25s. She highlighted the housing crisis that is facing young people in 2020 and the youth homelessness that’s driven by relationship breakdown. Our research shows that the assumption that most young people receiving housing benefit could happily and safely live with mum and dad until they get a stable, decently paid job and move into a flat is a world away from the lives of many poor, young people.
Our evidence also shows that many people out of work do desperately want jobs but can’t find them. This is reinforced by the statistics on underemployment – six million people want to work more but can’t. It also demonstrates that just 'getting a job' isn’t the whole point: millions are trapped in a cycle of poorly paid, insecure work and unemployment, with little prospect of breaking into better jobs. Getting a job is still the best route out of poverty. But these kinds of jobs aren't a very good route. When someone in a family in poverty gets a job, only 56% are lifted out of poverty.
We are hoping to address these issues with a new programme to develop a UK-wide anti-poverty strategy based on the best evidence across all the areas that contribute to poverty. Maybe it’ll catch on.
Helen Barnard is programme manager for poverty at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). She manages the Foundation’s research on child poverty, education and poverty, future labour markets and ethnicity. She studied social and political sciences at Clare College, Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter.
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