Okay, from the title I can already see that this is going to turn into a bit of a rant, but I can't help myself. Have any of you seen Benefit Street these last 6 weeks? It was an interesting look into an area of Birmingham, not too far from where I grew up and close to where my sister used to live when she first left home. It portrayed the people as kind and generous and struggling on the whole, though at times seemed to forgive and glorify their criminal behaviour.
But that's not what I really want to talk about. What I want to rant about is last night's live 'debate'.
Wow, I have to use the term debate very loosely. I don't know if it was the presenter and/or channel 4 who had the agenda, but there certainly was one. Whenever someone tried to say something that didn't fit with the message they wanted to portray, the presenter cut them off and moved elsewhere, or went to someone who had an opposite view and let them shout louder and longer and spout 'facts and figures', many of which I have tried to look up and failed! In the end, my wife and I turned it off and had a very heated debate ourselves.
It has become a topic that many people have an opinion on, and if nothing else, the television show Benefit Street has done a good job of bringing it into the public eye. That topic is the Welfare State (here in the UK).
I don't think anyone would disagree that the welfare system is broken? It was established over 60 years ago, when life expectancies were a couple of years after you retired, and healthcare was relatively primitive. Families and communities cared for the elderly and sick, and people didn't expect that Sky TV and broadband internet were a right.
What's that you say? What have retirement and healthcare got to do with people on benefits?
Well, I reply, I believe that one of the reasons the welfare state is so broken is because it has become so fragmented. Everything is looked at in isolation, with ring fenced budgets and so many bureaucrats and managers that the system is collapsing under it's own weight of red tape.
To try and explain my point, I've decided to take one of the cast of the show, Dee (referred to as White Dee on the show). That's another point about the show, though. The intro described 99 houses where 95% of people were on benefits. We saw people from perhaps 5 or 6 houses on the show? Young to middle aged or immigrants, but no elderly or low income working families? That was hardly representative of the street, let alone the population who use the benefit system.
Anyway, back to Dee. On the show last night, Dee described her benefit entitlement. She stated that she received child benefit, child tax credit, and employment and support allowance (ESA). I don't know what that adds up to, but she struggled to support her two children.
Dee stated that her depression was what limited her ability to work. I can understand that, and I can also relate to the difficulties with assessing patients with depression and their ability to work (I've done it). They have good and bad days, and certain environments or activities can make their symptoms worse. Mental illness tends to be chronic, relapsing and remitting, and difficult to treat at times, so I can accept that holding down a regular job can be difficult.
What that doesn't explain though are Dee's other lifestyle choices. Despite being on a low, fixed income, she still found the money to pay for cigarettes, alcohol and internet. Why is the state enabling her poor lifestyle choices (not the internet, clearly)? This brings me back to the idea of unifying the welfare system.
Listening to Dee speak, if she hasn't already been diagnosed with COPD, it won't be long I'm sure. This smoking related lung disease will greatly increase her use of the NHS, funded for by the welfare state. Smoking will also increase her likelihood of heart disease, stroke and cancer. These are often chronic conditions these days, requiring long term NHS medical care, as well as long term supportive care e.g. when she is too breathless to get washed and dressed so needs carers two to four times a day, yet again funded by the state (this time the social care budget). Added to that is her morbid obesity (I don't know how much she weighs, but I would estimate that her BMI is >35). This again greatly increases her risk of cancer, heart disease, and also causes problems to joints which may need surgical intervention in the future.
So, to look at Dee, over the next 20 years or so, her cost to the welfare system is likely to increase, using benefits, NHS and social services. Early intervention, and more importantly EDUCATION (yes I put that in capitals on purpose), can change that.
In the UK, smoking cessation treatment is free on the NHS. Yes, free. That means nicotine gum, patches, tablets etc are available to the public for free to get them off cigarettes. This will not only have a huge impact on their current and future health, reducing the amount of use they make of the welfare system in the future, it will also increase the amount of money in the individuals pocket.
I was very interested when a member of the audience mentioned this, and raised the question of food stamps. However, as it didn't seem to fit with the channel 4 agenda, it was immediately ignored. Why?
I see the basic human needs as food, shelter, and in a modern society gas/electricity/clean water. I do not accept that it is a basic human right to have Sky TV, broadband internet, cigarettes, alcohol, nights out etc. Those, to me, are luxuries, and when budgets are tight, surely the luxuries have to go first?
Why can't the welfare system pay people's rent directly to a landlord? A fair price based on the number of rooms and the area, a market price, and not an artificially inflated price as the programme mentioned some landlords charge? Why not give people food stamps? The local councils can negotiate with the local supermarkets, getting a good deal for the council and good PR and probably tax benefits for the supermarket chains? The people go in, can select so many items form a list, take them home. They won't be able to buy cigarettes and alcohol, but there will always be healthy food to feed them and their families? Utilities paid for centrally, again in bulk cost cutting deals with the major energy and water companies?
From then on, the health of the individuals increases. Their future use of the welfare system decreases. They educate their children what's healthy and what isn't by example, the way most young people learn things from their parents (good and bad). They incentivise people to work because they don't have the luxuries that other people have. They are only available to those in work.
