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I am not an underclass

By DeusEx Macintosh - posted Friday, 29 January 2010

Disability sucks. I just thought you should know that.

It’s sometimes painful, always inconvenient and inclined to bite gaping holes out of your self esteem. Most people are pretty reliable: they get up in the morning, go to work or school during the week and kick back on the weekends doing activities they enjoy once the daily maintenance tasks (literal and financial housekeeping etc) are complete. However once you are disabled, you are no longer “most people”.

Supposedly the most damaging aspect of disability is isolation. Sometimes this is physical - when a disability limits your ability to get out of the house; other times it is social - when you are so busy meeting the additional needs of your condition/illness/injury that there simply isn’t time or energy left to maintain relationships properly.


As a society we are at least beyond the stage of say the 1930s where those with disabilities were considered “socially dead” and restricted to a role of utter dependency and silence by the conviction that physical handicap was somehow a sign of intellectual damage.

What I’ve personally found most isolating about being disabled has been the change from working full-time to relying on benefits. As a benefits claimant I’m “politically dead” and restricted to a role of utter dependency and silence by the conviction that the source of my income is somehow a sign of moral damage. Once you rely on welfare you’re no longer “most people”.

If I’m a welfare queen, where’s my crown

Thanks to SKeptic Lawyer I had unprecedented access to a senior politician last week. Vicariously of course, but then these days most of what I consider my “life” is experienced vicariously, either online or through friends. You’ve read her piece David Cameron Visits Brasenose? Well that was MY question she was kind enough to ask.

I though it was important to ask because the question itself reminds policy promoters that their rhetoric effects real people. The idea that people commonly fake illness or injury to go “on the sick” isn’t in itself new, I ran into it personally ten years ago as my mobility declined and I started my grand tour of neurologists: my landlady decided that I was too young to be really disabled and evicted me. Unfortunately this story has been used deliberately as a tool to silence criticism of the welfare reforms forced through over the last two years, particularly the abolition of Incapacity Benefit.

It’s hardly coincidence that the government has been rolling out a massive national advertising campaign against benefit fraud during the same period. The BBC’s Saints and Scroungers series which followed the work of fraud investigation departments - three convictions an episode for 13 episodes - simply offered a new placement for the same government advertising. So much for editorial independence.

Now you won’t find me defending dishonesty or denying that benefit fraud exists, what I will question however is the differing treatment people receive and assumptions made about their character based on the source of their income. The creepy 1984-style “we’re closing in” adverts made a point of emphasising the surveillance powers available to both local authorities and the DWP. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that gives them the right to covertly follow and photograph suspects and commandeer their banking and utility records, was passed into law with barely a whimper in 2000 as an anti-fraud/anti-terror measure. It only aroused popular criticism when the same powers were used against parents gaming the “catchment area” system for school admission.


If it is acceptable and desirable to use this level of surveillance in the fight against benefit fraud why aren’t these powers available to the Inland Revenue when investigating tax fraud? Why is self-assessment considered an acceptable basis for a tax return but an unforgivable invitation to fraud when the application is for a disability-related benefit?

Moral hazard is for poor people

This double standard isn’t imaginary, though it doesn’t tend to get much coverage beyond left leaning publications like The Guardian:

Research earlier this year conducted by the Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked people to estimate the social cost of benefit fraud relative to that of tax evasion - and their answers misfired by an order of magnitude that was laughable.

The majority thought benefit cheats cost more than tax evaders; in fact benefit fraud is estimated by the Department for Work and Pensions to cost £800m a year, while personal tax avoidance was thought to be running at £13bn.

This misconception is more troubling than assumptions about middle-class honesty: if the taxpayer is thought to be broadly honest, while society’s net recipients are all crooks, then clearly that will have an impact on our readiness to pay tax and support even the most modest redistribution.

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First published on Skeptic Lawyer on November 24, 2009. Best Blogs 09 is tun in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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DeusExMacintosh blogs at Skeptic Lawyer.

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