In defense of benefit frauds

This post was written by Jacob on August 21, 2010
Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Democracy,Employment,Poverty,Society,The Welfare State

In the last month we’ve all heard about David Cameron’s proposed crackdown on benefit frauds. Lots has been said around the left about how these proposals are completely missing the mark in terms of where the government can be saving money if need be, but there hasn’t been much of a defense of the benefit frauds. There seems to be a tacit agreement that the fact that these people are “stealing our tax money” means that they are doing something wrong. The problem is that this idea comes out of the premise that there is something noble about working: that it is “the right thing to do” and “the right way to live.”

The fact is that benefits in our country are piss poor. As a young unemployed person in London you can be expected to live on approximately £50 per week. Many large families are squeezed into tiny accomodation. Many have to live in estates that are, due to decades of poverty and lack of investments in boom periods totally run down. Although a steady stable job might allow people to escape from these conditions, it does not signify anything noble. In fact it is entirely the existence of these conditions, the fear of poverty, which is shown to us every day in its true horror, that forces people to work.

And on a more general level, there is nothing in the slightest bit noble about most jobs. Yes, there are the jobs that can help people, but the fact is that when the profit motive for your job disappears, whether you’re a miner or a doctor, your job disappears with it. And now, when there are so many people unemployed, when there are so few jobs, the myth of the nobility of labour is a nasty pernicious lie invented to beat those who are least well off in our society.

The thing that keeps people in our society in work, ultimately, is not the myth of meritocracy, rather it is the reality of the possibility of starvation. Meritocracy is merely the spoonful of sugar that encourages us to continue swallowing this toxic medicine, but without the sugar we’d still have to take it.

So I pose this question, when people live in a society that is so unfair, when people are forced to live in such conditions, is it really so wrong that people steal from the state? The fact is that there are a whole bunch of more profitable ways to make money illegally, and they tend to be a whole lot worse for the whole society than taking a bit of extra money alongside benefits. The fact that people are willing to put themselves through the possibility that they may lose everything (their houses, their benefits, their freedom), that they go in for such a difficult method to get a bit of extra money, should show us something about their motives.

Part of the problem is how the question of money is seen by the rightwing press, tax money is always treated as our collective money, as if in a very American way we could take a class action against these benefiit frauds. But we can pose the question in the negative: Is it not correct to say that the money that we have paid in tax money has been consistently been misused, that instead of being used to help the country and its people, it has been used to prop up a system that has resulted in massive unemployment, a system that is totally sustainable alongside the impoverishment and immiseration of millions of people. Would it not be better that these people on benefits were bringing a class action against all those who voted for governments that rather than stealing a few pounds a week have instead stolen any opportunity for these people to live a reasonable existence?

And so it seems right that when people are subjected to such conditions of living they do the moral (if not quite legal) thing of taking money from the state to which for whatever perverse reason we say they are not entitled. This is a battle against inequality, and we must accept that whilst there may be the odd occasion of benefit fraud by someone taking real liberties, most people are simply taking what they need to exist in a world in which living is becoming an increasingly difficult.

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Reader Comments

Pete

Benefit fraud is wrong because benefits get paid for by taxes, which come from taxing everyone else who works. You want to democratically increase benefits, increase equality, increase tax? Good, join the movement. Want to try and opt-out, build a heterotopia or an autonomous zone, also fine. Both of these create new practices of living which can continue to evolve as time passes.

Benefit *fraud* has to be stopped, because it’s regressive and self-interested. Stop it by taking away the need for it, but don’t pretend that an untargeted negative act in itself is either the most constructive or efficient way of achieving change.

#1 
Written By Pete on August 21st, 2010 @ 11:28 pm
Mary Shaheen

We need to distinguish between what most people would understand, and in the majority of cases condemn, as benefit fraud eg working and claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or making multiple claims and the sort of thing The Daily Mail complains about. A recent front page article (briefly read at a supermarket checkout) talked about massive benefit fraud because a large percentage of people have been deemed fit for work and therefore by extension were fraudulently pretending to be sick and getting more money in sickness/disability benefits.

