Tuesday 17 September 2019

Johnny Fallon: Those on social welfare not to blame for lack of spending

IRELAND is a divided society on so many levels with each section looking over its shoulder and wondering how blame can be apportioned to some other sector or grouping.

How someone else can pay more so we can pay less?

Each section growing utterly convinced that there is something dodgy going on elsewhere and if only that were rooted out we wouldn’t have to pay as much.

It is of course a fantasy.

Right now it is popular in certain quarters is to keep coming up with some new nonsense angle about welfare.

This argument is perpetuated by government departments suffering from a persecution complex that everyone out there is trying to screw them.

In a myth that would not be out of place along with stories of Finn MacCool, we are treated to anecdotes, old fables about ‘a guy I knew who never worked’ and fantastical projections for savings that simply don’t add up.

Today Joan Burton, the Minister with responsibility for the welfare budget has fired the first serious shot of the upcoming budget by arguing that welfare cuts may in fact make a bad situation worse.

This is a key battle within government and it is one that Labour and Burton must win.

Those on the right of the ideological spectrum are utterly convinced that welfare must be cut, those on the left believe it must be protected and this government is divided into both camps.

So many seem incapable of understanding just how difficult some people find it to make ends meet.

They are so busy trying to find ways to blame the poorest in society for this mess that they cling to their anecdotes about an ‘easy’ life on welfare.

Of course not one of these people would swap their own incomes and decide to live this great welfare spongers life, why not?

Oh because they wouldn’t be able for the boredom, they like to work, they are genetically different from all those people on the live register.

Another convenient myth.

We have managed to convince ourselves that the system is there to protect the state from fraud.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Where fraud does exist it is appallingly apparent that the system has for generations failed to stop it and still seems unable to cope unless more and more draconian powers are awarded.

Worse still, although the system can root out some fraud, it is obvious to anyone that the cost of policing it and searching for it greatly reduces the value to the state from the recovery of any money.

In any modern investigation one would assume the bank account is the best place to start. Just ask some of the politicians followed by tribunals.

An applicant for unemployment benefit must show bank account details, but after that we forget you have a bank account.

Now anyone with a rap of sense might suggest to you that it would be far easier to pay money into a bank account and periodically meet with someone and check a bank statement to see if there was other income. Our system doesn’t operate like that however. Our system pays out cash over the counter where it becomes impossible to trace or follow.

There is a good reason behind this.

Our system is based on shame.

We can fool ourselves that this is all about catching the cheats, but the reality is it has nothing to do with them.

Our system is about making everyone feel like a criminal and face the shame of the queue.

You must publicly stand there and be seen. It is claimed that this helps stop fraud, but clearly it has no effect on a fraudster.

The real reason is that it stops people claiming if they can avoid it.

This is the elephant in the room.

How much does our state save every year, from people who borrow from friends, family or other means to avoid going on the dole queue?

That is the reason shame is so important.

So long as people are made feel that there is something wrong with being out of work for any length of time, we can be sure we will save a small fortune.

How many people are entitled to family income support but either never know about it or never claim it?

Back to school allowance?

How many people are entitled to a GP visit card or a medical card but will never have either?

Our entire system survives on the basis that so many do not claim their proper entitlements.

Until such time as we spend the same amount ensuring that people are not suffering unnecessarily, that they are getting their full entitlements, then we have no business continually trying to make it harder to make claims or to talk about tackling fraud.

Welfare is not what got our country into this mess.

Tax avoidance, and the ability of many to wrangle their way out of what they owe is a far bigger issue.

Of course this is dealt with very differently.

In this scenario we are all too aware of how it would be dangerous to criminalise everybody.

We easily point to the dangers of stopping investment, or blocking opportunities, and therefore we acknowledge that chasing such culprits is difficult.

It is time we started living in the real world.

Whatever anecdotes you might like to point to, living on welfare is no easy life.

It’s a struggle everyday.

It’s a life where you worry about bills, family, children and have to battle it all with an overbearing shame from the suspicious minds that seem to think this is a choice.

When there we jobs in Ireland we did not have an unemployment problem.

Now the jobs are gone and suddenly we are worried that people are deciding to live off the dole.

No they are not.

Neither is it a case that our welfare rates are so exorbitant as to make working unprofitable.

Any employer that cannot offer more than the welfare rate to an employee doesn’t have a job to offer, they are simply looking for cheap labour.

These same people are fond of telling us about how we all benefit from their expansion, well maybe they need to sit up and realise that it works both ways.

We all benefit from decent wages too, the more money you pay people the more they have to spend.

It is chicken and egg on that score.

One thing we do know for sure.

Those on welfare are not the ones to blame for a lack of spending.

This is the basis of Burton’s argument.

Welfare recipients do not have hordes of money stashed away in a bank account.

What they get they definitely have to spend and that goes right back into our economy.

There are other areas of tax breaks, and supposed stimulus where the money ends up pocketed or stashed away.

A little fairness and respect would not go astray.

Johnny Fallon is an author and political commentator

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