Tuesday, 27 September 2011

How welfare culture evolves

Yesterday I had one client at my surgery who enquired about mortgage relief.

He is on sick leave. He has exhausted the period of time his employer would pay him full pay without work, and they have moved him to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which is about £81 a week. This is still higher than the JSA (Job Seekers Allowance or basic unemployment benefit).

Clearly this is not enough to cover his monthly mortgage payment of about £600. What other benefits is he entitled to?

I checked and said, actually he's not entitled to anything else. The reason being he is not on other benefits.

He had told me that he has three grown-up children. So I asked, "Could you rent out one room to bring in some rental income?"

"O no. My children still live with me."

"And you don't charge them rent?"

"No, they have their own lives to look after."

Later on I realized that the two grown-up children (the youngest is at university) don't even contribute to Council Tax. In other words, they live with their parents without paying a penny.

Question: Why should I, the taxpayer, help to pay off his mortgage?

Question: Should his children help out financially in these circumstances?

Question: Should adult children already earning good money not contribute to the family expenses?

As soon as I finished my A Levels I had to start earning money to help out with the family expenses. I worked when I went to university, and especially during the vacation.

Immediately after I finished university my dad was demanding money again. So I took on part-time jobs which explains my spiderweb-like CV as I was often working "two and a half jobs" at any one time.

My Asian neighbours assure me that their culture means inter-generational care. So I was most surprised that this Asian man not much older than myself did not also expect his children to at least contribute towards the household expenses.

Surely, now that their father has suffered a greatly reduced income the children should offer to chip in?

No, the man expects the taxpayer to chip in.

I don't blame him. The "culture" of the welfare state, or its ideology, is "the state would take care of you when you can't take care of yourself".

So this man has given, and given without thought, into this system, diligently paying taxes and national insurance, council tax, etc. Now that he needs extra help, he feels that he should receive extra help.

However this man is not without resources, which is what the welfare state as safety net is all about. He has a house with rooms to rent out and which would easily cover his mortgage and more. But his children still live there.

If his children were living elsewhere they would be paying rent/mortgage and Council Tax.

From one perspective this is a case of a family that wants to have its cake and eat it.

From another perspective it is a family who expects the taxpayer to step in because it is their turn to receive some payback from all the taxes that have been paid.

They have forgotten, it seemed, that they have also benefitted from a free education that has made their jobs possible.

Singaporeans might think that the "welfare state" is the answer to all ills. Do what social anthropologists do. Do some "participant observation".

I, too, used to think what a marvellous system it is that children get free education and students get an allowance at university (this era has gone).

Within three months of working here and seeing how a large portion of my pay packet disappeared into tax and National Insurance (it's "Pay-As-You-Earn", so you are "taxed at source") I had second thoughts about this system.

In three months on a low salary I paid more in tax than the nearly three years I paid in Singapore as an above-average wage earner.

So Singaporeans who are agitating for a welfare state, please come and work here and pay some real taxes here first. Try making ends meet on a real salary (not scholarship funds) and paying real taxes, etc. before deciding whether Singapore should go down the same route.

The thing is most of us don't even mind paying the taxes if the benefits system actually helps people in need back into good health, and/or back into a job.

At the coalface where I deal often with benefits claimants at the Citizens Advice Bureau we know it is an ineffective, inefficient system that often takes away any will to work.

I happened also to have seen a young single mother before this man yesterday. She was thinking of doing some work around Christmas (all the shops require extra help) to bring in some extra income. But she is afraid of losing her current benefits.

That means it is far better for her not to work.

Consider also what I call the great "underbelly" of the welfare state: the huge army of pen-pushers doing unproductive work. Civil servants who check every few weeks what claimants are really earning, calculating their benefits, reducing their benefits, demanding repayment of overpaid benefits (which of course has been spent), taking claimants to courts for non-payment of overpayments, administering crisis loans (to pay court charges), etc.

This army just passes a fixed pot of money from one government department to another, and then to the large firms of debt collectors who go round trying to collect debts from benefits claimants who have suffered from their inefficiencies.

This underbelly sucks up a huge amount of GDP. What they dispense, from what I see at my bureau, is misery.

Once your attempt to find work lands you in a situation where you are taken to court for such debts, you soon learn: respect inertia. Don't try to find work. Work and you would get into debt. Stay low. Try not to surface on their radar.

If this army of pen-pushers were out there farming and providing affordable food, affordable good quality goods, providing care to our old people in nursing homes, they would be a net contributor instead of a pseudo-employee and GDP sponger.

Before Singaporeans get seduced by the wonders of a comprehensive welfare system, let me urge you to look beyond the surface. Check out this great big "underbelly". Then think how within a generation a "something for nothing" culture would soon evolve into a work-shy culture.

Like this man whose family believe that the taxpayers should pick up the tab for his mortgage payments while they live with dad, rent-free. In the absence of the welfare state it would be "natural" for grown-up, wage-earning adult children to help out.

I could not believe it when I came home and heard this boy on radio telling me that it was the welfare state that saved his family. That is why he joined the Labour Party.

No, son. It is the taxpayers who saved you. If your education -- funded by taxpayers -- has not taught you this important fact, then it has failed.
Update: 28/9/11 Today we learned more about this young man. He attends a selective grammar school but thinks selection is wrong. His father was a millionaire who over-extended himself. And so the taxpayers picked up the bill.
Update: 28/9/11 (a bit later):
Rory Weal wowed the Labour Conference. But if they'd known about his grammar school education, they'd have booed


Gary said...

You are comparing a mosquito with an ox.

Self Deception said...

I would humbly suggest that it's easy for the human mind to over-generalize or oversimplify issues and draw mostly wrong conclusions/lessons. It's always VERY IMPORTANT to look out for substantive and representative DATA before making any suggestions or drawing lessons. Without such data, everything becomes just conjecture. For e.g. if you have a roomful of past lottery winners and ask them who has won a lottery before, you will go away thinking that the odds of winning lottery are very very high. So pls look for DATA to substantiate yr conclusions; bringing up individual case stories and drawing some conclusion about a policy or system is NOT rigorous and NOT scientific at all.