Good Times, Bad Times
The Welfare Myth of Them and Us
Bristol: Policy Press, (Revised Edition) 2017*
Paperback. xx+332 pages. ISBN 978-1447336471. £13.99
Reviewed by Rita Griffiths
University of Bath
As the results of the recent UK general election so starkly illustrate, woe betide any political party that dares to rein in the munificence of the welfare state towards its older and better-off citizens. Prior to her mistaken endeavour, Theresa May might have been better advised to seek the counsel of John Hills, for this is a message he instinctively understands. That people across all income levels and classes benefit from the welfare state, albeit in different ways and at different stages of the life cycle, is thus the powerful central theme of his readable and engaging book, Good Times, Bad Times : The Welfare Myth of Them and Us. Using the analytical device of two stylised middle-class and working-class fictional families, the Osbornes and the Ackroyds, and backed up by a wealth of forensically mined empirical research, Hills convincingly overturns the ubiquitous line of argument that ‘we’, the put-upon tax-paying public are supporting the ‘lifestyle choices’ of a feckless underclass, the profligate payment of whose unemployment and sickness benefits is largely responsible for emptying the public coffers, and thus for the austerity measures that successive Conservative-led governments have been forced to implement since coming to power in 2010.
The radical left has long dismissed this interpretation of the financial crisis and ensuing austerity as baseless ideology, likewise the over-worked dichotomous tropes of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, ‘skivers’ versus ‘strivers’ – alternately known as ‘hardworking families doing the right thing’ – on which such analyses rest. However, fuelled by a media bent on feeding popular misconceptions, this divisive characterisation of the welfare system as benefiting an undeserving few stubbornly persists among the general public. Popular debate thus assumes that society can “neatly be divided between those who pay into the welfare system and those who take out from it” [xvii]. Even many of those with more left-leaning tendencies have come to the reluctant conclusion that financially supporting poor and unemployed people has simply become too expensive. Shifting to an alternative narrative and forging a less divisive political consensus about the role, function and future of the welfare state has frustrated left-of-centre politicians and policy wonks for more than a decade.
Against this background, John Hill’s alternative version of “we are all in this together” offers a bold and refreshing challenge to the mythical narrative of ‘them and us’. Recently updated to take account of the roll-out of Universal Credit, the Brexit vote and Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister in 2016 (though not, of course, the 2017 snap general election), he convincingly shows that virtually everyone – whether rich or poor, working or unemployed, sick or healthy, old or young – has a stake in the welfare system. Using a wealth of graphically illustrated data, Hills shows that, over their lifetime, virtually everyone in the working population gets back something close to what they paid in. The minority who pay in more than they take out are likely benefiting their parents, children and grandchildren. Reassuringly, he pulls few punches. “If anyone has got too expensive” he argues, “it has, in fact, been the rich”.
Hill’s thesis comes at an important juncture in UK politics when terms such as inequality, poverty and income redistribution, concepts long in retreat in political discourse, are once more being openly discussed by a public increasingly angered by the semi-permanent state of austerity and a generation of young people saddled with a lifetime of debt and waning hopes of ever owning their own home. What John Hill’s book importantly illustrates, too, is that theorising welfare is so much more than a bar room discussion about who does or doesn’t deserve to get social security benefits, but is rather about engaging in a deeper, more considered conversation about how society is organised, how income and resources should be distributed and in whose interests the tax and benefits system should exist to serve. In this regard, what may have increased the strength of his argument and provided an even more compelling account of the structural inequalities embedded in the UK economy and welfare system would have been to include more critical analyses of the tax breaks and financial incentives which only those with higher earnings and incomes are able to take advantage of – subsidised property and pension payments and tax-free savings, for example. Also notably absent is any meaningful discussion of the parallel system of means-tested benefits which operates exclusively for the rich including ‘tax efficient’ forms of investment and money management that successive governments across the political spectrum have been only too willing to turn a blind eye to. This said, with a resurgent left newly energised into considering the adoption of a more radical set of policies ‘for the many, not the few’, the book is a timely and welcome contribution to a reinvigorated political discourse and wider public debate about the role and future of the welfare state.
* First Edition, 2014.
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