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Can Disabled People in Britain Really Work Their Way Out of Poverty?

  • Published: 2015-10-21 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-11) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff replies to Iain Duncan Smith statement that disabled people cannot expect the government to help them out of poverty.

Quote: "While IDS states that today's British government doesn't recognize sick or disabled people as 'victims', the fact of the matter is that Britain is a deeply flawed and unfair society."

Main Document

Britain's Controversial Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, provoked more outrage recently during the Conservatives annual party conference in Manchester, by stating that disabled people cannot expect the government to help them out of poverty:

"We don't think of people not in work as victims to be sustained on government handouts. No, we want to help those live lives independent of the state. We won't lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers' money to you".

Iain Duncan Smith additionally hit out at a 'sickness' benefit system where Britain's medical profession decide if workers are temporarily unfit to work. IDS believes that such a system also only encourages the 'something for nothing' culture, and is currently in the process of rapidly tightening up the system. Forcing sick people back to work, or at the very least, discouraging them to take sick leave in the first place.

Phew! Quite a lot of hot air and hostility was evident in IDS's conference speech. However, quite a lot of hostility has undoubtedly been generated by IDS towards sick and disabled people for a number of years now, where much of that hostility has been portrayed by Britain's media machine as primarily a kind of 'tough love'. Administered only for our own good and in order to aid the long term or temporarily 'not working' to become employed again, and therefore self-reliant and independent.

The by-product of which is also arguably perceived to some degree by IDS and his bunch of nasty Stormtroopers as having the potential to save British businesses billions of pounds in lost production time, and billions of pounds in covering absence. And primarily by forcing sick people back to work before they are well enough. In addition to saving government money by refusing to help disabled people when they are at their most desperate.

The liberal ideology of self-responsibility

In my past articles, I have written many times about the political philosophy or worldview founded upon ideas of liberty - 'liberalism'. While there are various strands of liberalism, the most purest and often most recurring and dominant form can be found within the political practices of the UK's Conservative party and within the US with the Republican Party. A philosophy and associated political practice or policy that has its roots firmly planted in the 1700's.

Softer branches of this philosophy such as social-liberalism, which has a stronger focus on 'equality' as we understand the term, can be found in the British Labor movement and in the Democratic movement in the US. Although, arguably not for some time and certainly not recently, as both the Labor party and the Democrat Party move increasingly towards a political consensus based upon old style liberalism - or neo liberalism/neo-conservatism as some term it. Or at best, a slightly watered down version of it.

Therefore, we should not be too surprised when we hear both British and American politicians speak about (the traditional liberal goals of) laissez-faire economics and freedom from government interference, as well as self-responsibility and the balancing of budget's - as this is the stuff driven by deep-rooted liberalism. An ideology designed intentionally to benefit only the wealthy and powerful, and driving policy that can only lead to a further polarization between rich and poor, both locally and globally.

For example, within the UK itself from 1990 to the present day, the 'poverty gap' between rich and poor has continued to increase. Last year, research undertaken by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project found that the number of British households falling below minimum living standards has more than doubled within the past 30 years, despite the size of the economy increasing twofold - and with many struggling households having at least one adult in work. Something that contradicts IDS's suggestion that people can actually work their way out of poverty.

However, the ideological fossil of liberalism continues to motivate IDS himself, which is why we often hear the concepts of 'self-reliance', 'self-responsibility', 'independence' and 'work ethic' consistently in his political speeches. For IDS, work makes you free and work makes you independent from the state. Although, the facts often speak otherwise.

Sleepwalking backwards towards the 18thcentury

I grant you that being self-reliant and self-dependent is not a bad thing, and indeed something that should be encouraged. But I also recognize that most people want to be self-reliant and self-dependent for their own psychological wellbeing and self-esteem, but encounter various blocks along the way that may prevent them from doing so. However, IDS's version of self-reliance is not one of a helping hand in which government actually helps people to become self-reliant and self-responsible, but a ruthless, brutal policy of a kick up the backside. A kick up the backside for the perceived sick, lame and lazy.

