Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Paul’s astounding poverty related number of the week!

Only a thousand people remained unemployed for the entire of the last decade.

I love statistics, especially government statistics. I spend a great deal of time trawling through them to try and understand how the government raises and spends its money. It is an affliction and I am on medication. But occasionally I find a number that normal people might be interested in.

A couple of weeks ago Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was doing the rounds of the television studios defending the draconian Welfare Reform Bill. As with all such media forays a pre-prepared line accompanied by a statistic or two was repeated by government media outlets including IDS himself.

This is the version of the line that IDS wrote in the New Statesman: “About 1.4 million people spent almost ten years on out-of-work benefits under the last government”. This statistic - over 1 million out of work for 10 years - was used time and time again as evidence for the “broken” nature of the welfare system and that people had developed the disease of “welfare dependency” for which IDS’s prescription is to make them go cold turkey.

Unlike DWP’s previous statements on benefit fraud this is not a downright lie. However everyone I have met has incorrectly interpreted the numbers. Was this misunderstanding intentional? Decide for yourself

The key lies in the phrase “out-of-work-benefits” as that doesn’t mean just the unemployed, (those on Job Seeker’s Allowance) or all people who receive benefit and are not employed. It includes those unable to find work, and those unable to work. (It excludes those U-18, those of pensionable age as well as those with widow(er)s pensions or those in education or training.) Most people I know heard “out-of-work-benefits” and thought “unemployed”.

Of that 1 million just over 1000 individuals remained on unemployment benefits for a whole decade. So another government spin doctor wishing to give a different impression could just as honestly and accurately say:

Only a thousand people remained unemployed for the entire of the last decade – amazing in a country of over 60,000,000 people.”

Rather than:

About 1.4 million people spent almost ten years on out-of-work benefits, a symptom of a broken benefit system”

The difference in the two numbers is of course people who are sick. Well over 10 times the number of decade long unemployed were the decade long terminally ill – receiving benefit yet stubbornly refusing to die. More had long term or congenital conditions; many more suffered the pressure of caring for those who have such illnesses.

I don’t view supporting the sick, vulnerable and caring as a failed benefit system - I view it as a succeeding benefit system. Moreover every statistic I have seen backing the view that “welfare-dependency” is the main cause of people being stuck in poverty has been based on such numerical shenanigans.

Other less convenient, more expensively resolved causes, such as poor job availability, poor housing, poor pay, poor education, high taxes and prices levied on the poorest etc are supported by a great deal of straight forward evidence.