Saturday, 25 February 2012

The problem with the benefits system: Part I

This is to provide context for the next post. I don't really agree with much of what is written in this one, but it does put into context what was written in part II, and is reproduced for that reason.

This was written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous. Comments are disabled for this post, and should instead be posted on part II.

My horribly prejudiced views and a few suggestions for getting UK society out of the hole it's dug for itself

I'm not sure what the response will be to this post (if any). If you disagree significantly with anything I say, I'm totally open to other opinions. I come from a pretty well-off background (down in no small part to hard work) and am not going to claim that I fully understand the issues I'm talking about. That said, I've done my best to inform myself along the way, and I think some changes need to happen. Read on ...

This is mostly a rant about how I think benefits and lazy parenting have damaged society, but it starts with a little biology.

In ecology, there is a principle which goes something like this: cheats prosper if they are in small enough numbers. Imagine that there is a particular species of beetle which is poisonous to something that might eat it. This is very often accompanied by bright colours to give the hungry sharp-tooth an opportunity to avoid eating them and getting an upset tummy - everyone wins. But let's say that another beetle, not poisonous in the slightest, evolves those same bright colours, mimicking the genuinely poisonous beetle. Now that one also gets avoided, but if it is eaten by a particularly hungry/naive animal, there is no consequence, and it will likely eat more. If there are few enough mimics, the tactic works, but if there are too many mimics, it backfires and even the genuinely poisonous ones are put in danger of being mistaken for a tasty meal.

This situation is reflected many times - some birds (like cuckoos) rely on other species to raise their young. If too many species did this, no young would end up getting raised. Those fish which spend their days picking parasites off of larger fish might occasionally be tempted to gain an extra-tasty meal by eating some mucus, scales or even flesh from the client fish, but the client will then leave, costing all the other fish a dinner. All right if cheats are in a minority. If there are too many cheat-fish, the client fish will never stop to be picked clean.

How does this apply to society? Well, everyone needs some basics to stay comfortable and healthy. Things like food, clean water, sewage services, rubbish collection, healthcare, shelter and so forth. If left to fend for themselves, most people would be unable to keep themselves going in the forest - it would take significant education and practise to gain those skills. And anyway, given the area that we live in, without people farming intensively, cleaning water on an industrial scale etc. we would be unable to provide for our hefty population. We need specialist workers - farmers, water worker, sewage workers, builders and medics, and fortunately we have them. But that work is hard and time-consuming, so those people receive money for their services. We pay for them either directly or indirectly (through taxation) and this shows that we believe we owe them for their time and effort.

So where do cheats come in? People contribute to society by performing a task that someone else is willing to give up their money for. I think of money as "society owes me" chips. It's a way to keep track of how much of other people's work - time and effort - you can claim in return for your own. They can be redeemed for any of the services I've already mentioned, and many more. You can set almost any task for someone else to do in return for these chips, within legal limits, and it would be a case of employment. Likewise you can aquire almost any good by exchanging money for it. Ecologically, cheats are people who are getting more from the system than they are putting in.

There is a basic assumption in our culture now that everyone should be given equal opportunities. It is considered a right that people should be treated equally and have access to a basic level of services, including housing, transport, media, healthcare, nutrition and education (and maybe culture). These things all represent people's work. The ethical basis of this is easy to understand; it would seem wrong for a person's background to limit how successful they could possibly be. It would also seem wrong for people to suffer malnutrition, or not have easily treatable diseases cured when other people are receiving very large bonuses and can afford to buy designer clothes, stay in 5 star hotels and eat in the priciest of restaurants.

There is, however, a risk in providing these things as a right with no responsibilities attached. When people are living solely on what society considers their basic rights, how can society punish poor behaviour? And if it cannot be significantly punished, why should people control their behaviour? Why should they even learn the capacity to control their behaviour? The moment people have the right to get something for nothing, there is also a potentially unlimited work-leak in the system. However, if everyone stopped working and relied on those rights, no-one would receive anything. For anyone to receive services, there must be contributors shouldering the burden of people receiving more than they are giving.

So why are people given things for free? In the UK there are many "benefits" available, most famously the job-seekers allowance, originally designed to keep people in employment; to stop their lives being ruined by stints of unemployment to the point that they become unemployable. There are benefits if you suffer temporary or permanent ill health and are unable to work - now rather than just family having to shoulder the burden (and if not family, whoever takes pity), it is spread over society as a whole. Free school meals are provided for your children if you are entitled to any other sort of monetary support. If you earn less than £16000 a year and have children, you can receive money to clothe and feed your children.

