On universal welfare, the Price is right

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Ah, the welfare state – that old, uncontentious topic. It’s fluctuated from adoration to animosity since its implementation nearly 70 years ago. Recently, there’s been a spike for the latter. We’ve had Benefits Street, “something-for-nothing culture” rhetoric, and now an unlikely figurehead for the welfare debate: Katie Price. More precisely, Katie Price’s decision to use a state-funded nurse and driver for her son Harvey, to transport him to school. “But she’s rich, why should she be using tax-payers money?” See. Uncontentious or what?

But it’s a valid question. Why should the wealthy get welfare? Well, because of equality. To explain, an abbreviated history of the welfare state. Liberal politician and economist William Beveridge masterminded the modern welfare state throughout WWII, which revealed just how many Brits were impoverished. In his eponymous report of 1942, Beveridge identified five “great evils”: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. To combat this he recommended, amongst other things, a compulsory flat rate national insurance which would be used for health care, unemployment and retirement benefits, and social security for all.

Hello, then, to the NHS, jobseeker’s allowance, and state pensions. The NHS encapsulated this ethos in the first piece of literature it produced: “Everyone, rich or poor, man, woman or child can use it or any part of it. There are no charges… no insurance qualifications, but it is not a charity. You are paying for it mainly as taxpayers and it will relieve your money worries in times of illness.” But even those with money – wealthy pensioners who need nursing care, or anyone who has paid into the system – deserve their basic needs met. Our savings shouldn’t be spent on nursing or health care, just as we don’t refuse someone with a savings account their pension. It’s a bit Hakuna Matata, really: no worries for the rest of your days.

And a charity it is not. How? Because we all pay in – from a rich man’s mansion tax to the VAT on a can of Special Brew. So now back to Katie Price, who felt she had to defend herself after ‘admitting’ that she takes disability welfare for her son. What a scrounger, eh? I bet she uses the NHS as well, the scumbag. She even cited, unnecessarily, the higher amount of tax she pays as a higher earner, as though someone paying less tax would somehow be discounted from welfare.

But it’s no problem-free philosophy. Surely she can afford the £1,000 a day, she claims, which covers Harvey’s transport to school. So should she claim? “Why so much?” you might ask. “She should move closer to the school to avoid such high costs.” Yes, maybe she should. Once it ceases to be a simple right of social security, a line should be drawn. But let’s not start telling parents with disabled children where to live, eh? “Shouldn’t only those struggling call on the state,” you might chirp up again, “as the wealthy can pay for themselves?” Aside from the fact those with greater bank balances generally pay higher taxes, if universal rights start to become universal* rights, it will all start to fracture: social security will become a lot less secure. This security helps the economy, let’s not forget. Secure people dare, as the Swedish Social Democrat slogan goes. Risks propel a capitalist economy.

This Katie Price brouhaha, however, is symptomatic of a growing dislike for the welfare state, and specifically the idea of ‘scroungers’. In 1993, 24% of people thought unemployment benefits were too high. Now it’s 62%. But consider this. Benefit fraud in the UK, unfortunately, amounts to £1.2 billion. Benefit overpayments due to error, however, is at £1.4 billion. Benefits unclaimed? £16 billion. The problem is a small one, but it’s being exaggerated, creating a fraudulent divide: those who work and those who scrounge. Nonsense! More benefits, at 4.31% of the welfare state, go to people who are *in* work via income support, than the 3.31% leaving as jobseeker’s allowance.

It isn’t perfect. By this logic all students should get the same loans and grants, right? But this politics of envy, of allowing people, however wealthy, to be harangued for exercising their rights by asking for help with their disabled child, is something we shouldn’t submit to. Some things, like education, health, housing, and social security, should be universal, no asterisk. To complete the Hakuna Matata triptych: it ain’t no passing craze.

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