These people, who will have been signed off by their GPs, are then called by the DWP to attend a medical. The current people who hold the contract for this are a large company called ATOS. At the core of the medical is an assessment based on a number of descriptors eg “cannot turn a starheaded tap with either hand” with points awarded if a descriptor applies. 15 points are needed to be considered not fit for immediate work. As I explained to a client, the ability to breathe does not come into it! It is worth noting that this test is considerably tougher than the old one for Incapacity Benefit and of course it is difficult for anyone to make an accurate assessment of complex mental health issues in a short examination. The Government is committed to getting people off sickness benefits and whatever the nature of the contract between the DWP and ATOS we at the CAB are seeing many people who clearly are not fit for work and who go on to get their benefit reinstated after winning at appeal. Many others presumably accept their fate and go onto JSA, and a few may even then get a job! However it does not follow that all those who fail the medical were fraudulently claiming benefit as the Mail would have us believe.

#2 
Written By Mary Shaheen on August 23rd, 2010 @ 11:04 am
Julia

I think Jacob has raised important issues and painted a vivid picture of the real, longterm struggle that so many people face. This is an explanation of why (surprisingly few) people get more than the system allocates to them, but it’s not a very convincing justification of their actions. This is the only point on which I agree with Pete: uncoordinated, untargeted actions are at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive.
However, Pete’s statement that ‘Benefit *fraud* has to be stopped, because it’s regressive and self-interested,’ is unbelievable! The gap between rich and poor is not widening as a result of benefit fraudsters, but because the tax system and the salary structures of pretty much every industry in the UK are regressive. If he really thinks that actions ‘should be stopped’ because they are ‘regressive and self-interested’, I would suggest that he put the government, the banks and globalised corporations at the top of the list. Once we’ve stopped them taking our money, we might find there are far fewer benefit claimants.

#3 
Written By Julia on August 23rd, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

Defence, not defense.

#4 
Written By ejh on August 26th, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

excellently put jacob. and don’t forget the slogan ‘benefit fraud is theft’ which the DWP have been pushing hard. It always reminds me of those anti-piracy adverts at the beginning of DVDs: ‘you wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal a phone, so why steal a film?’, at which point I shout at the screen ‘Because they’re different CATEGORIES!’

#5 
Written By richard on August 26th, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

Twice in my life I have been a ‘benefit thief’. The first time was because the Government had arbitrarily (and, in my view, entirely unfairly) changed the law to make it ‘impossible’ (hem hem) for 18-year-olds to claim the dole between school and university. So I lied about my age, and was able to supplement my income working for eight hours a week in a supermarket, which was the only work that the employment system could provide for me at the time, despite my very best efforts to find more. A number of years later I was working in a kitchen earning a pitiful hourly wage off the books, and I decided that I would take the risk of taking the unemplyment and rent assistance to which I felt entitled. Do I feel guilty about either of these incidences of ‘benefit fraud’? No, not in the slightest. On both occasions I needed to survive and further work was not made available (it is not my ‘job’ as an ordinary citizen to ‘provide’ work for myself). The attempt to demonise the unemployed for merely attempting to find a way to survive in the face of the denial of their basic human right to subsistence is a campaign which has the same tone as the scapegoating of the 1930s. It borders on fascism.

#6 
Written By charlesdance on August 27th, 2010 @ 7:28 am

One might also talk about the idea bandied in the right wing press and elsewhere of benefit cheats ‘stealing our money’ as if money was a true and direct reflection of labour. Resulting in ‘blaming’ the ‘cheats’ rather than having a go at those who make a profit out of your labour, the capitalists and give you a little bit of money back in the form of wages.
Then go, ‘here this is yours, now here go blame those people for ‘stealing’ some of it. Go on good boy, sit, fetch, beg.’

#7 
Written By Schizo Stroller on January 10th, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

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