This essay, on the state of the welfare state in Britain, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 26 March 2023, under the headline “From the cradle to the grave, there is something rotten in the state of welfare”.
From the cradle to the grave. Once that phrase was a description of the ambition of the welfare state. Now, it is an illustration of how far that old vision has frayed. An illustration, too, of the extent to which inequality shapes people’s lives, from the beginning to the end, often with the aid of policymakers.
Two weeks ago, in the budget, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, made a big show about the expansion of childcare, promising £4bn to extend the current policy of 30 hours a week free nursery care for over-threes to one- and two-year-olds too. Critics soon pointed out that, while the offer was welcome, the numbers did not add up.
Nursery funding has been cut by 13% in real terms since 2017. The government provides only two-thirds of the cost of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds. Nurseries make up the difference by ramping up charges for younger children. Now that such cross-subsiding won’t be possible, there is fear that many could go out of business.
More insidiously, what Hunt did not tell parliament but was revealed by the Guardian last week, is that parents on benefits will effectively be forced back into work. Under new rules, parents in receipt of universal credit can be docked benefits if they are not available for work up to 30 hours a week once their youngest child turns three; or if they don’t meet a job coach every three months once their child turns one, and monthly when the child is two.
They will be forced to work even if their partner is employed but has their wages topped up with universal credit; in other words, if your partner is forced to work for such poverty wages that they have to be augmented by benefits, then you too must work, generally also for poverty wages. The childcare may ostensibly be free, but it comes at considerable cost for many of the poorest in the land.
Decent childcare should not be simply about getting people into work. It is an essential aspect of women’s rights. Nevertheless, expanding childcare to make it easier for parents to work is good. Forcing parents into work is atrocious. What it suggests is that the childcare provisions in the budget seem as much about the broader drive to use welfare as a punitive measure as they are about helping parents.
The irony is that there is considerable evidence not just that sanctions don’t work but that they help sustain a “flexible” labour market of low-paid, part-time jobs. It is a policy that entrenches poverty and inequality.
At the other end of life, too, the question of state benefits has become the focus of intense debate, and not just in Britain. Ageing populations, lengthening lifespans and constrained budgets have all helped create political turmoil throughout advanced economies over the question of pensions and generated public anger, most notably in France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to raise retirement age to 64 has led to widespread protest and disorder and to the postponement of a royal visit.
To be able to retire at 64 may seem a wonderful prospect to most Britons in a country in which the state pension age currently stands at 66. This is due to rise to 68 after 2044. The government had been considering bringing this forward to between 2037 and 2039.
That possibility has, however, now been shelved. Not because of public protest or violence on the streets, but for shallower political and deeper social reasons. Partly the government was worried about the optics of announcing that ordinary people would be expected to work even longer when the budget had relaxed tax rules on pensions for the exceptionally wealthy.
The government’s change of mind is driven, however, also by a more morbid reason. When the state pension age review was published in 2017, it was estimated that life expectancy for men at age 65 would be about 21 years in 2030 and over 22 years by 2040 (the figures for women were slightly higher, at 23 and 24 years respectively). Now, however, those estimates have fallen by between one and two years for both men and women.
The pandemic has played its part in this decline. The problem of life expectancy in Britain has, though, deeper roots and is best seen not in absolute but in relative terms. A paper published last week in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine shows that, while life expectancy in England has increased over the past 70 years – between 1950 and 2020, it rose by about 12 years both for men and women – Britain has also tumbled down the international league table.
Coming out of the Second World War, Britons were among the most long-lived peoples in the world, the UK standing 10th in the global ranking in 1950 and rising to eighth a decade later. By 2020, however, it had tumbled to 36th place. Of the G7 group of advanced industrial nations, the only one to fall further than the UK is America.
There were two periods of particularly sharp falls. The first was during the 1980s, when Thatcherism ensured the greatest rise in inequality in the postwar period. The second was the 2010s, the decade of austerity. “One reason why the overall increase in life expectancy has been so sluggish in the UK,” the authors observe, “is that in recent years it has fallen for poorer groups.”
Between 2018 and 2020, the average lifespan of men in the most deprived areas of England was estimated to be almost 10 years less than those in the least deprived areas; for women, the gap was almost eight years. As for “healthy life expectancy” – an estimate of lifetime spent in “very good” or “good” health – the difference between the poorest and richest areas was about 19 years both for men and women. Almost two decades of life lost to inequality.
The welfare state today barely functions as a welfare state. It responds to inequality but also fuels inequality. It has become framed by the appeal to rationalise resources and coerce the poor rather than by the desire to enable people to live more flourishing lives. From the beginning of life to the end, there is something rotten in the way we think of welfare.