Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Linda Tirado: The welfare state in America and the one we see here in Britain: no balance.

Every nation likes to think it’s unique somehow. Certainly we’re not like those other countries, we think – the ones with nutty politicians, and laws that don’t make any sense, and frankly barbaric social policies.
So as the chancellor, George Osborne, puts the finishing touches to next week’s spending review, which will involve budget cuts of up to 40% for some Whitehall departments and aims to shrink the benefits bill still further, it’s worth remembering just how much the rhetoric on welfare reform here mirrors that in the US.
I write about what life is like for American service workers, and came to London last autumn to promote my first book. I had thought that my decade navigating the bottom income brackets of the US made me something of an expert on welfare. Then I found out what the words “welfare state” meant in a UK context. We use the same words in America, but they mean something entirely different.
After I heard about things such as the NHS and maternity benefits and social housing guidelines that actually considered mental health, I thought that UK politics must be an intellectual paradise compared to what we deal with in the States. When an American talks about a “welfare state”, they’re talking about scattered programmes such as food stamps, tiny cash benefits and milk and formula vouchers for infants and pregnant women, which together provide a fraction of the benefits a British citizen is entitled to. It wouldn’t occur to us to talk about things like family leave – the recently installed Republican speaker of the House Of Representatives, Paul Ryan, blocked a bill on that topic, just after he refused to accept his new post unless he got time with his family.
In America, family leave is for those with the power to demand it as part of a benefits package. Things such as family cohesion aren’t considered in the arena of social policy unless the people being discussed are very poor, or black. Everyone else is assumed to be cohesive enough without the government’s help. You can see why the equation of the two nations with the same words threw me. I thought we had simply Americanised the term welfare. We’re good at cultural imperialism like that. As it turned out, I had misjudged Britain entirely. Given how much I had heard my whole life about British dignity, and the fact that there is a thing here called the House of Lords, I had assumed I would find something like comity and refinement among the people charged with running the place. Instead, I found Boris Johnson.
I began to feel at home immediately. Then I heard the term “skivers and strivers”. It felt familiar – in America we say “makers and takers”. If you listen, you can’t help but hear US-style campaigning creeping into the British political system. It’s not only the rhyming phrases meant to boil an incredibly nuanced issue down to a simple cops v robbers scenario. It’s the exact same arguments.
I found myself yelling at the TV not long ago. I was informing the talking head who’d been talking about wasteful spending by welfare recipients that in every case where a state has drug-tested benefits claimants, the state has wasted its money – most claimants aren’t drug users. The trouble is, I was yelling at a British bloke repeating well-worn stereotypes about UK welfare recipients. It sounded like such an American thing to say that I temporarily forgot which country I was in. Could an average citizen in either of our nations tell the difference between our leaders these days? Take, for example, the following quote: “If government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged … we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”
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I wondered whether that sounded British or American to the ears of commuters outside King’s Cross station. Of the 30, 17 incorrectly identified David Cameron as the speaker, rather than Ryan, who spoke those words in a rebuttal to a presidential address.
I made it far easier for the next round, leaving in telltale American “welfare” and British “benefits” language. I asked people to match the name to the quote instead of simply guessing which man had said it. Still, fewer than 60% of the people I asked could correctly match the leader with the sentiment. (Ryan’s quote: “Our goal must be to help people move from welfare into work and self-sufficiency.” Cameron’s: “Compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques – it’s in the chances you give people. The chance to get a job.”)
This in itself mightn’t be alarming. There is only so much variation you can put on one school of political thought, and both men are fairly mainstream-to-right with occasional forays into ideological counterproductivity. Both want to pare government spending to the bone, ostensibly to cut the debt and/or deficit depending on which we are very concerned with this week. In the end, you’ll wind up with some pretty sizeable tax cuts to the wealthy either way.
But can two countries with very different approaches to shared sacrifice and benefit have the same economic strategies? Given that a British citizen thinks it their right to see a doctor, and an American citizen may or may not think that the very idea is the reddest of Soviet plots, can privatising healthcare really solve the woes of both nations’ systems? It seems unlikely, given that the US still has an incredible number of people who are uninsured and the system is largely still run by private companies, that the solution will resemble what’s needed in the NHS.
I asked people if it concerned them that they couldn’t tell the difference between David Cameron and an American conservative. One memorable young man was afire with love for capitalism, and thought it could be nothing but good to be more like America. A few liked American-style regulations.
Largely, people seemed resigned. Keep calm and accept the McDonald’s and then the Starbucks and then the two-year election cycle dominated by 30-second attack ads implying that a candidate personally escorted 20 felons to freedom (which normally means the candidate had held public office, during which time 20 felons were freed for various reasons.)
In the last election, Ed Miliband and Cameron both hired top American campaign consultants. Jim Messina and David Axelrod helped Barack Obama win the White House in 2008. They’re both experts in new media campaigning, building infrastructure to reach every last likely voter.
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It’s one thing to bring in cheap food and expensive coffee. But if you’re going to import American rhetoric to solve problems with the NHS and welfare spending, and then American consultants to tell men like Miliband how to look more accessible to the British public, you might as well go all in and start your election season next summer.
If Osborne carries on the tradition of Americanising the discussion of public services, the UK will see more cases like the councillor who was fined for urinating in public (in the town he’d just removed public toilets from, natch.) We know the Cameron government isn’t likely to keep its campaign pledges about the budget.
Next week, we’ll see whether Britain has decided to keep a sense of collective duty, or whether the government will be embracing the American way. If it’s the latter, we can only hope that the wealthy citizens of the United Kingdom are as happy to trade public services away for private profits as wealthy Americans have been.