Today the Daily Telegraph reported that the government were considering introducing a system of “smart cards” for benefit payments, which recipients will only be able to use to spend on “essentials” such as “food, housing, clothing, education and health care”. According to the Telegraph’s report, Iain Duncan Smith wants to “stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions” and has asked civil servants in his department (Work and Pensions) to “come up with proposals by the end of this month”. Currently, the government cannot stipulate how recipients spend their money, but a similar scheme has already been launched in Australia involving smart cards that can only be spent in certain ‘approved’ shops (though there, between 30% and 50% of the money awarded is given in cash — it remains to be seen whether the Tories intend to implement that aspect of the scheme here). The government supposedly identified 120,000 “troubled” families in a report following the 2011 riots, but the Economic and Social Research Council accuses the government of misrepresenting the research on which the report is based. (More: Latent Existence, reproduced [here] with more here, (http://wheresthebenefit.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/no-alcohol-or-tobacco.html), Johnny Void. Also see earlier entry.)
I know a number of people online who fear that their own benefits would be targeted by this scheme. No doubt the government would counter that not all benefits or all recipients would be, just ‘troubled’ or ‘troublesome’ ones — as Cameron put it, “the ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids”. The problem is that once such a scheme exists, it would be very easy to roll it out to other benefits, given that all benefits whether targeted at the unemployed, the disabled, or whoever regularly stand accused of being subsidies for idlers and scroungers particularly as certain chronic illnesses are often stereotyped as such. The extension of the scheme would sit well with the same tabloid base that already approves of its introduction. Total Politics lists the criteria here:
- Low income
- No one in the family who is working
- Poor housing
- Parents who have no qualifications
- Mother has a mental health problem
- One parent has a long-standing illness or disability
- Family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
These seven criteria all represent poverty, not “troublesomeness” or fecklessness, and it is highly insulting to suggest that a very high proportion of families showing five or more of the above characteristics are alcoholics, or will spend their benefits on alcohol or drugs or anything else at the expense of the feeding and clothing of their children (Zoe Williams commented on these criteria in the Guardian in July). Some such families might be struggling to stop members of their family falling into such habits or are struggling with relatives who already are, and do not deserve to be stigmatised by being handed vouchers that will be associated with bad habits they don’t have. Besides, drinking alcohol and smoking are currently legal in this country, and some people drink a certain amount but are not alcoholics. Benefit recipients are not a species apart from the rest of us, and are no more or less likely to be saints than the rest of us. (Some of us don’t drink for religious reasons, but that is not true of most people in this country.) The seven criteria do not even include any hint of drug or alcohol addiction, or involvement in petty crime, or bad behaviour in school that is not linked to a recognisable developmental disability (e.g. autism).
There is an obvious problem with the “smart cards” being usable only in certain shops: the shops that do not get the right to take these cards will lose out on the business, and smaller shops are more likely to accept credit and debit cards than bigger ones, and more likely to charge a fee while the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s et al can afford to absorb the card fee for small purchases. Markets, in particular, usually only take cash.
The state already has ways of making sure families cannot spend their resources on drugs and neglect their children: we have a care system, which can take children into care if a family persistently refuses to address their children’s welfare for such reasons. It is possible that more sanctions could be made available to them to this end, such as court orders banning specific individuals from buying or harbouring alcohol (drugs are already illegal, of course), mandatory regular drug or alcohol tests on court order, banning whichever adults are sapping the family’s resources (by spending them on alcohol, for example) from contact with (or living with) the family and paying the benefits specifically to the mother (or at least their primary carer if she is not around), not to just one member of the household as with Universal Credit. However, there is the danger with this scheme that a family could be designated as “troubled”, or threatened with this, if they have antagonised social workers in their area, which could be the case if they are in a dispute with them over the custody of their children, for example, or they do not obey social workers’ demands. Not all social workers are reasonable people, and not all of their actions are for a good reason.
(Other published criteria have included exclusion or truanting from school, crime and anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol addiction and lack of work. However, the 120,000 figure supposedly represents those displaying five or more of the above. Partly ring-fencing the benefits of people displaying these criteria might be beneficial, at least if done for short periods, although there might still be better ways; there should also be care taken not to stigmatise whole families for one wayward member’s behaviour, particularly if that person is young and might have a disability.)
In short, this scheme targeted squarely at poor, disabled and mentally ill people, and appeals to the curtain-twitching tabloid sector and to some people’s resentment about others spending their money on things they wouldn’t spend it on, or want it spent on, and is based on the notion of state benefits as charity rather than as a form of social insurance. All the criteria, by themselves or in combination, are circumstances which could befall anyone or any family through no fault of their own. There is no attempt being made to target the scheme at families who actually cause trouble or those whose parenting might have contributed to last summer’s riots — but then, plenty of people took part in them who came from perfectly stable families who got caught up in the excitement, or were criminals to begin with. This scheme may well leave those people entirely untouched, or else drag in a whole lot of innocent people.
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