‘Strivers versus skivers’ purports to sum up our welfare state, and why, therefore, the benefits system should be reformed.
“There are two distinct groups of people, one good and one bad; individuals choose to be in one group or the other. ‘Strivers’ work hard and put money into the economy while ‘skivers’ are just lay-abouts who take money out. Claiming benefits traps people in dependency, which is a social evil, passed from one generation to the next. People not in paid work contribute nothing of value to society.”
The myth divides people against each other and creates a scapegoat. If people are finding life a struggle they can blame the skivers rather than anything else. This story helps to justify what might otherwise be unpopular economic policies, like spending cuts and punitive welfare-to-work policies.
In the wild
"Where’s the fairness for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits… We speak for all those who want to work hard and get on… They strive for a better life. We strive to help them."
– George Osborne, October 2012
"Welfare is there to help people who work hard, it shouldn’t be there as a sort of lifestyle choice."
– David Cameron, April 2013
"The drug-taking layabout, who embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state"
– Daily Mail report on Mick Philpott, April 2013
"It’s not Britain’s shirkers who are having to pay the cost of failure, it’s Britain’s strivers. The Tories are screwing Britain’s strivers."
– Liam Byrne, November 2012
There are not two distinct groups of people
In reality, people slip between employment and unemployment, often within the space of a few months, as the economy relies increasingly on short-term, low pay, insecure contracts. This happens even more in areas where the economy is especially weak. In Teesside, one of the UK’s struggling economic regions, research has found that, for many people, ‘shuttling between benefits and jobs’ has become their predominant experience of working life.
People hardly ever ‘choose’ to be in or out of work
The vast majority of those who are not in paid employment are unable to work because they are disabled or have caring responsibilities, or because there are no jobs available. Sometimes, two or more of these conditions apply at once. At least four people on Job Seeker’s Allowance are chasing every unfilled Job Centre vacancy in the country. In some areas there are more than 20 job seekers per vacancy. Even in the best of times, it is harder for disabled people and carers to find suitable employment.
People in paid work are major recipients of state benefits
A far greater proportion of social expenditure is spent on people in paid work, through working tax credits, than is spent on the fit and able-bodied unemployed. Last year expenditure on Income Support and Working Tax Credits amounted to £13.8bn, more than double the £4.9bn paid out to JSA claimant. Taking into account all the different benefits available, and distinguishing between different groups by their primary benefit, 20.8 per cent of the total benefits bill is spent on employed people on low incomes, while only 2.6 per cent is actually spent on the able-bodied unemployed.
For the first time ever, in-work poverty has overtaken workless poverty, with 6.1 million people in working households living in poverty. Instead of tackling the problem of low income, the government is subsidising employers offering poor quality employment through working tax credits. Taxpayers are picking up the bill by topping up wages so that paid workers can feed and house themselves and their families.
Claiming benefits does not trap people in long-term dependency
As the graph below shows, the vast majority of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance do not claim over the long-term. Less than half claim for more than 13 weeks and only 10 per cent of all claimants claim for more than a year.
Data from the Department of Work and Pensions shows that more than 80 per cent of those claiming benefits for five years or more are claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), while only one per cent are claiming unemployment benefit. People receiving long term benefits are those with long-term or severe disabilities, and those whose caring responsibilities prevent them from being able to work.
Dependency is not passed on from one generation to the next
An analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics found that of families with two generations living in the same household, the proportion where both generations had never worked made up less than one per cent. The rare cases of ‘intergenerational worklessness’ were more likely to be explained by a lack of jobs than by any preference for claiming benefits rather than working.
Many who are not in paid work contribute substantial value to society
A great many people who are not in paid employment nonetheless do valuable – unpaid – work, caring for others, bringing up children and looking after their families, homes and neighbourhoods. The formal economy would grind to a halt without it. Even if time spent on child care and housework were paid no more than the minimum wage, it would still be worth the equivalent of 20 per cent of GDP. Many people are not in paid work because they have prior responsibilities that involve unpaid labour. These so-called ‘skivers’ contribute a great deal more than nothing for the something they receive.
The division between strivers and skivers is a false one. Increasingly, people are forced to shuttle between spells of unemployment and short-term, low-paid insecure jobs. All but a tiny minority of jobless people are out of work because they are disabled, have caring responsibilities or simply cannot find a job. Much more of the social security budget is used to subsidise low wages than to support jobseekers, and receipt of benefits tends not to cause long-term or intergenerational dependency. Some people’s work is unpaid, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
There is nothing disreputable about being dependent. We are all dependent on others at certain points in our lives – when we are young, sick and old, as well as when we find ourselves without enough to live on. This is a positive, defining characteristic of a flourishing society: that we all depend on and care for one another in different ways, as our needs and resources change over time. We need a benefits system that respects and supports this – not one that fosters division, competition and looking after ‘number one’.