During the Conservatives recent conference, IDS's vision for Britain's sick and disabled arguably went beyond the usual, traditional welfare tinkering by British governments that we have seen over the past 30 or 40 years, but has developed into an extreme, full blown and continued ideological attack on the concepts of fairness and equality. A continuation of extreme right wing ideology designed to reduce state intervention and the provision of welfare, something that actually rolled into life within the early 1980's with 'Thatcherism' in Britain and 'Reaganomics' in America.

But accelerated now to such a pace within the UK that it has become almost a form of legalized political sociopathy. A brand of politics that shows no empathy nor sympathy for people who are caught up in health problems, disability, unemployment or poverty. And an extreme brand of politics that automatically perceives Britain's sick, disabled, unemployed and poor to be primarily made up of layabouts, scroungers and fakes.

History repeating itself

IDS's conference vision of the future didn't just signal the continuation of an ill-considered and unintentionally flawed program of welfare reform that can and already has led to death for many sick and disabled people, but signals one that is intentional. IDS and his government has been made aware for years about the negative impact welfare reforms have had upon Britain's sick and disabled, so there are no excuses now for any detrimental outcomes that have occurred and there can be no claims of ignorance to fall back upon. These attacks are deliberate and the consequences well known. But they are not new attacks and as I have argued above, they are policies that date back hundreds of years.

While IDS states that today's British government doesn't recognize sick or disabled people as 'victims', the fact of the matter is that Britain is a deeply flawed and unfair society. Where if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to remain poor until the day you die. For example, the OECD continually highlight that the UK is amongst the worse country in the world for lack of social mobility. While Britain is the 6th richest country in the world, children from poor families in Britain have a greater chance of struggling on low incomes than their counterparts in the west's other richest countries. With the chances of a young person from a less well-off family enjoying higher wages or getting a higher level of education than their parents as being pretty much non-existent.

Additionally, according to the respected charity Oxfam, one in five people in the UK population continue to live below the official poverty line. Yet those in poverty are not just Britain's unemployed, but working people too, many of whom are disabled. With around a third of all disabled adults aged 25 to retirement living in poverty, which is twice the rate of that for non-disabled adults. Last year, the British charity Scope released a report that despite wanting employment, disabled people are indeed more likely not only to be unemployed but underemployed. And when in work, disabled people are more likely to be in low paid jobs.

But the government doesn't recognize that disabled people can be such victims of an unequal and unfair society. Nor does it recognize that people can also be victims of fate, or victims of a harsh and highly discriminatory employment system. A system where most disabled people are not actually born with a disability but acquire one through life, and in many cases, through actual employment itself.

Information from the Labor Force Survey indicate that over 23 million working days in the UK are lost yearly due to work-related ill health and another 4 million work days or more due to workplace injuries. Figures that have actually been falling for some time now as the system becomes ever tightened by governments of all colors. Many days lost to ill-health and injury, but does IDS really believe that such days are lost only through fakery and laziness? Apparently, as IDS does not believe in victims - only in spongers and scroungers.

However, some years ago, I remember a senior union representative telling me about a real case where a doctor employed by a major UK firm he worked for had assessed an employee who had been off work for many weeks with a serious illness. The doctor eventually sent the union official a letter, stating that in his opinion the employee was completely fit for work and should therefore return to work immediately. At the point when the letter was received, the employee was actually in a hospital bed, dying. Obviously, this doctor was operating on a similar wavelength to Iain Duncan Smith.

