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Wednesday, August 18, 2010 

The nonsense of middle class benefits.

One thing everyone should be able to agree about this septic isle of ours is the inhibiting and petty nature of our social class structure, as universally derided and mocked as anything else abroad, including by those Americans who define "middle class" as meaning not sleeping rough and eating out of dumpsters. This isn't, it should be stressed, the fault of any class in particular; anyone, regardless of what they might be defined as, can possess the most gigantic chip on their shoulder about their social status and those they consider either inferior or undeservedly superior to them. At the same time, class should never, ever be ignored. The dictum of 1-Speed-Bike is one which should always be stuck to: any movement that forgets about class is a bowel movement. Many of Labour's problems can be directly linked to the identity politics which superseded class with every other definition of self, all important, but all of which relegated the one other thing that unites and separates us more than anything else.

When certain universal benefits are therefore described or identified as "middle class", whether with those sardonic quotation marks around them or not, it's time to start making things clear. The great thing about the welfare state is in that in the vast majority of cases, it's completely blind to the claimant's background: it doesn't matter whether you're a banker who's just lost your job or a road sweeper, in almost all cases you'll qualify for either contribution based or income related jobseeker's allowance. The same is the case if you suddenly fall ill and find yourself no longer being able to work, regardless of what line of work you were doing: whether you qualify for either income support or employment and support allowance, your circumstances for the most part won't or shouldn't make that much difference. When you then describe the likes of child benefit or the winter fuel allowance as "middle class" benefits, on the virtue of the fact that you receive them for either procreating or reaching 60 years of age and so everyone who meets those criteria is eligible without having to be unemployed or ill, the implication is, even if it isn't made implicit, that the other varieties are either "working class" or "lower class" benefits. If we define what class someone belongs to purely on the basis of their financial income, which is hardly the most reliable of measures, that might just be about accurate, as despite what the tabloids will have you believe, most on JSA or IC or ESA temporarily and even long-term are only going to be scraping in the bare minimum the state decides they need to be able to live on. It almost goes without saying however that doing so completely ignores the circumstances of those prior to having to go cap in hand, a significant number of whom would not on any measure belong to what is still just about described as the working class.

Whether it says something about the prejudices or insecurity of those who describe such benefits as "middle class" or not is open to question. On the face of it, after all, the winter fuel allowance looks like a perfect example of a benefit that could be means tested in order to save money: although it's not even the beginnings of a guide, the Groan's letters page usually fills around the time it's paid with those who've given it to charity, having no need of it. Why then give it them in the first place? The difficulty comes in the expense which would come from deciding those who are economically secure enough to not need it, which would almost certainly have to be put at an arbitrary figure of either income, pension income or savings or all three combined, and which would be fiercely contested, leading to exactly the sort of dissent, grievance and bitterness which the current situation avoids. The universality of the system, some will argue, is what protects it; start chipping away at that and you end up with poor services for poor people, the benefits for the lower orders which the "middle class" ones imply already exist, and support for which will subsequently ebb away from.

It's not yet clear whether the winter fuel allowance or child benefit will turn out to be, like free milk for the under-fives, something which not even the coalition will touch for fear of coming across too much like the caricature of Tory-slashers past, and those Labour figures and partisans already crowing about how this either shows Cameron as lying or Labour's scaremongering during the election as accurate are at the very least jumping the gun, especially when as Dave Osler notes, this was exactly what Labour itself was considering doing last year. When however housing benefit is being slashed, much to the delight of many it should be noted, for the winter fuel allowance and child benefit to not at least be reviewed would be perverse, and introducing loaded labels into aspects of the welfare state shouldn't even begin to alter that.

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