Sunday, 17 March 2013

Benefits: be proud of them

We made a number of good friends while living in France, including one who I regard to this day as something of a model of business practice, and business isn’t a world where exemplary behaviour is in excessive supply.

He set up a small independent company working, which now employs 20 or 30 staff and has become the French subsidiary of an American corporation supplying a couple of highly innovative devices to improve healthcare. An attractive story, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Today, a Facebook friend shared a piece on the interview J K Rowling gave to Jon Stewart in the US. Now, I can’t claim to be a fan of the Harry Potter books, but I can’t deny that they’ve given an awful lot of pleasure to a great many people around the world, and why would I object to that?

Rowling talking to Stewart

Why have I chosen to mention these two apparently unrelated stories?

Because they have one feature in common. Both my friend and Rowling spent some time drawing state benefits. My friend lost a job through redundancy, an event that faced him, as it faces anyone, with financial difficulties but, above all, represented a terrible shock to his morale. Fortunately, France has a system of unemployment insurance which pays a large proportion of the salary from the previous job, for a significant period. It does not demand that claimants avoid doing any work; instead the authorities actively encourage them to create new jobs if they can.

That’s what my friend did, and as a result he has created 20 or 30 jobs. Which suggests that the benefits paid to him were a great investment for the French state.

It was one of Jon Stewart’s comments to Rowling that brought all this to mind. He suggested that the benefits paid to her, when she was writing her books and struggling to cope with poverty, were also an excellent investment: she has not taken refuge in a tax haven and is paying large amounts of tax to the British authorities. Certainly, like my friend in France, she has paid back many times over what she received.

Two stories, both of which turned out well. Of course, behind them are many millions of stories of people who don’t emerge from unemployment to quite such success, or in some cases never emerge from it at all.

What I can’t understand is what it is about those people that makes them any less deserving of help than my friend or J K Rowling. Sure, a minority has no intention of ever working, but far more were in jobs and had been for years, until the bankers crashed the economy in 2008.

If they were happy to work before, what makes them shirkers now? Like Rowling and my friend they’re in need of help to deal with a disaster over which they had no control. Some are suffering from disability; some are able-bodied and merely out of work. Not all will set up successful businesses; very few will become world-famous authors. But many of them will return to jobs if they’re given the chance. And even if they don’t, why does that make them need help any less?

There is a terrible and cruel current of thought rampant in our Western societies today. It suggests that benefits are legitimate targets for cuts to generate savings, making life still worse for people who are already vulnerable. It treats people on benefits as scroungers, turning the victims of the failings of our society into wrongdoers. Surely, at a time when many shameful things are being done in the name of economic orthodoxy, this must be one of the most shaming.

Why are we so keen to denounce the payment of benefits? Surely we should be proud to live in societies that help those who need it most. Sometimes that can help a businessman to achieve success, or an author to conquer global prominence. But what really matters is just – that it helps.

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