If you want a primer on the issues facing the Coalition as it takes an axe to Britain’s benefits bill, you cannot do better than watch last night’s BBC 2 documentary The future state of welfare on iPlayer.
So this isn’t so much a review as an invitation to view.
Broadcasting veteran John Humphrys makes an unflinching analysis of the distance we’ve travelled in 70 years since Sir William Beveridge’s report paved the way to end the evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor – and idleness.
Somewhere along the way the last of these guiding principles became corrupted and a culture of dependency was born.
Humphrys approached the subject of the long-term unemployed from a number of directions, as well as examining incapacity and housing benefits and support for lone parents.
None of the interviewees made a watertight case for mandatory state hand-outs except perhaps project worker Kelly Wright who advises single mums. “If we didn’t have benefits what would happen to these children?” she asked.
Labour as much as the Tories have signed up to – although neither will admit it – the distinction between what the Victorians called the deserving and the undeserving poor.
The programme used opinion poll evidence to illustrate how the taxpaying electorate supported a get-tough approach to welfare benefits.
This led JH to America to see the Workfare system in operation. Here the no nonsense approach is simply look for a job otherwise you don’t get any cash.
Stay-at-home single mothers can expect is food stamps and some medical care at best.
The Left Foot Forward website disputes JH’s evidence of welfare dependency and suggests that labour market conditions have a major influence on the level of benefit receipts.
To be fair to Humphrys back in New York he rather undermined the position of the interviewees who lauded Workfare by illustrating how many people were falling through the net because the US economy was in the doldrums.
He visited both a crowded soup kitchen and later talked to a couple of middle class, middle aged women who having lost their jobs were now selling their furniture in a vain attempt to make ends meet.
The message – although unstated by Humphrys – for the Coalition is plain. You must proceed carefully as you go about attacking the cost of welfare benefits lest you end up trying to force people into jobs that don’t exist.
The first casualty will be the children whom Labour did so much to bring out of poverty.