By Kirit Patel, Race Equality Programme Co-ordinator, Oxfam UK Poverty Programme

How you would feel if your next meal depended on a foodbank voucher, or if you couldn’t afford the heating bill, or faced the real possibility of losing your home? For many Britons, the prospect of ‘getting on’ is being gradually replaced by ‘getting by’ and ‘making ends meet’. These are not just ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ but daily reminders of living on a precarious and marginal income, and this harsh reality is affecting more and more people across our inner cities, rural areas and coastal towns. The impact is particularly felt in England’s northern regions which are historically and economically more disadvantaged than their southern neighbours.

However, what is even more disturbing is the outrage that our national politicians and media show to people ‘living off the state’. A quick glance at relatively recent headlines (“strivers v shirkers: the language of the welfare debate” , “jobless face benefit cut unless they learn English”), the current welfare reforms and the public support for reduction on welfare spending shows the hardening of attitudes towards people in receipt of state support. A large proportion of this public anger has been reserved for, and directed towards, the so-called ‘work-shy’ or ‘scroungers’ portrayed as hooked on a culture of free entitlements, daytime TV, booze and cigarettes, and on the vast amounts of public money wasted through fraud (the actual figure is less than 1% of the total welfare budget).

The truth for most receiving state assistance is the daily grind of surviving on a low income in any one of our run down estates, in jobless deserts with few opportunities to escape poverty and the constant struggle to ‘make ends meet’.

Prevailing attitudes vs reality
Why are people unwilling to hear the basic facts on poverty? Why is challenging negative attitudes on poverty such an uphill battle? Why has the demonisation of people living in poverty by our media and political classes become so acceptable? It is difficult to have answers for all of the above. For many people, the poverty they experience is because of low pay, caring responsibilities, their gender or their race, or because of where they live. Many people find themselves in the flexible labour market where increasing numbers have zero hour contracts with no guarantee of an income, or simply working long hours without a living wage. Many who are struggling on these low or unreliable incomes have to top up their wages through in-work benefits on a long term basis. Today these people increasingly have to deal with government means tested assessments of their needs – too often bureaucratic, complex and inflexible systems where delays and mistakes are common.

Those welcoming the recent wave of changes to the welfare system and incentives aimed at ‘making work pay’ have more or less disregarded the harmful impact of these changes on the very people they are supposed to help. The strict regime of sanctions and conditionality, cuts to public services and reduced frontline support will further push many more claimants into crisis and make it more difficult for them to move into the security offered by paid work. Despite this, the poverty debate is not centred on how the welfare budget is better protected for the poorest in our society or those in crisis. Instead it is concentrated on who should be entitled to it and, primarily, whose entitlement we can take away and how much we can cut the welfare payments of those who still remain.

The consensus that once existed that the welfare state is ‘a good thing’ – moral and just – is replaced by its harshest critics on the rising cost of supporting it. The elephant in the room is that the focus remains on the cost of the long term unemployed when in fact nearly half of all welfare goes to pensioners. The welfare state has become an easy target for our policy makers, as it struggles to meet ever-increasing demands with inadequate resources fueled by the UK’s economic woes and the push for greater austerity measures.

What can we draw from the current welfare debate?
At the heart of this debate are more fundamental and challenging set of questions before us: What is the welfare state for? Is it about providing short-term aid to those in poverty or is it about preventing poverty? Some would argue that the welfare state is about recognising and tackling the causes of poverty through redistribution of the country’s wealth so as to create a more equal society. Why are we so tough on those least able to fight back? Yet over the last decade, we have let off lightly banks that caused the financial crisis, or large corporations who continue to dodge tax on a grand scale. People reliant on the state do not need our sympathy or our pity and it is important we hear their voices and experiences in decisions that affect their lives.

One of the central pillars of the welfare state is to offer a minimal level of subsistence to all those who need it. In short, the aim is to provide a safety net and reduce the worst forms of hardship: state protection from the cradle to the grave. We all know someone or will one day be someone who needs some level of state support; whether you are a pensioner, unemployed, disabled, homeless, or affected by ill-health; or if you work in a poorly paid job, or part time because you have to look after children or other family members. So it is in all of our interests to ensure that it works, and the welfare state is fit for purpose.

The universal rights-based principles of free access, equality, and care and support for all are now under threat, as we have moved towards a culture of individualism, self-interest and free market ideals. Wider notions of responsibilities, the euphemistic ‘fairness’, targets, efficiencies, profit, and outcomes seem now to have a greater say over the running of our state institutions and structures…for better or worse. Surely we can offer a positive, alternative narrative for the many millions who are struggling from day to day, and trapped in a system of our own making that is being controlled – and decimated – by those who will likely never need to use it. In these uncertain times, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of society do we want? And, importantly, are we prepared to invest in it in order to achieve it?