Welfare expenditure has gone up, so leave the benefits for those who are truly needy
I have lately taken to eating at soup kitchens. It’s great. I just turn up at one of the stands or church halls where I know I will find a mug of soup and occasionally something more substantial, like a pasta dish. And because I am habitually shabby and say little about my circumstances, the volunteers are content to serve the meal without asking questions. The idea of testing my actual need for this food never seems to occur to them: it is enough that I am there.
And what possible harm does this amount to, even though I can afford to buy and cook for myself or spend money in the local Indian? For one thing, the charitable outlets that I patronise always have enough food on the day; in fact, sometimes I wonder if they prepare too much. So, in a way, I’m helping them out. Friends express horror at my behaviour, but I reply that I have given money to homeless charities in the past. My friends, however, insist that this is charity I don’t need and that somewhere down the line I am taking money from someone who really is homeless and hungry.
Then I produce my trump card, which is the London 60+ travel pass. This allows free travel on buses, the tube and other rail services and I note that many of my friends are beginning to flourish the card. Even though most are still earning and are certainly no worse off and no more infirm than they were just a few months back, they apply for the Oyster photocard because, like those free meals, it is there and no one is asking if they really need it. Is there really so much difference between taking the free food and the free travel?
Just for the record, I don’t eat at soup kitchens. But neither will I be applying for the 60+ Oyster card when I become eligible, because I hope that my income will be more or less what it is now. Things may change, but it will take a lot for me to say that I cannot pay my way and must accept this charity from Transport for London. There may be some pride in this, yet I cannot rid myself of the idea that I don’t deserve the help and don’t need it.
Besides, in these tough times, it seems to me that there may be an increased moral element in the decision to take up a free bus pass or, at a later stage, to benefit from the winter fuel payment, which costs the exchequer £2.1bn each year. This moral aspect is usually ignored by the well-off of all political inclinations, because of an unyielding sense of entitlement. When told we are entitled to something, we don’t think any more about it because the government, the mayor or someone in authority has done our thinking for us, though they cannot afford these benefits.
In a flush economy, there’s no problem, but when £18bn of savings have to be found, surely a simple assertion of entitlement isn’t good enough. Shouldn’t the healthy, employed, home-owning members of my generation think twice about collecting bus passes and winter fuel payments?
Last week, Janet Street-Porter argued with Andrew Neil on BBC’s The Week that the question of her actual need for the winter fuel payment and free travel didn’t come into it because she had paid her taxes and national insurance and these benefits were nothing less than her due. But that argument doesn’t hold when you know she probably could pay for travel and energy without government or local authority help, while there are others who can’t survive without help. These days, it is perhaps not simply a question of what you have contributed to the pot – it’s whether your need is as great as that of others.
The only case she can make, which used to be a good one, is that benefits should be universal because that way the middle classes are bound into the welfare state and experience reward from all the contributions they have made in the past. And universalism banishes the stigma of means-tested state handouts, an aspiration dear to the architect of the welfare state, William Beveridge.
But the principle of universalism ended at the beginning of last week, when coalition cuts to child benefit came into force for families where one partner earns more than £50,000 – a nonsensical threshold because families with two partners earning £49,000 can continue to claim. Universalism is also over because we don’t have the money for it. Since the war, welfare expenditure as a proportion of GDP has risen from 35% to 47%. If we cannot manage universalism at that level of expenditure, we never will.
Even if the chancellor raised taxes and pursued such tax-avoiding monsters as Amazon and Google, it is still unlikely that any future government would be able to reinstate the principle, for we are all living longer. Since 1945, life expectancy has risen for women from 71 to 83 and for men from 66 to 77.
It’s properly the end of a noble aspiration. For the well-off who fiercely guard their own entitlements at the same time as sometimes viewing beneficiaries of other parts of the welfare state as scroungers, this new state of affairs carries responsibilities. David Cameron has promised to protect free travel and winter fuel allowance for the course of this parliament, but it is only right that those who are healthy and working should carry out their own means test before accepting an entitlement.