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Siobhan Courtney
Siobhan Courtney
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer.

The state can't tell us how to spend our money

The UK copying the US by dictating how benefits are spent is an infringement of personal liberty.
Last Modified: 18 Nov 2012 10:29
The UK is considering to implement a scheme similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - formerly known as food stamps - in the US, providing low income people with vouchers to redeem against food [GALLO/GETTY]

The notion of the state controlling how the British public spend their money is an idea so utterly incomprehensible and insulting; it seems incredulous this draconian proposal is actually gaining momentum inside Downing Street. This gross infringement of personal liberty is now back in the spotlight after think-tank Demos published findings claiming the majority of people (59 percent) believe the British government should start controlling how welfare recipients spend their money. 

In his recent welfare speech, Prime Minister David Cameron revealed exactly what's on the conservatives' agenda by asking: "Or is it right that we continue to pay the vast majority of welfare benefits in cash, rather than in benefits in kind, like free school meals?" The UK following the US by implementing a similar scheme such as food stamps, signals that it is wholly acceptable that a dangerously divisive society continues to flourish in Britain today. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provides low income people in America with vouchers to redeem against food. Latest figures published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that in 2011, the US government spent about $78bn on SNAP. According to the CBPP report, Are Low-Income Programs Enlarging the Nation's Long-Term Fiscal Problem?, expenditure for SNAP has "risen fairly dramatically" in recent years. The research found:  

"The single biggest reason is the effect of the recession and the slow recovery on the economic circumstances of millions of Americans. Long-term unemployment (of six months or more) remains near the highs for recent decades that it set during the recession." 

Handing over food stamps in a supermarket is humiliating. Dehumanising and infantilising the poor through such an aggressive, apparent method is not indicative of a purported, modern, civilised society. Here in the UK, what the coalition is really saying is that people on benefits aren't capable and can't be trusted to spend money properly, so must have their money controlled. Surely then, it is only fair that ministers have the same nanny state rules applied to their expenses, as we know they certainly cannot be trusted to spend their (actually our) money properly. 

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Benefit 'scroungers' 

Tim Nichols is from Child Poverty Action Group and explains that the results of the Demos poll do actually reflect public perceptions regarding benefit claimants:

"People do believe that the unemployed are getting on average twice as much in benefits as they actually are. The media and misconceptions are the main factors for this. The stereotypical 'benefit scroungers' stories that the press love to hype up have a huge impact and we are quick to make judgments, assuming it must be the claimants fault they are not working or need assistance."  

Indeed the results from the 2012 British Social Attitudes Report make for depressing reading. In previous economic downturns, the public has responded with increased sympathy and support for spending on welfare benefits. However, the report discovered current opinion has not followed the pattern of previous recessions, because the public has embraced a more tough-minded view of welfare than it held in the past. Key findings state:  

"Recent political and media debate about the government's welfare reforms - including claims that large numbers of welfare recipients do not really deserve their payments - will have influenced attitudes, inclining people to be less supportive of benefits and those who receive them." 

Many campaigners stress the UK has a different culture and tolerance to the US regarding benefits and highlight examples such as those who appear to be comfortable, but still greatly rely on provisions such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance or free bus passes. Tim Nichols says CPAG are extremely concerned about the long term damage the introduction of a food stamp style scheme in the UK would cause: 

"Firstly, it would be highly stigmatising for claimants and won't give them flexibility to choose what their family needs. Why should the state decide what constitutes a luxury item and that people shouldn't be able to redeem their voucher for example against a bar of chocolate? There is also the public money that will be squandered on private contractors setting this up and the huge profits the scheme will make them." 

The dehumanisation of the poor continues 

Those who need help and support the most in the UK are currently consumed with uneasiness and uncertainty as the British government savagely "reform" the welfare system. In 2013, Universal Credit will replace existing income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax and Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit. 

"The coalition government is ploughing full steam ahead with its plans to cut £18bn ($28.5bn) from the welfare budget by 2014."

There are already widespread concerns how Universal Credit will trap people into greater poverty and research has found many households are set to be worse off. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found people will be worse off in work, struggling to manage their finances, with many left to deal with a benefits system more complex than before. 

The coalition government is ploughing full steam ahead with its plans to cut £18bn ($28.5bn) from the welfare budget by 2014. A further £10bn ($15.8bn) will be slashed by 2016-17, forcing the most vulnerable in society to shoulder the burden of austerity measures. This, incidentally, is the same coalition government who in The Coalition: our programme for government promised: "We will maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020." A promise that research has predicted will not happen. If the Coalition government was to match the rate of progress made by the last government, then it would take till 2027 to meet its target.   

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced analysis to predict what will happen under the coalition's policies. They forecast that 100,000 more children will be forced into child poverty each year while this government is in power. I do wonder if the coalition ever thinks of the words of Hubert H Humphrey, who declared: 

"The moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."  

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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