Benefits
Image: JJ Ellison/Wikimedia Commons

Society must rethink its attitude towards those on benefits

Marie Buchan is a mother of eight from Birmingham who has been on the receiving end of fierce criticism since her TV debut on Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole in 2015. There, she spoke about claiming benefits for herself and her eight children. Earlier this month, she was in the news again after she revealed that she plans to spend £2,000 on a breast enlargement this Christmas.

Many argue that cases like these demonstrate the need for serious welfare reform, with out-of-work benefits being made less generous in order to incentivise people to work. But the issue here, in my view, is not that the benefits system is too lenient. It’s that employers don’t pay enough, and that they are not sufficiently accommodating towards single parents who have to juggle childcare responsibilities with employment.

Marie has spoken before about struggling to pay rent for her three bedroom house. Why, then, is she buying breast implants? It’s a loaded question. I could list the reasons why I think that financial decision might make sense to her, even if it appears frivolous to outsiders. But really, that’s beyond the point. The media preoccupation with Marie Buchan’s life is ultimately far more about hatred for the benefits system as a whole than about Marie as an individual.

Misinformation about the benefit system is widespread, with the general public tending to overestimate how much claimants are paid

She’s the perfect scapegoat for opponents of the benefit system, because she’s a walking stereotype. She’s a working class single mother. She’s had long spells of unemployment and worked as a lap-dancer in the past. She’s unapologetic about the fact that she’s on benefits, and has been for many years. And because she makes more in benefits than many earn working full-time, focusing on her feeds into the misconception that life on benefits is an easy ride.

Misinformation about the benefit system is widespread, with the general public tending to overestimate how much claimants are paid. Marie is not representative, but even supposing that she receives £20,000 in benefits per year (recent reports state she receives £30,000, but don’t explain how, given that there’s a benefit cap of £20,000) and doesn’t work to top up her income, that works out to around £2,222 per person in her household per year, a figure which sounds a lot less titillating in a newspaper headline.

According to NatWest’s ‘cost of raising a child’ calculator, raising a child from ages 1-17 will set you back a cool £192,187.03, with the first year alone costing £9,364.84. Even if NatWest’s calculator is way off, it’s evident that she isn’t exactly as wealthy as many assume.

The uncomfortable reality is that Universal Credit and other moves towards a ‘fairer’ benefit system have been linked to massive increases in homelessness, food bank usage, and even to suicides

I would never make the choices Marie has made — frankly, I cannot think of anything worse than raising eight children, regardless of my economic circumstances. But the vitriol directed towards her isn’t going to do anything for her children, nor for the children of mothers on benefits more generally. You can moralise about people who have children they can’t afford all you want, but those children did not choose to be born. Depriving their parents of income amounts to punishing their children. This isn’t an abstract proposition — benefit sanctions, an increasingly widespread cruelty rooted in the behaviourist ideology that punishing the unemployed will force them to get jobs, affect thousands of children a year.

Media coverage of Marie vindicates people who hate everyone who’s on benefits because they believe that they are all ‘scroungers’, a mentality that literally kills. The uncomfortable reality is that Universal Credit and other moves towards a ‘fairer’ benefit system have been linked to massive increases in homelessness, food bank usage, and even to suicides. For every Marie Buchan, there’s someone reduced to using a food bank or stealing toilet paper because they can’t make ends meet on benefits.

We live in a country whose government thinks that punishing the poor will somehow eradicate poverty. It doesn’t. News outlets that treat Marie Buchan as somehow emblematic of all the ills of the benefits system (i.e. how supposedly over-generous it is) would do well to pay attention to the UN envoy’s recent report on poverty in Britain, which roundly condemned austerity benefit reforms for the harm they cause to society’s most disadvantaged, including single parents, children, and disabled people. The benefits system is too harsh, not too generous.

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