This month, taxpayers in England will begin to receive new information with their tax returns, in the form of a pie chart offering a breakdown of where their contributions have been spent. While this might at first glance appear to be a positive move – look how much great stuff your taxes pay for! – it has been criticised as a propaganda exercise due to the way in which spending categories have been grouped. Specifically, it is the category of ‘welfare’, the largest section of the pie chart, which has attracted attention. Both The Guardian and The Independent have questioned the definition used to generate these statistics, arguing that as they include some pensions as well as support for disabled people and low-waged workers (the latter, in effect, a subsidy for employers). The Guardian quotes the chairman of the Work and Pensions Commons Committee contending the statistics with the following statement: “If they are presenting welfare in this statement as one homogeneous figure, it includes a lot of welfare spend that most people in the country agree with.” ‘Welfare’ has negative connotations because it is associated with the group the government call ‘skivers’ – unemployed people, who are regularly depicted in the right-wing media as cannily working the system, scamming honest taxpayers so they can sit on their backsides watching Jeremy Kyle on a widescreen TV while smoking their way through 40 a day. As someone who’s seen her share of daytime TV, I fail to see it as sufficient incentive to get by on a heavily restricted budget, and in any case unemployment benefit makes up a fraction of welfare spending, fraudulent claims even less. Nonetheless, people seem to have assumed a right to scrutinise the lives of those who need the state’s safety net. We see countless articles and TV shows speculating about just what welfare recipients do with their time and money. Yet the founders of the website ‘Parasite Street’ pointed out, we don’t get similar ‘entertainment’ exposing those rich men and women who exploit the system. Where is the show where we see how big Gary Barlow’s telly is, or what kind of booze Amazon bosses buy? We seem to have the impression that since a proportion of our taxes go to welfare recipients, we buy some kind of right to know the intimate details of their lives, as though they were some kind of commodity. Those concerned about the tax statement pie charts have made a connection between this particular quantification and the government’s agenda to make deep and rapid cuts into welfare spending. But though debates about welfare have intensified with this government’s cuts, they are nothing new. Sandra Sherman’s excellent book Imagining Poverty tells us how the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries saw the introduction of quantification into discussions about poor relief. By laying claim to scientific objectivity, social commentators from the middle and upper classes were able to detoxify an agenda which promoted the free market at the expense of traditional claims on assistance from local parishes. Despite economic instability brought about by industrialisation, war, food shortages and the loss of common rights, these commentators blamed poverty on the choices made by those who needed relief, noting their purchase of certain foodstuffs or expenditure at the alehouse. Tea and white bread were the equivalents of 3D TVs for the eighteenth century version of the modern Daily Mail reporter. These commentators were outsiders, entering communities of whose expectations and traditions they had little knowledge or concern, drawing up budgets which compared people’s current expenditure to the lowest common denominator needed for survival. The same could be said today of those eager to condemn the economies of those who receive welfare, while failing to consider the structural reasons for their spending choices. These thoughts were very much in my mind as I worked in Sheffield Archives yesterday. I was there to look at some records relating to the operation of the local poor relief system, and came across a document issued by the administrators which made me think about privacy is denied to those who, for whatever reason, find that they need assistance to make ends meet. In 1795, the Committee for the Relief of the Poor of the Township of Sheffield issued a leaflet to all subscribers who contributed a guinea or more to the fund, which contained a list of the houses of paupers receiving relief. Each contributor was asked to visit a small number of these houses, and to write in the last column of the list the number in each family, if any, ‘which they think should be relieved’. Those deemed worthy would then be assigned tickets to be picked up each fortnight and deposited with a baker who would provide the allotted quantity of bread. It was not just the penny-pinching attitude of the leaflet that shocked me, but the arbitrary nature of a system in which the decision of one individual could enter the home of a family and make crucial decisions about their economic survival with the moment’s work of numbering a box. Such a system must surely have allowed for favouritism and vindictiveness, for decisions based on moral judgements or preconceived assumptions. It must also have been extremely divisive, highlighting the gulf between the ratepayer and recipient, and the powerlessness of the later in the face of the intimate scrutiny of their lifestyle. There was no way two such groups could conceive of themselves as ‘all in it together’. This dehumanising approach to poor people encouraged crime and community breakdown, but it also fuelled the spread of democratic and egalitarian ideals. Faced with such vast power imbalances and inequalities of outcome, ordinary people began to question the values on which society was based and raised their voices to challenge them.
If, as The Guardian and Independent commentators have suggested, the tax statement pie charts are an attempt to further stigmatise welfare recipients to justify further cuts, it might just backfire. Those who look more deeply into the figures might recognise people who they are happy to support. Perhaps the redefinition used to bulk up a pie-chart expenditure section might cause the critical observer to rethink the negative associations of ‘welfare’, recognising that a tiny number of recipients are voluntarily jobless. What the percentage expenditure on welfare shows to me, then, is just how much people in this country are continuing to struggle in a so-called economic recovery, and should act as a call to react not as judges or sideline spectators, but as human beings. We can certainly no longer accept, as some did in the eighteenth-century, that vast inequality is divinely ordained. We know that, on the contrary, it can have negative consequences for all of us, and it is in all of our interests to narrow the gap between rich and poor. We need to challenge the demonizing rhetoric around welfare, which seeks to justify the dismantling for profit of a system which has ‘benefits’ for us all, and not just those who receive state assistance.