Tuesday, 4 October 2011

How welfare culture evolves (4)

A Solution in Sight?

In my three previous posts about the welfare state in Britain I might have sounded like a hard-hearted woman. What about those people who are really in need? you ask.

Hopefully it has also become clear that I believe welfare benefits are great iff (if and only if) it is structured in such a way that those who need temporary help/support are helped/supported, but those who only intend to sponge on the hard work of others could be weeded out.

Clearly no government has been able to design a welfare system so "fail-safe" that this very important principle could be adhered to whatever the circumstances, whatever the political party is in power, and whatever the global economic situation is.

If there is a "perfect" or "ideal" system, every country would have adopted it. If I could come up with this perfect solution I would not be "self-employed craftswoman" and "general busybody", but specialist adviser to national governments, being feted by national leaders and jetting around the world, first class.

Having lived and worked in the past 20 years in a welfare state first in the Netherlands and then in the UK these are some of my observations (it might be useful to substitute "Singapore" for every time I use "UK" or "Britain" when you ponder "welfare" in Singapore):

"Us" versus "Them"

When my friend drove us to what is ostensibly one of the poorest parts of Amsterdam (to visit a church member living there) I was struck by the number of BMWs in the carpark. My friend enlightened me.

"These people have lots of children. The more children the more benefits they get. They can afford to buy expensive cars."

There was a lot of friction between the indigenous Dutch and the new migrants from North Africa (Algerians and Moroccans ). My friend said, "Sometimes I feel like I am living in a foreign country. This is not my own country any more."

She also warned that some day there would be a backlash.

In England I researched the first generation of Chinese who retired in this country. They were also up in arms against the new arrivals.

They insisted that they deserved their pension privileges because they have long "lim see-tump" ("pasted their stamps", meaning paid their national insurance). But "that one there", the one who's just arrived from America, she had not paid anything. How is it that she also gets the benefits?

Meanwhile "that one there" told everyone her children had long paid their taxes and national insurance and so she, too, was entitled to her benefits.

Somehow or other a benefits system such as this would evolve into a system where people who have tenuous relationships with those who have actually paid would find ways to assert their rights to benefits. Eventually a group of people would fight for these relatives on their behalf and the "entitlements" of new arrivals will become entrenched in the system.

In view of the current immigration policies that irk Singaporeans so much, do we want a welfare system where 20 years down the road, a whole lot of new immigrants would claim the right to long-term, indefinite benefits for themselves and their extended families? Your children and children's children could be funding these benefits instead of looking after you.

Where pensions are concerned, the truth is few people actually pay more into it then they get out of the system. Only the top earners do so. How else would the bulk of a population agree to such a system knowing that some/most of their contributions would go to other people?

The point was people thought, "Great! I put in £x, if I live to see it I could be getting £10x out of this."

The next question is: how does a government come up with the shortfall?


Remember that a welfare system does not exist in isolation. It exists within a context of a failing or thriving economy, a political context with greater or lesser tension, a social context of contested or free-flowing immigration.

In the UK we have just been told that EU citizens can now come to the UK and claim benefits without having first worked here. In other words, people who have not contributed a penny to a country can now claim benefits. Is this morally correct or acceptable?

How do you separate the nationals from the "inter-nationals"? If your border is hermetically sealed, then it's less of a problem. But if it is as porous as it is in Britain, then you are in serious trouble.

Add to this the non-EU nationals who come here, work for a year or so, often less, claim to suffer backache, and never work again. They continue to draw benefits, have several children, and are not in a hurry to get back to work.

Soon non-EU citizens would say "if EU citizens do not need to contribute and still get benefits, to make non-EU migrants work first before being given benefits will constitute discrimination". What then?

Attitudinal change

I went to school with classmates whose mothers washed clothes for a living. My mum used to hoard newspapers to sell to the karung guni man for a few cents. My neighbours sold nasi lemak and goreng pisang to earn the extra money for household expenses.

Day in and out we were told, "Study hard. Get a good job. Or you'd end up in a labouring job. Get good grades. Then you could get a good office job."

It was the same in Britain. It used to be that people who needed money would "char" (clean) or do gardening work. It was a respectable thing to do. They were earning clean money to support their families.

