With the coalition government sharpening its knives in preparation for what the Institute for Fiscal Studies calls the "longest, deepest, sustained period of cuts to public services since World War II," it was only a matter of time before the Con-Dems turned their attention to the benefits system.
"Tougher penalties for fraud" and "more prosecutions" were just two of David Cameron’s proposals in his widely reported recent "uncompromising" clampdown on benefit fraud. Predictably the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was amplified and twisted by the Sun into an attack on those who legally live on benefits. "The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants," the newspaper warned earlier this month. "Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash. They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs – paid for by YOU."
Underpinning the Sun’s simplistic, hate-filled nonsense is the commonly held belief that the current level of unemployment benefit allows people to live a comfortable life. Even the Guardian, that shining light of British liberalism, is not immune. "He had, he said, a bad back. He wasn’t working and he wasn’t going to try, and nor was she," said Jenni Russell about her childhood friends who had been living "at other people’s expense" for over 20 years. "The house is full of stuff – flatscreen TVs, Playstations, iPods."
But how much money do the unemployed receive from the state? According to the Department of Work and Pensions Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person over 25 is £65.45 a week. Those under 25 receive just £51.85. Of course this doesn’t include housing benefit or assistance with council tax, but how many people could pay all their bills, food, transport and leisure activities on just £65.45 a week? Certainly not former employment minister Tony McNulty, who admitted last year he wouldn’t be able to make ends meet if he lived on unemployment benefit, then £60.50 a week. His salary at the time was £104,050.
"Debts are inevitable," Rev Paul Nicolson tells me when I ask him about the consequences of living on unemployment benefit. As the Director of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, a charity that works with Britain’s most financially vulnerable citizens, Nicolson argues that the current level of unemployment benefit has a strong negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of those unlucky enough to live on it. "Poor maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy increases the risks of permanent developmental brain disorder, poor cognitive ability and even cerebral palsy in children," he says. "How can unemployed women buy a healthy diet and other necessities of life when their income after rent and tax is £65.45 a week and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income food standard is £44.34 a week?"
Nicolson is referring to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) annually updated and well-respected "minimum income standard." Based on what members of the public think people need to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living, last month JRF calculated the minimum income standard to be £175.34 a week for a single adult, excluding rent and childcare.
It hasn’t always been like this. According to Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, "when unemployment benefit started in 1912 it was seven shillings a week – about 22 per cent of average male earnings in manufacturing." Today, because successive governments have tied benefits to the price index while real earnings have increased, Bradshaw points out that unemployment benefit is just 10.5 per cent of average earnings. His conclusions are backed up by JRF report Should Adult Benefit for Unemployment Now Be Raised? which highlights how "relative to the average level of consumption" unemployment benefit today "is only worth half what it was 30 years ago."
And as with many other social indicators, Britain also trails behind the rest of western Europe in terms of unemployment benefit. According to 2006 statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the most up-to-date figures readily available – Britain is far behind Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in terms of the replacement rates for a single person living on unemployment benefits.
With no unions, powerful voices or mainstream newspapers defending their interests, the unemployed are particularly vulnerable to government and media attacks on their already precarious situation. Progressive individuals and organisations therefore have two key tasks to carry out – first, to defend the current level of unemployment benefit from the coalition’s immediate clampdown. Second, to fight for a significant increase in the level of unemployment benefit, so those who are unfortunate enough to be out of work are able to live a healthy life and participate fully in society.