Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Benefit caps, the housing market, and Jesus

Of course, common sense says it’s crazy that someone can be on benefit payments of more than £26,000 a year. The trouble is, common sense gets a lot wrong.

Firstly, let’s get these in perspective. As Andrew Simms put it so well yesterday, they’re really small beans compared to city bonuses – with 1,200 senior staff averaging £1.8million in bonuses each last year. Where should we really be expended heat and light on ‘capping’ debates, hey? But blaming the victims of economic crisis is so much easier than blaming the perpetrators, isn’t it?

But as I understand it, one of the principle reasons for these rare, highest-level benefits payments is that people who were once in social housing have ended up (through policies of previous governments, both Labour and Conservative) in private rented accommodation. And the areas that they may have lived in all their life have, through ‘market forces’, found house prices (and rental prices) driven sky high. And a debate that began with the proposed housing benefit cap in November 2010 continues. For David Cameron and his mates, apparently the solution is simple: the poor should move out of expensive areas. Social – and often inevitably ethnic – cleansing.

All very convenient. An economic crisis caused by the rich, in which the rich still end up getting richer, targets the poor, slashes and burns the benefits safety net, and tells the poorest that they have no right to live near rich people anyway. Demonising, marginalising, displacing, disappearing. Out of sight, out of mind – as well as out of public finances, out of pocket, out of long-standing homes and communities…

So maybe benefit payments of £26,000 are crazy. But what’s the root of the madness? It’s easy to pile blame on ‘indolent’ individuals – and again, very convenient, so that we don’t ask questions about the system itself. But what is the morality of a ‘market’ that allows house prices to sky-rocket in areas that, thanks to the choices of the rich, have become ‘desirable’, pushing out the non-rich in the process? If instead we valued stability and diversity of relationships and community; if we genuinely believed in knowing, and loving, our neighbours (and not just those who look, and sound, and earn, like us); then we would turn our attention to ensuring a mixed economy of housing provision, outside or beyond the socially destructive forces of the ‘free market’. Housing affordable for all, where rich and poor can live side-by-side, and where, as neighbours begin to look into each other’s faces, even those inequalities of wealth begin to break down.

Jesus’ parable, the one about ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’, doesn’t end well for the rich man. And it’ll be no use blaming the poor, or the market, then…

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