I am councillor for the ward with the fewest people claiming benefits in the whole country. That doesn’t mean my constituents aren’t dependent on the state.
“Have you managed to watch programmes like Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud? If so, have you, like me, been struck by the number of people on there who manage to combine complaining about welfare reforms whilst being able to afford being able to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos done, watch Sky TV on the obligatory wide-screen television? Do you understand the concerns and irritations of many of the people who go out to work every day, pay their taxes, who cannot afford those kinds of luxuries themselves?”
For the past half a decade I have been the councillor for Holywell in central Oxford. This is essentially the part of Oxford that American tourists think of as Oxford itself. Its streets are frequently closed to allow a Morse spin-off to be filmed. Oh and Hogwarts is partly inspired by Christchurch college that sits in the ward. It is, in short, a place that is synonymous with privilege.
It was not somewhere I expected to hear mentioned in a discussion about the Channel 4 program Benefit Street.[i] Yet when Radio 4’s More or Less looked at the statistics behind the program, Holywell did indeed get a mention. Soho ward in Birmingham where James Turner Street (aka Benefit Street) lies has a high number of people receiving benefits: 27% of working age people claim working age benefits.[ii] That’s double the national average. By way of contrast, reporter Gavin Fisher went on to note that the ward in the country with the lowest proportion of working age people claiming these benefits was Holywell. Just 0.4% of my constituents (of working age) are claiming them.
This is primarily because as Mr Fisher noted “the overwhelming majority of residents are students at Oxford colleges.” Most of the other people who live in the ward do so by dint of working at one of the colleges. There is a small piece of social housing but for historical reasons most of its occupants tend to be pensioners.
The basis of the present political debate is that are two groups in Britain: hard working ‘strivers’ who support a parasitic class of benefit claiming ‘skivers.’ If this was true then Holywell should be ‘striver’ central. However, it’s not that simple.
It’s true that virtually everyone in Holywell has or will go on to get well paid employment. That doesn’t mean they don’t get a great deal of ‘benefits’ from the state. The University is primarily funded by state subsidies and tuition fees that are underwritten by the state. Students and staff overwhelmingly rely on the NHS for medical care. The taxpayer pays for the roads, the street cleaning and the police that patrol the ward. And despite the impression sometimes given the majority of Oxford students received a state education.
This is worth highlighting because voters seem to have an unrealistic view of what their taxes actually pay for. In particular they seem to vastly overestimate the proportion of state spending that goes towards benefits. This risks creating a distorted debate about how to reduce the deficit.
I am no lefty. I believe that reducing the size of the state is an essential part of bringing the public finances back into balance. However, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is just a matter of no longer paying for the feckless, undeserving poor to have flat screen TVs.[iii] Paying benefits to those who are out of work is a small part of what the state does. It’s folly to imagine that when the state shrinks these will be they are the only people who will be affected. All of us, whether we are rich and poor rely on the state and we must face the fact that cutting it will be painful for all of us. You don’t need to be on benefits to benefit from the state.
[i] Disclaimer I’ve not seen Benefit Street and this post isn’t really about the program itself
[ii] According to More or Less, what Channel 4 means by benefits are “working age benefits such as housing benefit, job seekers allowance or disability living allowance but not child benefit and not pensions”
[iii] Which is not to say I believe this is what benefits do – I don’t. However, I think it is important not to conflate debates about welfare and austerity.