Once celebrated as a keystone of post-war Britain, the welfare state is today accused of fostering a ‘dependency culture’ that traps people on benefits and encourages ‘intergenerational worklessness’. Successive governments have sought to address this through a broad programme of welfare reform, including changes to welfare-to-work schemes, cuts in the real value of many benefits, and increasing conditions placed on the receipt of welfare. However, is this the best way of tackling the problem? And is the discussion about ‘welfare dependency’ entirely the right one?
The original notion of welfare was as a ‘safety net’ to help people cope with hardship, and return them to a situation of independence as soon as possible. In other words, it was premised on a view of people as capable. Today, however, out-of-work welfare provision seems to start from either an assumption of general incapacity, or that claimants are passive dependents who require tough measures to get them back to work. But does the notion of ‘dependency’, and widely held assumptions about welfare claimants cynically manipulating the system, actually miss the extent to which individuals have been encouraged to view themselves as in need of state assistance, as well as the realities of unemployment and poverty?
Shouldn’t the welfare system simply help people to live as independently as possible, rather than impose conditions on those claiming benefits and blame them for their predicament? Or is there a moral imperative to reform welfare? And, if so, how do we protect those who are genuinely dependent and in need of state support? Ultimately, what kinds of social provision do we want in society?