Skivers v strivers: the argument that pollutes people’s minds

Two words have dominated recent debate about benefits cuts, but if we accept either of them we allow ourselves to be diverted from the discussion we should be having

“Skiver” v “striver”. It suits Cameron’s tabloid-slick delivery and Steve Hilton’s blue-sky viciousness, but how did it go viral? Why does Ed Miliband now use “striver” as though it were an acceptable way to describe someone, by a stranger’s groundless estimation of how hard they are hypothetically trying? The skiver, in opposition parlance, is always unmentioned, yet he lurks; Labour won’t tolerate him either, this feckless bogeyman of Westminster’s devising. But how did this false dichotomy, which has been at the heart of the rhetoric around the government’s attack on benefits this week, catch on?

Don’t tell me it is because it rhymes. It will destroy my faith in humanity, and that’s exactly what they want. But the point is not that politicians spout it, nor that people who haven’t given it any thought believe it. The point is that it has seeped so far, so fast, into the national consciousness as a meaningful idea that the very people vilified by it – the people who know they are unemployed by circumstance and not by choice – feel their lives judged against its fictional benchmarks.

Sarah Teather, who on Tuesday was one of the pitifully few (four) Lib Dems voting against the welfare bill, described the so-called “skivers” she encounters in her constituency office: “People who come to my constituency office these days for help with some kind of error in their benefits often spend the first few minutes trying to justify their worth. They usually begin by trying to explain their history of working and that they have paid tax. They are desperate to get over the point that they are not like other benefit claimants – they are not a scrounger. It is perhaps a feature of the way in which the term ‘scroungers’ has become so pervasive in social consciousness that even those on benefits do not attempt to debunk the entire category, only to excuse themselves from the label.”

How did this come about? First, before we even arrived at the rhyming words, reducing every crappy policy to the simplicity of a limerick, there was a concerted effort to recast “social security” as “welfare”. Nobody described this more elegantly than Baroness Hollis, in a debate in the Lords in 2011: “Until recently, when we introduced a bill like this it would not have been a welfare reform bill, it would have been a social security bill. The gap between social security and welfare is precisely the gap between entitlement and stigma.”

People sometimes ascribe this adoption of “welfare” as an Americanism, designed to convey some of the US’s sneering synecdoche where the name of the government support becomes shorthand for the person being supported. I think it’s also an attempt to dehumanise people on state benefits – we never used to talk about welfare in terms of humans, but the word has been in everyday UK usage, for as long as I can remember, to describe animals. To be in receipt of state benefits thus tacitly becomes a passive, piteous, dumb thing to do. You don’t necessarily begrudge the animals their welfare, but you wouldn’t mistake yourself for one of them.

On its own, this wouldn’t be enough, since even to a government that often seems scarcely able to count, it would have been obvious that almost all of us were on some benefit or other. Even the main benefits, the ones they speak of as cripplingly expensive, haven’t for a long time been limited to the unemployed – 93% of new housing benefit claims are from people who have a job. This statistic says such a lot – about the structure of this economy, the disparity between wages and rents, the state of the housing market, the awe-inspiring integrity and energy of people who go to work even for a job that doesn’t cover their rent, the contrast between them and politicians who won’t pay their own rent even though they can afford it. It says almost everything good and everything bad about this country, that statistic. I’d get it as a tattoo, only I’m hoping that one day it will no longer be true.

So it takes more than a change in terminology to demonise the recipients of social security. You also need to create a distinction between the ones you approve of, and the ones you don’t. The most vivid example of what happens when you don’t is Mitt Romney’s ill-fated castigation of the “takers” of society, the people who don’t pay tax. When it transpired that this was 47% of the US population, he inadvertently created a previously nonexistent solidarity among those he set out to attack. There is no failsafe formula for how large a scapegoat class can be, but it’s safe to say it has to be quite a bit smaller than “nearly half of everybody”.

I personally think that Iain Duncan Smith has been the most industrious MP at building a pariah class – benefit recipients who love benefits, who scoff at your idiocy in paying for them, who hate work like the devil and love the devil almost as much as their 57in TVs. Much of it is rhetorical flourish – “generations of worklessness” has a good, congenital ring, with its suggestion that some people are simply born worse than others – but more is deliberate misinformation.

The number of households with two generations who have never worked is 1% – no, not of all households, dummkopf! – 1% of unemployed households. Figures don’t exist for households where there are three generations of worklessness, so we would be as well to assume there are none as to think they’re out there, gathered in the pub as we speak, mocking us. The talk of “troubled families” last year – in which 120,000 persistently anti-social families were identified, only for it to emerge later that the figures were actually a measure of deprivation, not behaviour – achieved the same outcome.

They conjured up for us a layer of people who are not simply different, but worse – people whom an honest striver would never meet, because their activities are so few, their social tendrils limited to picking up their benefits and maybe popping out offspring. From here, the taint of dishonesty was relatively easy to introduce; a person too lazy to work would most likely have built up strategies for the avoidance thereof, some of which must have been dishonest. The word “cheat” now fits so snugly against the word “benefits” that they run together as a single concept. If the people exist who claim benefits but don’t cheat, surely it’s only a matter of time.

Taken all together, this represents misinformation on a massive scale, spoken and unspoken, implied and inferred, leading to misconceptions of equally daunting proportions. A survey released by the TUC last week found that, on average, people thought 41% of the entire welfare budget went to unemployed people, when, in fact, it’s 3%. Much more alarming, I think, is the averagely held view that 27% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, when, according to this survey, the true figure is 0.7%. More recent stats from the Department for Work and Pensions put it at 0.3%. Of those surveyed, 79% thought a family with two school-age children would be better off on benefits than if one parent got a minimum-wage job – in fact, with one parent in work, that hypothetical family would be £138 better off a week. We have one of the least generous unemployment benefit systems in Europe, and it gets meaner every year. But that isn’t really the point. There are very profound points of disagreement looming over this terrain. If you want to make sure “work pays”, wouldn’t it be better to force up wages than force down benefits? If you want to increase the money available to the public purse, wouldn’t it be better to make sure people keep their jobs, than penalise and denigrate the unemployed, who don’t have any money anyway and can only pay you in shame?

In a way, it is precisely to avoid those questions that this false war has been created. Every minute spent discussing the factual inaccuracies, dishonesty and sleight of hand in the skivers/strivers debate is time wasted, time that could be spent addressing the bone-rattling mismanagement of an economy that only doesn’t look more dangerous because it is going so slowly. And yet, we have to discuss it; to leave it unaddressed is to accept that public life has been polluted, that we now live in a system where it doesn’t matter what’s true, it only matters what’s been said most often. To borrow, for solace, from Churchill: statistically speaking, the unemployed won’t always be unemployed. A Tory will always be a Tory. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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