Both left and right have a tendency to treat out-of-work benefit receipt as a symptom of broad societal malaise - whether this is seen in terms of the failures of capitalism, or of moral decline, or (increasingly, on both sides) of both. But neither of these perspectives is appropriate for the purposes of discussing a system that mainly deals with situations which would need to be addressed by any functioning welfare state, under any plausible economic circumstances or social values: i.e., assistance in periods of temporary unemployment or sickness, and for longer periods of severe and long-term disabling conditions and caring responsibilities.
The sort of grandstanding references to 'six million people on welfare' that dominate political debate in this area involve airbrushing out of the picture these routine functions of the benefits system, in favour of shadowy social archetypes: families where 'no one has worked for generations', communities where 'no one works around here', 'the underclass'.(1)The conflation of social security and social dysfunction is one of the dominant tropes of current debate on welfare on all sides. Will Hutton, on the centre left, could declare last year that 'the welfare state was not set up to support vast families or single mothers in intergenerational welfare dependency' - the question of whether it was to any significant extent doing anything of the kind was not even posed. (2)
It is well known that social security systems can have intended and unintended effects that go well beyond their function of managing social risks. However, the extent to which any system does have negative effects is essentially an empirical issue rather than a matter for intuition; but the sort of accusations that have been levelled against the UK system by commentators on left and right have rarely been supported with relevant, up-to-date data on who claims out-of-work benefits, why, and, crucially, for how long. Indeed most assertions on 'welfare dependency' turn on an implicit and quite erroneous assumption that benefit claims are overwhelmingly long-term in nature.
This article looks at the area of the benefits system that is most relevant to discussions that present long-term benefit receipt as a symptom or a cause of societal problems - i.e. those in receipt of incapacity and disability benefits, which now account for some 81 per cent of all long-term out-of-work claims (claims running for five years or over). To understand the underlying trends within this group we begin with the history of economic inactivity and benefit receipt from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, since this histor y continues to influence contemporary anxieties about social security.3 We then look at the period from 1997 to the present, and in particular at contrasting developments in the 'incapacity' and 'disability' caseloads. We show that the idea that Labour failed to reduce the Incapacity Benefit (IB) caseload - a dominant theme in the party's post-election autopsy - is largely a myth, and is based on misconceptions about the geography, age and gender patterns of benefit receipt. In fact IB receipt fell substantially during this period, and fell most for age groups and areas with the highest levels of receipt. On the other hand disability benefit receipt rose during this period (albeit not as much as incapacity benefit receipt fell), partly because of demographic factors, but also because of increases in claims associated with mental health and learning difficulties. On the other hand there was no rise in disability benefit claims associated with physical conditions.
The key point here is that long-term out of work benefit receipt is increasingly dominated by people living with more severe disabling conditions, and by people caring for the disabled. And neither the flaws of contemporary capitalism nor changes in social values have much of a role in explaining these trends or indicating promising policy directions. …