These days people simply expect to receive handouts. There is a dearth of entrepreneurial spirit.

Meanwhile retirees who cannot manage the scrubbing and cleaning, mums and dads too busy working to pay taxes, pay above minimum wage to have East European women clean their homes and East European men to do gardens.

In short taxpayers are paying twice:  for (1) one group of people who do nothing and (2) another group to do the same work that group (1) would have done had there not been welfare handouts.

When the welfare system was first introduced in Britain after the war it had the laudable objective of helping those who were most in need: widows and orphans, those maimed in the war. People avoided getting any public help until it was impossible to put food on the table for their children. People had so much pride.

These days children learn in their citizenship classes (I kid you not) that the welfare state would look after them.

We have a friend whose daughter is disabled. He cannot get her to do her homework. Her view is that it does not matter whether or not she studies. Because the government would look after her, give her a house, and pay her for doing nothing.

Inevitably people come to the conclusion: why work at all?

Young girls vie with one another on how soon they could have a baby so that "social" would give them their own flat and they could stop going to school. I actually know young girls who would have more babies in order to get a larger flat.

One claims to suffer from bad backache and was unable to work. (She keeps a taxi running on the meter while she shops, the taxpayer picks up the bill.) "But the backache disappears when I'm pregnant". (Tell that to a woman who's ever been pregnant.)

She was chuffed when allotted a larger property. A few weeks later she had chucked the boyfriend out.

In Britain now there are families where members have been on benefits for two or even three generations. Single mothers beget children who beget children while still in their teens. Women become grandmothers by the time they are 28 and such-like.

Even my hardworking Chinese friends are saying, within a generation of living here, "Why bother to work 40 hours just to have some money to spend when you can do nothing and still get money to spend?"

You cannot legislate against creeping laziness.

Mission creep

A woman told me her husband had not been in work for more than five years because he cannot cope with employers who have rules.

What sort of rules, I asked.

You know, like being on time.

[And actually being productive? I said to myself.]

This woman came to see me to have her benefits transferred from her husband's name to hers. The taxpayers pay her some £250 a week for Housing Benefits, and she was concerned that she had no money to organize a halloween party and then a birthday party for her daughters.

A woman who is a German national shouted and ranted about the civil servants not giving her her money. She suffered so much she had to pawn her gold jewellery to get £500 to feed her five children.

This woman is given £1500 a month for Housing Benefits. She's not even British but gained EU status as a refugee from the sub-continent. She has a second husband with whom she has children. Her husband had come from India to join her and was trying to get benefits as well.

I was really cross with her as she had already been given an appointment to see our adviser but had come to clog up the system demanding that I rang around to find out where her benefits were. She had also been hassling the various govt depts to no avail.

This woman worked 16 hours a day. She spent her free time ranting and raving at govt servants and CAB volunteers. Why does she not increase her hours of work to increase her income to support her family now that her husband was in the country to care for their children?

Because she knew that if she worked more than 16 hours she would lose a lot of her benefits (losing out on her Working Tax Credits).

She and/or her husband could also either return to Germany or India. But would she/they?

A woman from a North African country was in receipt of benefits and found herself in debt. She demanded that I rang Belfast (benefits office) and other agencies to ascertain why she was not getting her money.

I looked at her letters and said, "Here, this is the number to call."

She steadfastly refused, "You have to call. I don't understand what they say."

"You seem to understand perfectly well what we are talking about here."

"No, those people they speak with an Irish accent, I cannot understand them. You have to call them."

I was trained not to discriminate on racist grounds. What do you do when a client is racist in this manner?

She also disclosed that she is a member of a private gym charging some £50 a month.

So, "not got money enough" for gas and electricity, requiring help from the taxpayer, but "got money enough" to join a private gym. After 20 years in the country she had no intention of learning the language well enough to get real work.

Young man threatened suicide if I didn't let him see an adviser straightaway.

He was on incapacity benefit that was being phased out. Recipients have to undergo medicals to show they are indeed unfit and unable to work to receive the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which is now time-limited. He failed this medical (meaning he was shown to be fit to work).

This man was loud and rude, telling me that even talking to me was stressful to him. He just wanted money to feed himself and his dog. His sister was with him. She said she tried to help him where possible but she has her own children to feed. She is dependent on welfare as well.

