Why we shouldn’t try to make IDS live on £53 a week

Recently Ian-Duncan Smith said he could live on the £53 a week a stallholder said he took home. He has since been backed up by a few others who think they could do the same, although most people seem to think this is impossible. Notably, it seems that the richer you are, the more likely you are to think you could. I had a conversation with a relative a little while ago about the both the possibility and fairness of living in London on minimum wage, so I find this interesting.

Of course, the immediate response for most people who disagree with IDSs politics was to challenge him to do it – there was a massive petition, which I believe broke records for the fastest growing online petition.

While this is completely understandable, and I’m very sympathetic to the cause, it’s misguided, for a few reasons – it’s basically impossible to make it a fair test, and even if it were, he would be able to do it, and even if he weren’t it would prove his ideological point.


How do you make it a fair test?

He would have to give up every perk of being an MP – no phone, hospitality, transport, second house payments or anything. This would make it basically impossible for him to do his job for this period. So, he would have to step down for a year. I can’t really see that happening, especially as he will be aware that by the time he came back, this parliament would be coming to an end, so he might not get to return to a governing parliament.

Even if his current income and perks were cut to those a benefits recipient gets, and he left his job for a year, he would need to do a lot more to ensure this was anything like a fair test. Presumably he has the house, car, clothes and gadgets of a wealthy man. If I could start a year knowing that I had all the clothes I needed I would feel a lot better about the £53 challenge, but the problem with the sort of clothes that that income affords is that they are cheap, and don’t last well. If I could set up camp in a well insulated room with a decent pc, thick blankets and an iPad for when I wanted to go to the loo, I could pass a year without really noticing. But an iPad is roughly equivalent to eight weeks without food, water, electricity or heating at that income.

So he would have to start from scratch – perhaps the fairest way would be to do a survey of the possessions and finances of people who have been on £53 long term, and give him those to begin with. Of course, this should really include any outstanding debts to Wonga, Bright House and even less savoury and scrupulous characters (*glares at Lloyds TSB*). But given that he could argue that he wouldn’t get into that situation, and that’s exactly what we’re testing, I would say start at evens, with only the items owned outright by the ‘average’ benefits claimant. How we work that out, I have no idea.

Even if we could somehow get his wealth and goods to the equivalent of someone on £53 a week, I can’t imagine that that becomes a fair test. His social circles are valuable in themselves. I guess that when he goes to a dinner party, he very rarely gets offered a choice between the cheapest Lambrini rip-off and value super-strength lager. He wouldn’t get served Smart Price food, or the occasional treat of something that’s just about to go out of date and needs flogged off by the supermarket. That sort of thing makes such a difference to quality of life that it makes a nonsense of the whole project.

Finally, he has his education and upbringing, including his time in Perugia. Being incredibly literate, confident and well spoken means that even if all the above were somehow balanced, he would be in a situation incredibly few people living on £53 a week would dream of. He would be able to navigate the system that, perversely, he and others have made unnecesarily complex. I have very intelligent and able friends who find this difficult, and less well off friends find it nigh on impossible.


Why would he not succeed?

As well as not being able to make it a fair test, I can’t see how he would not succeed. It clearly is possible to *survive* on £53 a week – it’s just very difficult to really *live*. Someone of his intelligence and ability should be able to plan a budget sufficiently that he doesn’t die of starvation or exposure. He understands compound interest, and knows better than to get involved in anything dangerous or illegal, so if he was committed he’d get through even if he didn’t enjoy it at all.

The interesting point about this though, is that the mindset and experience involved with being a very wealthy person roughing it for a set period of time is vastly different from living in the situation. He would have a finish line to aim for, when all his worldly possessions would come flooding back. I would happily live on £53 a week if I knew I would end up as wealthy and powerful as IDS at the end of a year, and I would be terrible at living on £53.

He could not possibly experience the grind that most poor people feel. The problem that most people in this situation face is that they expend all their energy and effort trying to survive, with little expectation of significant improvement at any point. Real people in this situation have constant fear that something will go wrong – the boiler breaks, you get evicted, the government cuts your benefits or whatever. At best they can hope to absorb this hit over a period of months, if they live an even more miserable existence. Even in minimum wage jobs, much better than £53, life is a very tricky balance, which a single outlay can massively throw for a long period of time.

I just can’t buy that he would fail the challenge, partly because it isn’t the much worse challenge faced by people who actually do live on benefits every day, and partly because he has massive advantages going into it.


What would he learn anyway?

I think this is the most important point really: whether he failed or succeeded in living for a year on £53 it would probably reinforce his point. If he succeeds, he can say that it clearly is possible, and possibly that he found it so easy that the rate can take another cut. His ideological position appears to be to want to make living on benefits deeply unpleasant to give people an incentive to come off it. If he finds it really hard, well, that’s exactly what he wants.

There is a possibility that he would come to understand the challenges that the long term unemployed face, but I don’t think this is the problem. I genuinely believe he wants people to have more opportunity and be better off. He has done work previously that suggests he actually has a bit of an understanding, probably more so than most Conservative MPs. It is his belief, however, that the best way to tackle this is to make the ‘option’ of staying out of work so unpleasant as to border on untenable.

I think the way for him to learn something useful and important would be to study the impacts of various approaches to welfare on a range of measures such as employment rates, GDP, life expectancy, poverty and quality of life. I haven’t done a full impartial study, but I suspect that there is a limit on when the stick is useful, such as when there is a significant job shortage and demonisation of those in need. If the evidence isn’t already in place, perhaps he could consider the parliamentary paper on evidence based politics, and get that underway.

What to do instead

If you have a problem with reductions in benefits payments, the increased difficulty in getting them, and the demonisation of the sick and the poor, there are things that you can do that will be much more effective than the pipe-dream of signing a petition to get a government minister to quit his job and live as one of the poorest in society. I’m no expert, but things that strike me as a bit more useful include:

Sign the petitions on the government site that might actually enforce a debate. There are some on benefits, and others on related social issues. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Here’s one, here’s another one, and here are a load more (including the occasional WTFer). There is no way the government care about online petitions, or what your Facebook avatar is, but they have ensured that this one petition site could, theoretically, mean something.

Write to your MP part one. They Work For You. So tell them what to do. If you want them to protect the poorest, tell them that. MPs do read letters, and if they get a few on a topic it makes them think out their response. You probably won’t change their mind, but just prompting the thought and giving them a sense that the topic matters is important.

Write to your MP part two. When you don’t have a specific challenge, it is well worth promoting evidence based policy. If we convince the government to promote hypothesis testing, we will build a solid and incredibly useful evidence base on a huge range of policy areas. Even if you disagree with the decision to act on evidence, having solid evidence allows for a better quality of debate than simple unfettered ideology.

Challenge prejudice. When you see people talking about ‘scroungers’ or ‘dole-scum’, point out how incorrect they are. Point out that there are more people than jobs, so people necessarily will be out of work. It is also worth being very aware of your own prejudices and privileges. I am a young, educated, straight, middle-class, relatively wealthy, white male, and I am very aware of just what a lucky bastard I am. Few people in the history of humanity have had as easy a life as me.

Give to charity. If you reasonably can afford to give some, or more, to charity, do so. Where the state is contracting, charity may have to fill some gaps. If you can give money or time, you could make a real difference.

Loads of other stuff… There is probably a load more to do, and I can’t pretend to know it all. If you think of something, do it, and tell others to do it too.

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