Welfare Reform affects all of us (epilogue)

This letter to the papers from last month is similar to a post I also wrote last year, but is worth repeating as “events” overshadowed it that day…

I was baffled the other day by a commentator’s suggestion that although the principles of welfare reform are supported by the general populace, they are not supported by “those it affects”. This simply does not follow – it affects all of us!

The comment is in itself the perfect demonstration that the current welfare system does not achieve what it is supposed to achieve. Far from providing a safety net for those of us who fall upon hard times (as envisaged when it was set up), it in fact divides society into providers of welfare money on one hand, and recipients of it on the other. Mobility between the two has all but ceased, as the system in fact traps vast numbers of people by making it financially unviable for them to work. 

Caught in the middle of this is the so-called “squeezed middle” – working families who struggle to cover the costs of childcare (provision of which is particularly pitiful in Northern Ireland) and mortgages (with interest rates due to rise in 2014) and electricity (as the grid becomes overburdened), on top of paying the very taxes and national insurance which pay for a welfare system which covers other people’s children’s programmes and housing.

If this welfare system were actually supporting people out of poverty, demonstrably bringing down long-term unemployment, and clearly turning around isolated communities, this may still be regarded as reasonable; but it is totally unreasonable to ask working families whose wage rises do not match inflation to pay for a welfare system which has fundamentally failed us. 

It is our welfare system – that means it must work for all of us, allowing us to pay in when we can, while providing a buffer when we can’t. None of us can afford the current system, which traps increasing numbers of us permanently into “contributor” or “recipient” camps, with an increasing divide and increasing contempt before them. 

Anyone with a serious interest in tackling poverty and maximising opportunity for all will recognise the current welfare system is broken. The time has come to fix it – and demonstrate that it belongs to all of us. 

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