Welfare reform has been on the agenda since 2008, but many of the recent reforms began to take effect in April this year, and have already meant a great deal of change for both the people that charities serve and the charities themselves. We heard from Ed Balls this afternoon on how to tackle the welfare bill. So what do these changes look like and what are the effects?

The government’s response to reducing the welfare bill doesn’t add up—too much stick and not enough carrot. Finding work is nigh impossible in some parts of the country, yet people are penalised for not finding it. Housing costs are extraordinary, with little effort made to contain them—so to meet housing benefit caps, people will have to migrate away from economic centres that might offer employment.

The costs of living are pretty wild too—the cost/accessibility of transport and childcare are just two examples of barriers to employment. And being ‘online’ is becoming mandatory if you want to participate in society. Computers and broadband are no longer a luxury but a necessity if you want to find a job or get decently priced utilities. (I’d say pop to the library instead but chances are there isn’t one to pop to). It all boils down to a pretty employment-unfriendly and very expensive environment.

The irony is that some of the most disadvantaged—those with mental health problems, the disabled, young people leaving school—are keen to work if given the right support and access. But employers have to want to take such people on, preferably flexibly if unwell, and with appropriate training if young. And the transport has to be available.

In the meantime, many of the folk vilifying ‘scroungers’ come from ‘middle England’ and are the same people who volunteer and give money to charity. But they are worried by stories about scroungers, and are starting to fall out of love with the charity sector. So we need a ‘can do’ response from the sector, emphasising that people are assets, not all scroungers.

So my stall would be:

  • If more people worked, the ‘burden on the state’ would be reduced. So please can we fix the Work Programme or replace it with something that works for disadvantaged groups. More imaginative approaches to managing the transition from school to employment are needed so that young people can take advantage of scarce opportunities.
  • Address the housing crisis. We are about a decade too late, and the shortage has ballooned, but if housing costs came down to a sensible level, all these public rows over housing benefit and claimants living in expensive housing would evaporate.
  • Offer constructive solutions to welfare reform that make the system fair and reasonable to access. Suggesting solutions that reduce costs of administration and offer a genuine way out of wage traps would gain political traction.
  • Depoliticise the debate, if that’s possible. People are passionate, but being perceived as ‘shouty’ or ‘lefty’ potentially costs public support.  Framing the solutions as logical, sensible, and in terms of giving people hand ups, not hand outs, might be more appealing?

These things are of course easy to say and much harder to do. But as we head towards the general election in 2015 there needs to be some action to diffuse the polarisation of society that all of these problems are leading to.

Some organisations are already thinking proactively. At a recent event we heard from charities and funders who are working hard to adapt to these changes and meet a rise in demand for their services. It was also good to see the launch of the ‘Who benefits’ campaign—which aims to give a voice to those who have been supported by benefits—with plenty of seasoned campaigners signed up to support it, including Mind and Crisis. I’m very interested to see what approach they take to collective campaigning, and hopefully we’ll witness a great example of what big-name charities can achieve when they club together.

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