I made the appointment for this man, briefing him on the documents he needed to bring so that we could help him.

"I'd be dead by then!" he shouted, and stormed out of my office. [My husband has very strong opinions about such people.]

Young man with "depression" problems wanted help to fill in forms to appeal a failed ESA application. When I looked at his claim it says he could not go out of the house by himself or cope with being with strangers. His claim of depression was not substantiated by any doctors. Neither was he on any medication.

Yet he was at the bureau by himself and waited in a crowded waiting room full of strangers for hours so that someone, he hoped, could help him claim that he was really too ill to work because he is not able to step out of his house.

My personal, possibly erroneous, assessment was that this man (who came into country as a refugee) needed to brush up on his English. But he cannot be bothered to learn English. Or someone told him that he should try to claim a disability instead.

For these claimants, the welfare system is not the safety net it was meant to be. It is a lifestyle choice.

Why work when you can get benefits indefinitely? When the Housing Benefits, Council Tax Benefits, Child Tax Credits/Working Tax Credits, etc are all taken into account, some claimants are getting (are you ready?) more than £15 an hour. And that is FOR NOT WORKING. There is no way that they would be paid anything close to this in the real world, given their lack of work ethic, punctuality, skills and literacy.

Of course I do not see/know everything about the welfare system. The type of cases I come across are repeated in the 394 Citizens Advice Bureaux across Britain. I am barely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A Covenant?

As I said at the start, if I could come up with an ideal/perfect welfare system I would be feted by national leaders.

One cannot legislate against laziness or greed. There will be mission creep. How do you cope with the question of immigrants' rights to benefits?

The Israelite nation of the Old Testament were reminded of the covenant that God had made with them. Parents are to keep teaching their children how they were slaves in Egypt, how they were delivered from Egypt and how they were brought into the land "flowing with milk and honey".

They were also told that if they were to break their convenant and worshipped another God, calamity would befall them.

Part of my church building was sold off many years ago. Written into the title deeds are a covenant that anyone who runs the shop (which it has become) must not trade on Sundays.

It is now an estate agent's office. Some years ago the owner wanted to sell it to a cafe owner, and with it the application to trade on Sundays. The matter was brought up to members at the church business meeting. The proposition to allow Sunday trading was unanimously rejected.

Change of ownership is fine. Change of use is fine. But Sunday trading is not OK. It is written into the covenant. It would cost a long court battle to break that convenant, if ever.

But covenants only work if there is a shared vision, a set of shared values. Twenty years down the road the church members may not be so irked by Sunday trading because they have grown up with Sunday trading unlike the current generation of church members. Then, maybe, the church would allow the covenant to be broken.

When the UK welfare system was mooted, there was a shared value system. Most of the population were church-goers. They may not be very staunch Christians, but they upheld the teachings of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, etc.

It was unspoken but there was this "social glue", a "British" value of looking after oneself, and where one is able, to look after one's neighbour as well. Marriage was the norm. Having children within wedlock was the norm.

In the aftermath of a Pakistan-born member of the Lords blowing the whistle it has become known that thousands of Muslim men have multiple "wives", each claiming benefits as a "single mother" while the husband keeps on fathering more children. Entitlement without responsibilities.

Non-Muslim men are just as culpable. Why work when you can enjoy sexual favours from multiple wives/partners and produce many children who are all given all kinds of child benefits?

Worse still is the spectre that the welfare state skews the law of natural selection (if you believe in such a thing). The feckless procreate whilst the able and conscientious, mindful of mounting bills, increased taxes and responsibilities, choose to have fewer children.

The result is the "survival of the unfittest".

The social glue, British (to a great extent Christain) values, have eroded as Britain became a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, in a political Europe that has made its border porous.

Would a convenant -- a constant reiteration of how the welfare system is meant to be a safety net, not a lifestyle choice, not a gravy train to multiple conjugal relationships -- prevent mission creep?

I have my doubts.

One thing I am sure: if the bogus, lazy, feckless and undeserving claimants can be removed from the system, those who are really in need through no fault of their own, or those who have tried despite disadvantages, will be far better off. But how do we design such a system?

How welfare culture evolves (3)
How welfare culture evolves (2)
How welfare culture evolves

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