Thursday, September 03, 2009

Welfare handouts, idle people and Portillo's clanger

Lazy notions that go back and forth like a tennis ball between Daily Mail columnists and neo-Conservative politicians have become their default ideological background.

On August 30, former Tory MP Michael Portillo penned a Sunday Times article carrying the headline 'Idle young should be entitled to nothing', a celebration of the ideology and beliefs of controversial American libertarian Charles Murray, a bloke who gained fame in the 1980s and 1990s for his statements about "the underclass" and the alleged link between ethnicity and intelligence (see here for an overview).

Particularly surprising is the fact that the champion of such ideas is Michael Portillo, the man who, a few years ahead of David Cameron, called for a Tory makeover that would disentangle the party from the deepest right-wing morass it was stuck in. Compare in fact Portillo's mid-90s 'SAS speech' with the cuddly toy TV personality currently hopping from one settee to another on Andrew Neil's This Week.

In any case, Portillo is guilty of superficially rehashing ideas that don't have a leg to stand on now any more than they did back in the Eighties. Notions that go back and forth like a tennis ball between Daily Mail columnists and neo-Conservative politicians to the point that they've grown into their default ideological background.

One phrase in particular struck me for its staggering degree of superficiality. Commenting on "the welfare reforms of American liberals [that] paralysed the economic progress of millions", Portillo writes: "State handouts devalued education, discouraged work and marriage, encouraged teenage pregnancy and undermined parental authority. The same has happened to the poorest people in Britain, only more so". Just like that. Action. Consequence. Black. White. Right. Wrong.

Except that the above statement is a "Best Of'' of logical fallacies. Through the mother of 'irrelevant appeals', Murray's (and Portillo's) personal opinion, legitimate though it may be, is deployed as The Gospel Truth even though it's not based on a shred of evidence: state handouts→single parenthood→teenage pregnancy→dearth of parental authority. Essentially, a Daily Mail-sponsored wet dream.

Cue the Murrayite notions of 'deserving' and 'undeserving', 'the welfare state boosting idleness' and the inevitable call to 'cut benefits', which rings particularly shallow as it stems from a country, the US, where people don't even get free healthcare and where waiting lists for PHAs (public housing agencies) are regularly of three to five years and often closed to new applicants such is the lack of availability.

Sunny Hundal on Liberal Conspiracy was the first one to highlight the irony of Modernising Tories veering back to bad old habits. Not many are aware in fact, but Charles Murray is on the payroll of the American Enterprise Institute, the glorious think tank that handed the world eight years of George W Bush, Dick Cheney & Friends. So much for "change".

The discussion that followed, however, failed to pin down the flaws in Portillo's article. If it's true that Britain's welfare state is behind idleness, single parenthood, teenage pregnancy and the breakdown of good old family values, how come most Western European countries (with much more generous and comprehensive forms of welfare) are not experiencing the same dysfunctionalities, at least on the same scale?

This is a simple questions that the Murrayites will never be able to answer. Let's start from teenage pregnancies. We all know the UK is no.1 in the Western European table (pdf). But what's striking is that it's not just prudish religious countries with big families gathered around the dinner table like Italy (where sex education is not even allowed on the curriculum) that are doing much better. The ultra-emancipated Netherlands, as well as Sweden, France, Finland, Germany, you name them, can piss all over the UK's figures.

Rest assured though, here comes the lazy rebuttal: "It's because other countries don't dish up a council flat and benefits to teenage mums. You get to stay home with your own mum and get a little bit of extra help on top of that", wrote one libertarian commenter. Another myth.

There may be a difference in providers, regulations, standards and other important factors, but almost each Western European country has a social housing system biased towards single parents. And it couldn't be otherwise, as they're often amongst the most economically disadvantaged. This exhaustive comparative research from the LSE (pdf) is an excellent tool for those who have the time and patience to go through it, but it's simply false that Britain's the one country where young single mothers are handed council flats like sweets in a playground.

In Holland you can be entitled to €300 a month on top of your flat, in Denmark it's €398, while in Spain the Ayuda al alquiler programme offers people under 30 who earn less than €22,000 pa €210 to encourage them out of the family home. The examples are countless but one thing is clear: council flats don't even begin to explain why British teenagers get pregnant way more than their continental counterparts.

And that's because the notion that Britain's the Eldorado of those planning a career in freeloading is a big, fat, lazy misconception.
From dole handouts (£50.94 per week for 16–24 year olds), through to wage subsidies and social housing, if some people managed to put down their Daily Mail for once, they'd grasp within minutes that Britain's home to one of the stingiest welfare systems in Western Europe.

But let's suppose that the mouthwatering prospect of gold plated council flats in Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood (for our Brummie readers) is what's turning young British girls into breeding machines. Doesn't it sit at odds with the highest abortion rate amongst Western European teenagers?

It is also undisputable that the percentage (as well as the quality) of council homes dwellings available has dipped spectacularly. In 1979, 29% of homes were rented from local authorities. In 2005, the combined percentage of local authorities and housing association tenure was 18% (source: Community and Local Government Housing Statistics, 2006
). If the surge in single parenthood and teenage pregnancy was being met by a shower of council flats then, statistically speaking, something doesn't add up either.

The acute observer will also pick up on the fact that, for all their political posturing, the Conservatives are quick to forget that one-parent families surged during the glorious Thatcher years. In 1971 the UK had 570,000 one-parent families. By 1986 it was one in seven families and it reached one in five by 1991 and then 26 per cent by 2000 (see here).

The fact is: there is no simple answer to Britain's social problems and the Tories would do a good job to realise that and quick. It may be equally tempting to say that it's all Maggie's fault and that laying claim to the EU's broodiest teenage girls, most rat-arsed youngsters and busiest clap clinics is all directly linked to the destruction of communities in 1984, to the pressures of the most casualised and unprotected job market, or to the biggest wage differentials in Europe. Or we could even blame the randiest tit-based tabloids and media of the western world for turning society's values upside down. In fact that's already been said. But that too would be simplistic.

In the meantime, if the Tories fancy pointing the finger at the welfare state for all of society's ills while quoting a man who wrote that black people are genetically less intelligent than whites, then they should be our guests. It may well turn into one of this year's biggest political own goals.


Helen Highwater said...

Bring back the workhouse!

Do you think that'll appear on the Tory manifesto in the next election? I bet they'd like it to....

Richard T said...

Now isn't El Miguel so committed to the work ethic that when he started work he lasted a couple of months and pulled strings from his college (Peterhouse Cambridge) to get a sinecure with an MP because he couldn't stand the pressure?

Incidentally isn't about time he got nailed as the defence secretary who sold off the military houses to the Japanese and initiated the period of neglect of the troops homes? The officers were treated separately I think.

Anonymous said...

The one fact that he neglects to mention when harping on about the workless says it all to me.

workless households 1979: 8%
workless households 1996: 19%
workless households 2009: 17%
(source: Labour force survey)