We can’t let ‘strivers vs skivers’ frame the welfare debate

Photo credit:   KellyB

February 7, 2013 // By: James Angel

The government’s ‘strivers vs skivers’ narrative increasingly frames the debate about social security and the welfare state. When lambasting the Welfare Uprating Bill, which caps benefits at a 1% yearly increase, well below the cost of living rising, Labour branded it “a strivers tax”. Similar language has now been adopted by the Guardian. The newspaper published a new animation online this week, which asked:

But are the cuts really targeting the skivers? Many benefits go to people who are working but on low incomes… Whatever happens, thousands of people will feel the pain. Will they be the strivers, the skivers, or all of us?

Both statements miss the wider and more crucial point: ‘strivers vs skivers’ is an utterly false dichotomy, and a dangerously divisive one too, casually scapegoating a large swathe of the population. It is both technically inaccurate and ethically disreputable to categorise people in this way.

Of course we must worry about the impact of cuts on in-work poverty. But what about the disastrous effects on those out of work? The dog whistle here is that we can ignore them because they are morally inferior.

The reality of today’s hyper-flexible labour market means many people are forced to flit from one casual, temporary contract to the next, using social security to get by when in between jobs. One week a worker, the next a claimant. There are no rigid social grouping of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. Life is more complicated than that.

There are plenty of reasons why people may be out of paid work for longer. There aren’t a lot of jobs around: last year there was an average of 18 applications for every job vacancy. For those who are disabled or ill, being forced into paid work could have disastrous effects on their physical and mental health. Many people, especially women, have crucial responsibilities as unpaid carers. Taking paid work is simply not a feasible option for many currently classed as long-term unemployed, and the impact of the benefits cap and even deeper cuts to come will be catastrophic for them.

Something has gone badly amiss when a society only values those contributions made through the labour market. The value of unpaid home-based work has been estimated at over 20 per cent of GDP.

There may well be some unemployed people who could find a job but choose not to. But to write them off as ‘skivers’ still misses the point. People without wealth and privilege are systematically excluded from our communities, our political system and our economy. Elites want them to enter into the labour market not out of altruism, but because they rely on a supply of cheap, flexible labour to maintain their own privileges. Jobs on offer to the unemployed tend to be disempowering, low paid and without prospect of personal fulfilment or development. When this is what paid work offers, is it any wonder that some are reluctant to partake? 

Using the language of ‘strivers and skivers’ is to divide and rule. It encourages people to point fingers at each other, not at those who pull the strings. It is disheartening to see the Guardian and Labour politicians now falling into this trap. We must re-frame the welfare debate. Calling for generous, universal benefits alongside a living wage, a shorter working week and decent, fulfilling jobs would be a start. 

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