So far so good - we should do our best to protect each individual, especially children. However, bearing in mind that working generally requires effort (by its nature unpleasant unless it is seen as a reasonable investment) we must consider the incentives being created. If a person can now convince a doctor they are sufficiently ill, they no longer have to spend time and effort working. If a person has children, they can claim money - and how they spend it will be up to them. If a person 'looks for employment', they can claim money. There are cases of genuine need out there, and there are others, and the methods the government employs to tell the difference are always going to be controversial because there will always be mistakes. Some undeserving people will get benefits while some deserving people do not. That is the disadvantage of having to deal with so many cases that a single system must be set up to deal with all cases to keep it fair, rather than a panel deciding on a case by case basis.

But the terrible thing is that it is now perceived as, assumed to be, a right. This is a generous scheme, hoping to ease the burden on families. The cost of this is that people now assume they should never have to shell out to help their relative or neighbour who has fallen on hard times one way or another - the government's support scheme has become, in people's minds, the government's responsibility.

And yet there are still many workers. The life you can lead on a low salary is probably not that different from a life on benefits (a commonly-cited reason for people not wishing to start work) so why do people still choose to work? On a moderate salary, you can significantly lower the day to day stress of paying bills, you can afford to travel in your breaks, or buy membership to clubs, eat occasionally in restaurants or see films at the cinema. You can afford conveniences - more efficient white goods, better quality sound and image in your entertainment, maybe a car. You have to prioritise, but you can afford some luxuries. There is competition for these jobs though, and the expectations of an employee can be high. To get a job, you need a skillset incorporating skills particular to the job as well as some basics. The opportunity to gain those basics is currently part of every person's right.

To get a job and contribute to society, it is necessary to learn several basic things as you grow and develop. You need to be able to concentrate on a task and see it through to completion, fighting distraction, frustration and boredom. For many jobs you need to be able to communicate and work with other people and maintain social relationships. At very least you need to maintain a functional relationship with your boss/employer, never mind if you need to deal with customers. Many employers also expect a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Yet many people are missing some or all of these skills and as such are relatively unemployable. Learning these skills as an adult must be excruciating, if working from years of habits to the contrary.

Currently people are given the opportunity to obtain all of these things as a fundamental right. Unemployed parents should generally have access to housing and sufficient money and education (antenatal classes) to feed, clothe and care for their children, and provide the toys, books and whatever else is needed to give their children a good start in life. However, if a child is not given those things by their parents, two really bad things can happen. They may miss the opportunity to learn those basic social and academic skills, which has big consequences when they are later given their opportunity for a fuller education and they may also never learn how to care properly for their own children.

Young children are impressionable, and making effort is unpleasant. For the brain to concede that effort might be the way forward, it has to see it as an investment with a reasonable expected return. Seeing parents never working because they have chosen to live on benefits will, I strongly suspect, result in a lasting impression that this is a reasonable way to live. Conversely, seeing parents come in tired from a hard day's work five days a week will give the impression that it is right to work hard, and build an expectation of full-time employment. Parents who read with their children, who teach them the alphabet and who use varied vocabulary build these things into their children's expectations of the world and also their children's expectations of what makes a good parent. Neglectful or abusive parents do likewise. By the time they reach nursery it can be painfully apparent which children have been given a good start in life.

Parents' attitudes will be formative for children. If someone is living on benefits because they are unable to work, but their frustration at being unable to work and their encouragement and interest in their children's progress is evident, there is every likelihood that their children will go on to work in school and find employment later. If the fact that parents are on benefits becomes a family joke because they really could be working, and the parents spend their time in front of the tv and let the kids do what they want and pay them little interest, why would the kids expect anything different from life? Why would they treat their children differently? It will take a tremendous effort to provide them and their children with enough incentive not to become ecological cheats.

