[we have seen a] quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.
Iain Duncan Smith:
With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”
I’m struggling to understand what IDS is saying here. One way we might read him is this: nothing intrinsic to a population group makes that group undeserving; welfare allocation on its own – and nothing else – determines desert. But this takes away desert as a justification for policy: people are going to be getting pie – or not – just because IDS says so. Imagine if this were the stance with respect to taxes: George Osborne says the top rate is going to go up to 60%, well … because, that’s why. And when it does, you’ll deserve it. Or how about this: low Conservative tax rates have created a deserving group: the low taxed. You wonderful people, you.
In response, IDS might say: yes, of course our policies need to be justified, but that justification needn’t have anything to do with who gets what. When I say that welfare recipients are ‘undeserving’, I’m only saying that people oughtn’t to receive welfare because welfare has bad consequences. It has bad consequences if fifty people receive it or if fifty million people receive it. But what are the bad consequences of welfare? Here, IDS might say that when people choose welfare instead of work, they become apathetic and unhappy: welfare erodes self-esteem just as cigarettes erode your lungs. But someone making this sort of argument has to face the possibility that all kinds of unearned wealth have similar bad effects. Inherited wealth, for instance, or windfall profit. And that’s not a place any respectable Tory wants to go. But perhaps IDS can steer the discussion away from such difficult topics by arguing that welfare is bad because it, uniquely, has bad consequences for everyone. Our over-generous handouts are making the public debt unmanageable, and we won’t be caring about who gets what if the entire country goes under. However, if welfare is rejected for a reason like that, then it’s open for people to argue that welfare should be increased as and when things change for the better. Who knows what the future will bring. Take Alaska’s Permanent Fund, for instance. The Alaskans never saw that coming. Yet somehow I seriously doubt that IDS envisages a future of share and share alike, should the nation be so lucky as to run into big patch of oil, or something.
So what else could IDS say when it comes to explaining his position on welfare? All that’s left – it seems – is an argument that appeals to justice. That is, it’s simply unjust that some people get benefit when they’ve never had any intention of working: the responsible people lose out; they’ve lived carefully, they’ve never been slackers, they’ve carried the load. But then Rowan Williams’s accusation sticks.