The benefits cap constitutes a modern-day poll tax

13 Nov 2016


A new cap affecting benefits has recently come into force which restricts the total maximum amount of benefits claimable by a single family to £23,000 in Greater London or £20,000 across the rest of the UK.


The Tories have argued this cap will provide a greater incentive to work and reduce the amount of families living on benefits across the UK. In reality, however, an arbitrary cap on benefits is counter-productive and constitutes a modern-day poll tax. It is a policy designed to punish the poor, rather than to help them get back into work.


The toll of these blanket changes will be catastrophic for mothers and children across the country, as well as the many thousands of people wrongly found to be fit-to-work as a result of disability assessments. Instead of supporting families to get back on their feet, the benefits cap is plunging them into further difficulty.


The professed goal of the cap, which is to reduce the number of claimants by making life on benefits unbearable, is a self-defeating one. To borrow an old saying, if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Withdrawing welfare through means of a fixed cap will not help people to get into work and to become self-sufficient. It is instead more likely to result in an increased usage of food banks and other public services as people live more precarious lives and become more reliant upon hand-outs from the state.


Similarly to the poll-tax, an arbitrary cap on benefits runs contrary to the professed Conservative ideal of helping people to help themselves. It fails to make any distinction between the so-called ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, treating someone made redundant after thirty years of work in exactly the same way as someone who has claimed benefits for that duration. Couples with children and single parents are subject to the same cap, despite a couple having to account for an additional adult expense, and no additional dispensation is afforded to families living in higher-rent areas who suddenly find themselves reliant upon benefits; even in the short term. And research suggests that the GMB union’s claim that single parents are being targeted by the cap is correct – with over 40,000 single parents being affected so far.


Not only is a benefits cap a gentrifying policy – forcing low-income families out of high rent areas – but it is forcing them to dramatically reduce their expenditure in ways that can often be more destructive than helpful. For example, it may seem senseless for a person who has recently lost their job to give up their car, which would offer them the opportunity to find new offers of employment, but the benefits cap does exactly that - forcing families out of a temporary rut into an even deeper one.


No family who is on the move, relocating into temporary accommodation elsewhere, can spare the time or energy to look for work whilst making ends meet. They are instead likely to rely on public services, food-banks and charities whilst suffering from mental health problems and requiring greater support from the state. Ultimately, forcing poorer families out of higher-rent areas will result in the creation of claimant ghettos – areas where large numbers compete for unskilled jobs, many of them reliant on public transport and unable to commute large distances.


So what, exactly, is a benefits cap supposed to achieve? It seems as though the main accomplishment of the cap is political – it shows a government response to news stories about welfare claimants by fixing the welfare rate at a more socially-acceptable level. And yet, such a move could actually increase the costs of welfare over a longer period of time.


Reducing the benefits cap to its current rate is a impulsive move to placate voters, which is particularly cruel amidst an increased cost of living and rising rent costs. One thing is clear: while Brexit places the UK economy in turmoil, the Tories are squeezing the poor even harder. Tragically those who will be most affected by the changes are children, none of whom have chosen to be born or to become a burden to the state.


The Tories claim that a benefits cap will deter claimants from having more children in the long-term, but it will also punish people who already have multiple children and won’t help, for example, women who have become single parents through no fault of their own. Worst of all, it punishes the children themselves; creating even greater deprivation when it comes to family life and making them relocate schools as they are bounced from pillar-to-post during an upbringing of hardship and uncertainty. The effects on their mental health are likely to be damaging; these children are more likely to turn to crime or substance abuse, and they are ultimately likely to become more of a drain on the state than children from stable homes.


The Tories would also like to suggest that there are no alternatives to the current system and that the current reduction in welfare is necessary to reduce our deficit. On the contrary, there are a range of underlying issues which can be addressed in different ways. One issue with housing benefit is that the government is effectivesubsiding extortionate private rents using taxpayer’s money. Alternative solutions range from radical (such as placing a cap on rents across the country) to less radical (such as investing in social housing in key areas. Instead, the government has chosen to punish people whose rents have gone up in their local area, instead of private landlords who have been raking in the profits.


There are also alternative solutions to dealing with the public outcry over ‘living the high life’ on benefits (not least of which to point out that a few extreme cases are unrepresentative of the whole). The food stamps system of the United States is one attempt to reduce the wastage on welfare, but with today’s technology much more sophisticated limits on benefit spending can be envisaged, such as children’s bank accounts and debit cards with limited uses for shopping on essentials. It would even be possible to secure a contract with supermarkets to deliver essential groceries to families at their homes.


But primarily, the economic argument must be won that investing in families in the short-term is a more prudent use of taxpayer’s money than to fund lifetimes of poverty, and the subsequent costs that that causes to society. We often speak of a ‘safety net’ in terms of welfare, but more effective than that would be a ‘safety trampoline’; a short-term, larger investment in individuals who have recently become benefit claimants.


Under a ‘safety trampoline’ system, families who claim benefits would receive in their first year of receiving benefits a heavy lump-sum investment designed to ease their concerns of paying the bills and allowing them to focus on getting back into work. In subsequent years, this investment would be reduced until it reaches a basic level of subsistence similar to the current cap.


Economically, welfare doesn’t pay – but neither does withdrawing welfare and allowing the voluntary sector, hospitals, police, and social workers to pick up the pieces. What does benefit the economy is getting people back into work.


A safety net of housing benefit means that people who are temporarily disadvantaged have a basic standard of living which allows them to survive and look for work. But a safety trampoline would mean that families would get the initial financial support they need to help themselves, followed by – as that financial support decreases – a set of steadily increasing levels of support aimed at making them self-sufficient once again.


Finally, as a society, we must accept that some people are unfit to work and to see those people as valuable members of society in other ways whilst granting them an acceptable standard of living. The government is currently trying to convince many of us that we are a burden to the state. It is time we realised that the state exists to take care of us when we are sick, elderly or disabled; that there should be incentives to work,  but that by punishing single parents and families who are struggling financially we are only creating a further crisis in the long-run.


Once again the Tories are putting the most vulnerable members of our society under further pressure while the wealthy get off scot-free.


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