Monday, 4 October 2010

Welfare state under attack

George Osborne’s announcement that child benefit will be cut for high earners is a blatant and cynical example of political prestidigitation and policy misdirection. Osborne’s contention that “it’s very difficult to justify taxing people on low income to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more” threatens to end welfare state universalism and reduce it to a safety net. The move erodes the legitimacy of a welfare system which relies on universal benefits to give mandate to redistributive state spending. If middle and high earners no longer receive universal benefits then it fundamentally undermines the intellectual premise of our welfare state and questions other overarching benefits such as the state pension and the NHS.

But the curbing of child benefit is not just about challenging universalism, it also acts to mask more punitive welfare cuts. The vocal middle-classes affected by the cuts will distract media attention from other austerity measures and, as Deputy Political Editor of the BBC James Landale states, the move gives Osborne “political cover for other cuts that will affect the less well off”. It gives credence to the dictum “we’re all in this together” and attempts to justify Draconian benefit cuts for the most vulnerable. After all, if those horribly oppressed middle-class parents are paying the price of recession, why shouldn’t an impoverished pensioner in Middlesbrough?

The subsequent proposal to cap state benefit at £26,000 further demonstrates the government’s desire to attack not just the welfare state, but the most unprotected and defenceless in society. The planned cap will apply to combined household income from benefits including Jobseekers’ Allowance, housing benefit, council tax benefit and child benefit but without variations to correct for regional differences in the cost of living, it will serve to further ghettoise the country. With housing benefit to be reduced year on year, it will not be long before London and the whole South East is purged of all those reliant on benefits.

The Conservative cuts are not simply about tackling the deficit. At best they are aimed at reducing the welfare state to an unrecognisable husk and, at worst, they are aimed at cleansing the South of undesirables. The government may advocate a small state – but when the state determines where citizens can and can’t live through social engineering – it seriously challenges positive and maximalist conceptions of liberty, freedom and equality of opportunity.

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