It’s not un-Catholic to have grave doubts about Britain’s ‘benefits culture’

People queue outside a job centre in central London (PA)

Much has been said, in the Church and the media, about the Government’s plans to limit the amount that any household can claim in benefit. Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) expressed concern about what this may mean for families, particularly in London.

The issue of Britain’s “benefit culture” came up again recently as John Humphrys’s documentary, The Future of The Welfare State, was criticised by the BBC after an unnamed individual and a “poverty charity” took offence to it.

It appears that CSAN, for all their good intentions, are unaware of the evil of welfare dependency. The BBC are either unaware of it or are unwilling to sanction a documentary implying its existence.

To be fair, capping a couple’s benefit at £24,000 gives them the equivalent of £12,000 each, a pittance in London, where most of that will go on rent. It also effectively penalises having children by not taking them into account. But there is a tendency among Catholics to think that whatever the Government does must be evil and ill-considered simply because this is true in some cases.

Being dependent on benefits, particularly for unemployment, is not a source of pride for anyone. Over the long term it is detrimental to a person’s dignity, freedom and sense of self-worth. Benefit dependency, whatever the circumstances, also undermines the person’s standing in the community.

I have been on Jobseeker’s Allowance twice and so have some idea of what I’m writing about. But I have tried not to let my own experience colour my judgment on this issue.

There are two arguments in particular suggesting that an overly generous welfare state is also counterproductive in its aim of supporting people in difficult circumstances. Many speak of a “poverty trap”, where people can claim more in benefits than they would make after tax by working, and say that the welfare state should be reduced to lessen the chances of this. There is also an economic argument that if benefits are reduced it allows for a commensurate drop in taxation, stimulating the economy into producing the very jobs that are lacking, or allowing for healthier company profits to filter through to employees, making them less likely to require state assistance to support themselves and their children.

This argument does not apply much to today’s western economies where governments are cutting spending, and increasing taxation, to try to pay off their debts. Still, since the Government spent more than £200 billion on benefits in 2011-2012 (according to The Institute of Fiscal Studies), the potential economic benefits of cutting welfare should be properly debated, and Catholics engaged in that debate should not be ostracised for considering that option.

While it is not just Jobseeker’s Allowance that is to be capped, but rather the sum of benefits that a person may claim, even benefits such as housing benefit can undermine a person’s dignity and freedom by leaving them dependent on the state, disadvantaged in the community, and at the mercy of politicians and functionaries.

In any debate concerning the proposed cap on benefits, those Catholics who take a more reserved view of the welfare state should be given the benefit of the doubt by those who would maintain or extend it: we have good intentions just as you do.