Universal credit: forcing the needy into ever more desperate poverty

The government can look after the interests of the capitalists or the interests of the workers; it cannot do both.

The government’s dreaded (by the poor and needy that is) universal credit reform received a timely and eloquent slap-down in the Financial Times on 19 October at the hands of Frank Field.

The veteran right-wing Labour politician may not be able to see a future without capitalism, but he does understand the benefits system and believes in welfare for the needy within capitalism. (Universal credit is a Wonderland reform divorced from real lives)

In his article he pointed out the downfalls of the new ‘benefit’, calling it a “Wonderland reform divorced from real lives”, which will continue to push “the low-paid into destitution”.

He highlighted his understanding of benefits for the poor within Britain’s bourgeois-ruled society as balancing four competing objectives: “providing an adequate minimum income to the poor; incentivising them to get a job and climb the pay ladder; simplifying the administration of benefits; and limiting the size of the bill for taxpayers”.

Mr Field is of the opinion that the government is failing miserably on all points, although is probably doing rather better on the last compared to the first three, and his article cited evidence from the Commons work and pensions select committee and first-hand experience garnered from four years of a counter-hunger programme he set up called Feeding Birkenhead.

Everything that he has witnessed both in Birkenhead and from the evidence gathered by the select committee has convinced him that the “design and delivery of universal credit … are divorcing it from the reality of how millions of people on low incomes live, work, and budget”. This has resulted in “a barrage of financial risks … being offloaded on to the shoulders of poorer people”.

Instead of aiding the poor, universal credit is pushing them deeper and deeper into poverty, and large numbers of vulnerable women have found themselves with absolutely no other choice but to sink into the seedy and extremely dangerous world of prostitution.

Mr Field scathingly accuses the government of landing us “with a benefit that is now almost too costly to roll out, but also too costly to scrap”.

The investigation by the select committee had last year received “a glut of evidence from local councils worried about rent arrears and homelessness” showing that universal credit, which at that time had been delayed five times already, had, despite the its low caseload (it was originally predicted that it would be claimed by around 7 million but in reality it was claimed by something in the region of half a million), a tremendously negative impact on people’s lives.

According to Mr Field: “Food banks were struggling to cope and had begun pleading for emergency donations; the self-employed were being penalised by universal credit’s failure to recognise the reality of starting or running your own business; desperate people were not receiving help when they most needed it because of the immense complexities involved with setting up an online claim; parents returning to work were disincentivised from doing so, because they were unable to access upfront support for childcare costs; and landlords were stunned by having two-thirds of their universal credit tenants in rent arrears.”

Showing a level of insight apparently missing in the current government (and most previous ones, including those run by the Labour party), Mr Field simply pointed out the obvious: “People in low-paid work are not paid monthly. Yet the system is built around monthly earnings. Likewise, no-one in the real world has their wages paid to a partner. Yet the system pays a whole month’s universal credit into a single bank account belonging to one member of the household.

“Again, it is people in acutely vulnerable positions – children and survivors of domestic violence – who have most to lose. As one mother told the committee, the risk posed by universal credit is that ‘he’ll wake up one morning with £1,500 in his account and piss off with it, leaving me and the kids with nothing’.”

Field continued: “The eye-wateringly high rates at which debt is recovered from universal credit payments are behind the rising demand for food banks. In several recent cases, people’s entire monthly income has been wiped out by debt recovery practices that make Wonga look like Santa Claus.”

And further: “The first minimum term should be that everyone who is transferred onto universal credit is not made worse off, does not lack income and does not face hunger or destitution. To that end, the gap between when a universal credit claim is made and when it is paid – at least five weeks, at present – must be bridged by, for example, continuing to pay existing benefit payments.

“Nobody should face debt repayments that leave them unable to afford food, rent, and utilities. And the government needs to ensure that those brave people who have chosen self-employment to try to free themselves from poverty are encouraged, not discouraged. For parents who find work, the government must guarantee childcare payments up front, not a month in arrears.”

Of course, Mr Field seeks answers to workers’ problems within the bounds of the capitalist system, and calls on the present governmental representatives of the ruling bourgeoisie to be more understanding and caring, clearly under the illusion that austerity and inequality are a policy decision rather than being inherent to the capitalist system of production.

Now, as in the past, the burdens of the recurring crises of capitalism are being offloaded on to the shoulders of the working class, and Mr Field’s forthright analysis of the pernicious effect of the latest benefit cuts is an extremely useful exposee of just what that means for the poorest in our society.

When he accuses government ministers of not understanding the poor, however, Field is deluding himself. It is our belief that they understand very well the problems that the poor are having with these ‘reforms’, but it is the job of the governments under the system of capitalism to look after the interests of the ruling bourgeoisie, not those of the workers, and since these interests are diametrically opposed, they cannot do both.

We must work for revolutionary change in Britain that totally overturns the balance of power and leaves the proletariat as the ruling class and the capitalist mode of ownership of production consigned to the museum; but first, we need to bring the working class to the realisation that there is another way to live and convince them that they have the power to bring it about.