I believe that this cycle is now endemic in the UK. People are given a frankly alarming number of chances by every national institution I can think of.In particular, the institutions responsible for dealing with young people are all based on the principle that by demonstrating expected behaviour and giving people sufficient chances we maximise the chance that they will turn their lives around. But there are too many people who don't, begging the question 'what can be done for them?'. 'Permanent exclusions' rates are so low because of the financial penalties to schools who do. Instead they get shipped around schools as part of 'managed moves' with the opportunity for a clean slate. For those convicted of crime, young offenders institutions are run on the same principle of giving opportunities to improve rather than giving them 'inhumane' consequences that might actually make them rethink their actions and give them cause to make efforts to change their behaviour. They perceive their carers as unreasonable bullies trying to disenfranchise them rather than authority figures who have a responsibility to care for them and an accompanying power over them. People to be confronted and argued with rather than to be trusted, respected and obeyed. I wholeheartedly agree that support and encouragement should be given for progress, but I think the bar is so low and the consequences so gentle that the behaviour never does change. How many grandparents now say 'I was clipped round the ear when I misbehaved and it hasn't done me any harm'? There needs to be a limit to the support and opportunities with an unpleasant ending. Without any final sanction that people really wish to avoid, many people will fail to change their behaviour.

While the current system of benefits remains, where it is the government's (and by proxy the taxpayer's) responsibility to support people who are not willing or able to support themselves, it will only strengthen this cycle. While the lack of consequence remains for poor behaviour, especially to people growing up and developing their ideas about what behaviours will ultimately benefit them, poor behaviour will remain the norm for these people, to the point that they will really struggle to change it later.

I truly believe that when people behave in an antisocial manner, they should lose some of these rights, incrementally. I don't believe that people should have the right to vote in prison nor that they should be able to watch television. I think that at most they should be allowed and encouraged to develop those basic academic skills. If they develop the patience and persistence to master numeracy and literacy to a moderate level, they should be allowed access to literature and puzzles. At this point they should be encouraged to develop some social skills, in a carefully managed program. I am tempted to suggest that people convicted of more serious crimes (for the sake of argument let's say cold-blooded, premeditated murder/rape, extremes of blackmail and paedophilia and theft of large sums of money) shouldn't be fed in prison unless someone is privately paying for it.

You probably think that last comment is outrageous, that no-one should ever have to face starvation. Do you think it is right that those people should be allowed to get away with their crimes and be free to live in society? I doubt it. Do you think it is right that the society whose laws that individual has significantly infringed should have to pay for the work encapsulated in that food? They're already paying the wages of the people who spend their time and effort keeping them safely under lock and key, as well as maintenance of the building. I also believe that reoffenders ought to be treated considerably more harshly (perhaps based on the sum of their various sentences). If people don't develop the humility and resolve to improve their behaviour while they are in jail, it is a wasted exercise.

I think that the government's support has stopped some terrible things happening, no question. But I think it has paved the way for unrealistic expectations and bogus claims, culminating now in a significant number of poorly-brought up people who have the fundamental right to have children despite having little parenting ability. It has probably meant people feel more secure in drifting from their families and never making any links in their neighbourhoods, because they know that they will never really need to rely on them in difficult times, they can just rely on the Government.

Overall, I think we need sanctions that give opportunities to change behaviour but which do allow for self-destruction. We need to force people look to one another for help more by cutting back benefits - maybe then they will learn some humility. We need to make unemployed life more uncomfortable, and frankly ought to stop people on benefits from buying alcohol/cigarettes or gambling, or face equivalent cuts to their benefits. We need to convince people to rely more on the people around them and less on the government. We need people to think twice about bringing children into the world if they won't be able to support them themselves.

I really believe that the only way the people will change their behaviour is if they see people who behave like them going through things that they couldn't bear to go through. That will mean some people going through really bad things, but I think it's necessary to allow that to happen to give people the motivation to sort themselves out. By all means give temporary support to people making tangible efforts. But it has to be temporary, or people will settle on it - they need to know they need to make the most of it while it lasts. I believe this is the only way we will reduce the number of ecological cheats which are weakening our society.



While I recognise that this is a particularly difficult time in terms of job availability, I think that greater individual employability is still an important step to improvement. We are poorer now as a nation than we have been for a long time because we are importing, not exporting. Solving that is going to be a matter for government, entrepreneurs and business. If the government succeeds in germinating new businesses, the larger the proportion of the population able to contribute to society's work, the better. This doesn't mean ensuring everyone has a degree.

The nations which are growing richer now are doing so at least in part because many people there work really damn hard for a small wage which allows the companies to export goods cheaply. The people work because there are consequences to not doing so. Those consequences have made it socially unacceptable for people not to work, and we need that attitude here too.