Tackling Welfare Reform: Rejecting Blame, Promoting Resilience

Dr. Rosalind Tyler-Greig from Inclusion Scotland blogs on the impact of welfare reform on disabled people as part of Challenge Poverty Week 2015.

I was delighted to join the team at Inclusion Scotland earlier this month to lead their Rights and Resilience project. The project is a response to the recent package of social welfare cuts which have affected disabled people, and the litany of negative rhetoric about benefits claimants – a significant proportion of whom are disabled people – which has poured out of our media. The project will try to mitigate some of the negative impacts of welfare reform by sharing accessible information, providing training and resources, and raising awareness around welfare rights.

This is important because discussion of disabled people’s rights has been drowned out recently by stories which tell us benefits are expensive and that a large swathe of claimants are ‘chancers’ who are not entitled anyway. These stories re-write financial hardship and poverty as somehow acceptable, as the true deserts of the lazy and un-ambitious. I blogged recently about the role of benefits in compensating disabled people for the barriers they face in society – barriers that persist, and have even been added to as the compensation is being removed. In this post I will highlight the stories which try to justify this, and which move the attack beyond the financial and target the personal resilience of disabled people.

The first story is that ‘lots of disabled people are probably not really disabled at all’ and we should be terribly suspicious about claims for disability benefits. We hear daily about the people who ‘fake’ disability, the ‘cheats’ who cost us millions of pounds a year, the local campaigns being run to ‘tackle’ cheats, and the infuriating number of ‘fraudsters’ avoiding prosecution.

This has meant that disabled people being re-assessed for the new disability benefit feel exceptional pressure before ever submitting a claim. The world is staring suspiciously at them, and they are waiting to be ‘caught out’ and declared ‘not disabled’, a ‘fake’ or a ‘cheat’. They are worried they might have misunderstood something in one of the complex forms they’ve had to fill in, and now be held to account. They are worried about losing some or all of the money which helps them participate in society.

So are the people who lose out not disabled after all? Not quite. Disability benefits have simply become more difficult to get. For example, to qualify for the highest rate of mobility support a person must be unable to walk 20 metres unaided. Under the previous scheme, a person had to be unable to walk 50 metres unaided. At Inclusion Scotland, we estimate that by 2018, over 80,000 working age disabled people in Scotland will lose some or all of their mobility allowance. Impairments will not change, barriers will persist, but the resources to overcome those barriers will be given much more selectively.

Another story is that ‘benefits cost too much’, and the bill should not be footed by hard-working folk who have been sensible enough to earn good wages and lucky enough to have avoided any limiting impairments or health conditions.

In actual fact, almost all the money given out in benefits is taken back in tax. And the poorest households pay the most taxes when we account for everything that is taxed. Because of the types of things that taxes are then spent on, better off households benefit much more from taxes than poorer households. With 20% of households containing a disabled person living in poverty, disabled people are in fact disproportionately losing out in this system. Out-of-work and disability benefits do not even form the most significant portion of the benefits pie because 47% of the benefits bill is actually spent on pensions. Overall, the idea that we have a generous benefits system which needs to be capped to stop lazy people taking advantage is, as the Centre for Welfare Reform puts it, ‘ludicrous’.[1]

A final, and disturbing, tale is that ‘disabled people should work their way out of poverty’ because it is not the government’s job to stop them being poor. This was the advice of Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith – a man who has never had to use his own ‘services’ (or apparently ensure they work properly for others). IDS has not experienced exhausting conditionality. He has not had to live on a meagre amount and try to remain healthy, fed and warm, and able to find suitable work at a rate his government approves of. He has not experienced discrimination in the job market because he is disabled and may have access needs. Unfortunately, IDS is not so much telling a story as giving a directive – a directive which does not take into account the barriers which disabled people face, but expects people to find resources and stay well in increasingly hostile circumstances.

The overall story we are being told about disabled people is one with suspicion and lack of compassion at its core. It is not coincidental that we are now seeing more and more examples of hostile attitudes towards disabled people from their non-disabled peers. This news story gives one example. Inclusion Scotland’s Welfare Reform Research also highlights examples of disabled people being verbally assaulted by non-disabled people and being made to feel like second class citizens. In a climate where disabled people are targeted by cuts, we need a culture of solidarity. We need to find ways – together and individually – to boost disabled people’s capacity to cope. And a good starting point is rejecting the stories which try to cast disabled people as underserving and a drain on resources.

Inclusion Scotland’s Rights and Resilience project is working to uncover and promote some of the different ways in which the adverse impacts of welfare reform experienced by disabled people can be mitigated. We want to discover what can boost the personal resilience of disabled people. This could be about anything from great services and accessible information to supportive people and local networks. If you would like to share something which has helped you personally, or which your organisation is doing, we’d like to hear from you. You can find out how to get involved here.

[1] http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/by-az/who-really-benefits-from-welfare.html

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