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Britain’s Benefit Madness

Summary:
Work is the ultimate escape from poverty. But the futile sort demanded by the United Kingdom’s income-support scheme puts many of society’s weakest members on a path to nowhere, because it reflects a welfare ideology that fails to distinguish fantasy from reality. LONDON – Mahatma Gandhi probably never said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” But that doesn’t make it any less true. And nowadays, the United Kingdom is in danger of receiving a failing grade. Build Back the State Getty/Bettman  Is Stagflation Coming? Z. Wei/Getty Images

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Work is the ultimate escape from poverty. But the futile sort demanded by the United Kingdom’s income-support scheme puts many of society’s weakest members on a path to nowhere, because it reflects a welfare ideology that fails to distinguish fantasy from reality.

LONDON – Mahatma Gandhi probably never said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” But that doesn’t make it any less true. And nowadays, the United Kingdom is in danger of receiving a failing grade.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 14.5 million people, or 22% of the UK’s population of 65 million, live below the “poverty line” (defined as less than 60% of median income). Of a working-age population of 42 million, some 5-6 million, or about 12%, are either unemployed or underemployed (working less than they want to). About eight million working-age citizens, or 20% of the total, qualify for what the British call “benefit,” whereby all or part of their income is paid by the state.

These figures are approximate, and some of the details are disputed. But the broad picture is that, even setting aside COVID-19, the UK’s capitalist system normally cannot provide a living wage for about one-fifth of the country’s working-age population.

This represents a huge change from the late 1940s, when Britain established its redoubtable welfare state. The philosophy that inspired it, reflected in the 1942 Beveridge Report held that the state would guarantee full employment, that work would provide the income for a decent life, and that the welfare system would deal with “interruptions” to work caused by unemployment, sickness, and maternity.

By the 1960s, the interruptions had become much more frequent, not because unemployment had risen, but because the number of claims for so-called national assistance (benefits not covered by insurance) rose faster than the working-age population. The initial growth stemmed largely from an increase in the number of single mothers and an additional entitlement to disability benefits. Later increases in the number of claimants, including in the...

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