I accept that there aren't enough jobs for everyone, but that has as much to do with the population as it does with the state of unemployment. The UK is a relatively small island, yet it houses over 60 million people. There just isn't enough work and enough money for all of them. One man on the programme last night made the statement 'we're not in China' (or something similar) when another person mentioned about the state paying for children. In the UK, contraception is available, for free, on the NHS. Therefore, why should the state be paying for X number of children? Surely, this also has to be brought into the argument?
Benefits should not be a long term solution. They should be short term for the most in need members of society. There needs to be an increase in the living wage, and small businesses need tax reliefs (similar to those big businesses receive) to ensure that they pay their workers a living wage. There needs to be less bureaucracy and more action.
There is no quick fix, and I suspect that the welfare system will collapse and disappear over the next few years, but it doesn't need to. It needs to be redone, rethought, employing a birth to grave philosophy that tackles education at the bottom, encourages stable populations through free contraception, rewards healthy lifestyle choices and stops enabling poor ones, offers realistic expectations on what the welfare system can and can't provide for, and enabling people to get into work.
The beginning has to be Education. It's the building block on which the rest of the system will stand. If children and young people are taught in a way that allows them to achieve and make good decisions as they leave educational environments, their need for a welfare system will decrease.
This leads me to the point that led to the heated discussion with my wife last night. I firmly believe that one of the reasons the education system fails children is because of a lack of discipline, that is, teachers are no longer empowered to control the pupils in their class and encourage learning. I have two children, one who has just left secondary school and one mid way through junior school. I also remember my time at school.
I have heard too many times of teachers stripped of powers to discipline children, and I'm sure you've all heard the same. The noisy and disruptive child, who stops others learning and takes up the teachers time. All they seem able to do is say 'please stop doing that'. The child responds with something like, 'no, you can't make me', and they're right, the teacher can't. I've heard other pupils say phrases like, 'you can't touch me, that's assault,' and, 'if you touch me, I'll sue'.
They may get sent to the headmaster, who is equally powerless, who threatens to exclude them from school. The child is happy, no school, perfect. They don't care that their future job prospects will be effected, because there aren't any jobs anyway and they're going to live on benefits....
The system is broken and it propagates this behaviour, which can lead to criminal behaviour in teens. When I was a teenager, the usual things my classmates did was steal from cars (stereos and speakers and the 'stuck-on-you' Garfield's - now I'm showing my age) and shoplifting. This led to petty theft and burglary for some as I remember, and afterwards I don't know because I didn't socialise with them. I suspect though, that those with criminal tendencies continued and their crimes increased in severity.
Their early crimes went unpunished and un-investigated because the criminal justice system (also paid for by the state) is under resourced. They are unable to follow up on what are perceived as 'petty crimes'. This in turn leads to validating those who commit the petty crimes, as there are no consequences to their actions. Those who are caught have minimal sentences or fines/community service and cease to be adequate deterrents. Similar to the problems in school.
There needs to be discipline, and there needs to be consequences to poor behaviour and rewards for good behaviour. It's simple Pavlovian conditioning. By the time they're teenagers and continually disrupting classes or committing crimes, their behaviour is more difficult to change. Starting early with discipline and consequence has to be at the start.
I've told my wife the story before of how, in one of my first history classes at secondary school, the teacher dealt with a talking pupil by throwing a board rubber at him. It struck him square in the head, made him cry, and no-one spoke out of turn in that class for the rest of the year. He had to do it once, and it was an adequate deterrent to future poor behaviour. These days, he'd be prosecuted. The parents would be up in arms about the treatment of their child. The child would continue to behave poorly and their behaviour would escalate.
I'm not advocating throwing board rubbers at people or bringing back the cane, but I am saying there needs to be a discussion about empowering educators to deal with such pupils that it stops such behaviour and allows and even encourages learning. Even if a pupil actively stops listening, some of what is being taught will sink in, and others will learn more from the healthy learning environment. Most of all, though, they will accept that actions have consequences.
I firmly believe that, at present, people have so many rights, and are acutely aware of them, that they no longer care about their responsibilities. Everyone has a right to smoke and drink and have as many children as they want. Okay, that may be true, but they don't have the right to the state paying for it. That's where responsibility kicks in.
These policies wouldn't be popular. They'd take twenty, thirty, forty years or more to see a benefit to the country and society as a whole. They wouldn't win votes. They could well lead to civil unrest. The alternative, though, is to continue as we are, until the cost is so astronomical the entire country collapses under the weight of it. You may say it couldn't happen, but I'm sure Greece felt the same.
There needs to be a decision to change, and it needs to me made soon. Government need to make it, but then it needs to be taken out of their hands. Governments work on a four year cycle, because that is their expected term. If they want to win votes, they would change and go back on such policies, and you are back to square one. This would need to be accountable to government, but not controlled by it once the decision had been made. They would not be able to change the policy once it had been made, and this would have to apply to the NHS, social care, welfare and benefits and most likely criminal justice. It would need significant investment at the bottom, and the benefits would not be seen for a very long time. It would be tough, and it would take perhaps another 60 years to see the benefits, but in the end it would be worth it.
Rant over. Discuss!