Attacking the under-25s might help poll ratings for now, but the real causes of high housing benefit costs lie elsewhere
Behind in the polls, David Cameron cleaves to his one truly popular policy: cutting welfare. Pollsters say people want it cut even more. His speech hits every button, stirring up those on quite low incomes against those on very low incomes, dividing and ruling, distracting from the lifestyle of the rulers. With the rottweiler tendency on his backbenches growing restless, he throws them the vulnerable to chew on – all those luxuriating in the "culture of entitlement" on £71 a week unemployment pay. Politically, it works well – for now.
A red mist of despair poured from children's and disability charities, stunned at yet another assault on those they try to defend. Already the £18bn benefit cut is "without historical or international precedent," according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Cameron's 17 "ideas" may not all see the light of day, but another £10bn will be cut: housing benefit and US-style benefit time limits yield the big money.
Few people realise that 88% of benefit cuts are still to come, with two thirds of disabled children to lose large sums. Housing benefit cuts, driving thousands of families miles from their homes and children from their schools, have only just begun. Without yet knowing the perverse effects of these cuts, with chaos about to engulf the Department for Work and Pensions on the work programme and universal credit, Cameron shoots from the hip.
He sounded plausible, and his sweeping tour of benefits seeming common sense to many. Every system since the Poor Law faces the same dilemma – how to help the needy without weakening work incentives, how to tell a "sturdy beggar" from a hard-luck case and give them enough to live but less than a low-paid job. There are no satisfactory answers – but Cameron's "ideas" are the harshest ever proposed. How knowingly he misled in almost every example he gave, as he pitted "those who work hard and do the right thing" against those on benefits, deliberately disguising that these are mainly the same people. Most of the poor drawing benefits are cleaners, carers, caterers – the 62% living below the poverty line, working hard yet needing benefits to survive.
Cameron's focus on the ever-rising housing benefit bill omitted key facts. The Smith Institute reports that 95% of the £1bn rise in housing benefit this year is paid to people in work. Only one in eight people drawing the benefit is out of work; the rest are low earners. The cost is not about feckless people but the housing crisis, the failure to build social, rented or private housing over the last three decades. Shortage makes rents rise faster than earnings, and faster than price inflation. Cameron's plan to peg housing benefit to prices, not to inflation, will be devastating. Shelter reports that if prices rose as fast as rents since 1971, a chicken would now cost £47.51. Nor is there any sign housing benefit cuts will cause rents to fall: rents are still rising as landlords turn away benefit tenants, easily finding others in this starved market.
"Labour spokesmen's lack of visceral indignation on this was dispiriting. Confronting popular prejudice with facts is politically dangerous, but bravery wins plaudits too."
In a familiar litany of charges against the workless, single mothers, drug addicts (only 4%), he summons up a familiar portrait of the multi-child household, beloved of television documentaries, seeking worst cases to be entertainingly put right by Ann Widdecombe. Every society will always have enough of those to keep the cameras happy. But the dull lives of cleaners juggling childcare and jobs make bad TV, as do dull statistics that give the lie to the idea that moral turpitude drives the escalating benefits bill.
Low wages and lack of housing are the root cause. A living wage would lift the burden off taxpayers and put it on to employers. Regulated rents and a great housebuilding programme are the way to cut the housing benefit bill. The government prefers mass removal of the workless to low-rent areas with no jobs.
Cameron's plan for the under-25s to stay at home springs from his own social milieu, where empty nesters rattle around in echoing home counties mansions, easy for returning children to commute to first jobs. But take housing benefit from 380,000 young people, and what does the student from Middlesbrough College do at the end of their course if they can't move to where the jobs are, get a room, get started? Stay at home and be unemployed for ever. Even in work, the 205,000 under-25s with a child will have to separate, each to move back to their parents. With benefits as well as wages cut in depressed areas, the north-south divide will gape yet wider, with no chance of moving.
Let's hear no more from Cameron about social mobility. If this proceeds, Alan Milburn should resign as social mobility tsar, since nobody will be going anywhere. Bright but poor graduates will be sent home and everyone will stay where they were born. Labour spokesmen's lack of visceral indignation on this was dispiriting. Confronting popular prejudice with facts is politically dangerous, but bravery wins plaudits too.
The dumbfounding spectacle of this wealthy prime minister kicking away slender supports of the weak will be an abiding image of the man and his party. In the longest recession, with 2.6 million out of work and 1.4 million part-timers desperately seeking full-time jobs, the sheer effrontery of suggesting over-generous benefits keep them out work is beyond belief.
Cameron may saw with the grain of public opinion now, but by the next election, enough of those now clamouring for cuts will have seen their effects at first hand. The British Social Attitudes Survey records how public sympathy for underdogs ebbs after Labour benefit increases – but soon rekindles under Tory harshness.
Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Guardian on Facebook.