“April is the cruellest month”: how true TS Eliot’s words will ring for millions of low-income working age people reliant on benefits and tax credits as they face a raft of cuts this cold April. Cruel, too, has been the language of “strivers” v “skivers”, which has framed much of the debate around the welfare benefits uprating (more accurately downrating) bill, which recently completed its passage through parliament.
Happily, there has been something of a backlash against the use of these labels, as some politicians have realised just how damaging they are. But a more insidious longer-term shift in language appears to have been accepted across the political spectrum: the replacement of “social security” by “welfare” to denote benefits paid to working age people (and to a lesser extent those above pension age). How did this come about and why does it matter?
It’s difficult to put a finger on when exactly welfare replaced social security in the political and media lexicon. Back in the 1970s, groups like the Child Poverty Action Group did use the terms “welfare rights” and “welfare benefits”, influenced in part by the welfare rights movement in the US. And of course the term “welfare state” signals acceptance of state responsibility for the broader welfare of the people. But it is the more recent use of “welfare” as a noun, synonymous with social security, that is problematic because of its association with a stigmatised US-style residual form of poor relief. It is all the more stigmatising because of the constant coupling with “dependency”, so that in many people’s eyes receipt of social security is now equated with a “dependency culture” that research does not in fact substantiate.
The language of “welfare dependency”, also imported from the US, provided Margaret Thatcher’s government with the perfect framing for its policies of rolling back the welfare state. It came to prominence in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, at that time, social security was still the official nomenclature. Retrospective media analysis would probably show that the term welfare was used increasingly during the 1990s often in a derogatory manner – a 1993 Sunday Times splash about lone mothers being “wedded to welfare” being a typical example.
It was, though, under New Labour that the transmogrification from social security to welfare was completed. The Commission for Social Justice, which had been established by the late John Smith to rethink Labour’s social and economic policies, tended to use the terms social security and welfare interchangeably (mea culpa as a member of the CSJ for not realising the significance of this at the time). It did still talk about social security and social insurance, but it also, unthinkingly, adopted the now well-worn alliteration of “welfare to work”.
Welfare to work was to become the centre piece of New Labour policymaking on social security and “reforming welfare around the work ethic” its guiding mantra. As well as perpetuating the notion of welfare dependency, New Labour coupled welfare with another derogatory term: “passive”. Its first green paper on social security reform, published in 1998, was entitled New Ambitions for our Country: A New Contract for Welfare. This was perhaps the moment when welfare officially replaced social security. The final nail in social security’s coffin came with the demise of the Department of Social Security in 2001 and its replacement by the Department for Work and Pensions. The significance was underlined by James Purnell when he became secretary of state seven years later. He called it “an ideological break with the past” and dismissed the very notion of social security: “Security as something handed down; welfare as bureaucratic transfer; people as recipients of funds.”
Language is important. It frames the debate and there is evidence that negative political rhetoric in turn helps drive negative media coverage of social security. As a recent Compass briefing on Social Security for All argues: “We must set the tone and create language that is reflective of the kind of society we want to live in.” The language of welfare is divisive: setting a minority of so-called welfare dependants against so-called hard-working families. The language of social security has the potential to unite us by reminding us that it offers a shared mechanism for safeguarding the economic security of us all, as well as the means through which the more fortunate can express social solidarity with the less fortunate.