The benefit cap tackles a real problem from the wrong end

A cap on the total amount of benefits that people receive begins rolling out across England, Wales and Scotland today. The cap applies to those aged 16 to 64 and means that couples and lone parents will no longer receive more than £500 a week, with single people limited to a maximum of £350 a week.

A cap on the total amount of benefits that people receive begins rolling out across England, Wales and Scotland today. The cap applies to those aged 16 to 64 and means that couples and lone parents will no longer receive more than £500 a week, with single people limited to a maximum of £350 a week.

Extraordinarily popular, the policy is supported by some 70 per cent of the electorate, meaning one risks the charge of elitism in pointing out that in this instance the mass is probably of lower intelligence than its constituent parts.

The fact the benefit cap is popular in fact makes it all the more likely that it is bad policy; for what politician can resist pandering to the crowd when it chimes with their political leanings?

The problem is that the cap tackles a real problem from the wrong end.

Clearly it is undesirable for people to be claiming large amounts in benefits rather than earning their keep through a job. But when commentators and politicians wax lyrical about the amount of benefits being paid to individuals and families they are in reality talking about something quite different.

We, the taxpaper, are often not subsidising claimants at all, but rather handing large sums of money to private landlords who don’t particularly care whether it is the state or the individual who pays their rent – they know that benefit claimants will be conveniently on hand to take the flack which should by rights be directed at them.

Just this morning a new report came out detailing how a third of Britain is now effectively off-limits to lower income families because of the increasing cost of rent. This being the case, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the benefits bill has also been increasing – the key point which the government has seemingly missed is that the state is subsidising landlords, rather than tenants.

Another non-sequitur is the idea that driving down the living standards of the unemployed is what makes work pay.

Ministers insist on repeating those three precious words: “making work pay”. It’s a clever rhetorical trick but it’s also an inversion of the truth. Reducing the living standards of the unemployed is not the same as ensuring that job pay what they should; and declining living standards for those without work is more likely to have a downward effect on the wages of those in work than it is to make anything pay.

In this sense, ‘making work pay’ is a bit like snatching away a homeless person’s cardbox box and claiming that in the process you’ve made mortgages more affordable for everyone else.

The benefit cap will also punitively hit families with lots of children; or more accurately, it will hit children who are unfortunate enough to be born into large families.

In the pilots for the cap around 80 per cent of those hit were single parent families. The idea that it is possible to put a set cap on how much money a family requires regardless of how many children there are also defies logic. More children cost more money, obviously.

It goes back to politics, though. It’s popular to be seen to be ‘cracking down’ on the entitlements of poor people with children, probably not unrelated to the fact that our society has always been terrified of the poor breeding too much.

We should, however, stop trying to think that there is some easy solution on child benefits. You either provide adequate money for parents to feed and clothe their children or you don’t. By paying less money to parents the government may think it is punishing them but it is in reality punishing their children.

The question then is this: is it ok to punish children for the behaviour of their parents or isn’t it?

Don’t hold your breath in waiting for the correct (and no doubt unpopular) answer.

One thing that is clear from all this is that the Tory view that rich people will not work unless they are given money whereas poor people will only do so if they are not is now a majority one.

In combating this the left has to be honest – it is a bad thing for people to be on benefits when they could be in work – but it also mustn’t sacrifice principles for popularity: the benefits bill is a consequence of much larger failures and won’t be significantly reduced by indulging narratives about “fecklessness”.

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