But stories like this are not just stories of old, and are becoming increasingly common again in today's Britain. With people disbelieved and pressurized into getting back to work while they are still poorly or injured in some way, and similarly, disabled people being pressurized and bullied into finding work - even when they are clearly too disabled to work or sustain work

Below are some examples of the UK's treatment of sickness and disability:

"Carly Canavan, 21, was born with part of her brain underdeveloped and will never be independent - but that's not enough for the DWP. Carly Canavan, 21, has been warned she will lose vital benefits if she and her family don't fill in detailed forms and submit to their "work capability assessment" to the Department for Work and Pensions. Distressed mum Victoria Lamont says Iain Duncan Smith's department should already know her daughter will never be able to work" (The Mirror, 14 th October 2015)

"Severely disabled 19-year-old with a mental age of just five is ordered to have a fitness-to-work test despite not being able to read, write, talk or even sleep on her own" (The Mail, 26 th November 2014)

"Thousands of Cancer Patients Wait For Six Months or More for Disability Benefits" (MacMillan Cancer Support, 16 th June 2014)

"Cambridge's MP has stepped in over the plight of a 7-year-old Cambridge boy with cancer who had benefits stopped, forcing his parents to rely on food-banks". (Cambridge News, 30 th January 2015)

"A Scunthorpe man has received a 40% cut in benefits after he was diagnosed with cancer, leaving him in serious financial distress during his battle with a disease that killed his father and brother. To add insult the injury, the DWP told him that he could return to his previous level of benefits, provided he gave up treatment and complied with the Jobseeker's program". (Scunthorpe Telegraph, 2 nd May 2014)

Need I carry on? There are literally thousands and thousands of stories like these, incidents that cannot be claimed to be mere blips on the welfare landscape due to occasional error.

So can disabled people really work their way out of poverty?

This is the question that I originally started my article with, and IDS and his merry men certainly claim that sick and disabled people should and can work their way out of poverty. However, arguably for the conservatives and for many workers, this is much less about finding suitable, well paid employment, and much more about working as many hours as possible, in any job. If you only have a part-time job and are poor, then you must increase your hours. If you have one job and are poor, then you must get two jobs. It's all about working 'harder' - instead of depending on 'generous' government handouts. But has Britain's welfare system ever been over generous, as IDS always suggests?

Firstly, the proportion of economically inactive working age adults who are on very low incomes is actually higher in the UK compared to most other EU countries, and many of these will of course be disabled people. Which is not exactly an indication that Britain's welfare system is an overgenerous one and one that keeps people out of poverty.

Secondly, while IDS is correct that less than 50% of disabled people are in paid employment, IDS automatically puts this down to laziness and fakery. However, while disability is varied, according to the influential Papworth trust, the most common barriers to employment among adults with impairments are actually a lack of job opportunities and difficulty with transport. Disabled adults are also nearly three times as likely as non-disabled adults to have no formal educational qualifications, with the two main barriers to educational opportunities for disabled adults being finance and a health condition, illness or impairment! A vicious circle indeed.

Finally, disability costs disabled people a lot of money, and not just in terms of lost employment opportunities through discrimination or a lack of transport. Being disabled is expensive in itself, with hundreds of pounds spent per month by disabled people dependent on specialist equipment and specialist items.

Therefore, taking these factors in combination, it is highly unlikely that many disabled people would actually be in any position to work their way out of poverty. Additionally, the most common impairments that disabled people have are mobility issues, stamina/breathing/fatigue issues, dexterity issues and mental health issues. Hardly conditions ripe for working long hours or holding down more than one job.

The UK's violation of disability rights

It is without doubt that Britain's government has behaved appallingly towards disabled people since coming into power in 2010, and it is clear to me that human rights abuses have indeed occurred. However, is that enough? Today, The Guardian newspaper issued a report claiming that the latest UN investigation into Britain's human rights violations against disability will not be published for at least another two years. And when it is published, although the UK government has to accept the findings of the final report, there is no legal obligation for it to act on it.

Therefore, can we really see this government voluntary altering its behavior towards disabled people? And if not, how many more sick and disabled people will be killed by such an outdated and brutal ideology, and one that is driving Britain's welfare reforms? Don't you think it's time that the UN pulled its finger out? I do. Otherwise, what is the point of the UN?

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