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Let's talk about 'social security' and bin weaponised phrases like 'welfare' and 'benefits'

Column first published in the Fife Free Press

The welfare state was designed as a safety net to protect us in hard times. This is why most countries use the term ‘social security’.

But across these islands, right-leaning political parties and their media backers have imposed words like ‘welfare’ and ‘benefits’. Terms purposely chosen because they conjure notions of charity – of a kind-hearted state giving folk a hand, but one that has no obligation to do so.

These words have moved us away from the post-war solidarity of a social security system where most of us paid in and all of us were entitled to take out. Today we are encouraged to see social security as a conditional ‘benefit’, not a right. By all means ask, just don’t expect.

This has been a calculated project to weaponise our language. One that has been used to divide us as either ‘shirkers’ or ‘strivers’. The result has been to stigmatise and ‘other’ folk facing genuine hardship. And this acts as a barrier to people seeking support.

Take pensioner poverty, for example. Pension Credit is notoriously underclaimed, with my constituents missing out on £5.7million in 2019. That huge sum of money should rightly be circulating in our local economy.

The problem with Pension Credit is that many people who are eligible have little to no experience of social security support, despite what right-wing voices would have us believe.

That same reason is why someone who had sadly lost their wife contacted me after belatedly finding out he was eligible for Bereavement Support Payment: a social security entitlement for everyone whose spouse dies before pension age, provided their partner had paid 25 weeks of National insurance payments in one single year since 1975.

This led me to look into Bereavement Support Payment in more detail, and what I found was shocking. Following a written parliamentary question, a fair bit of digging and a lot of number crunching, my team estimate that only 60 percent of folk who were eligible received their Bereavement Support entitlement between April 2017 and February 2020.

That means around 122 people in the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath Constituency missed out on as much as £678,600.

This is a direct symptom of the deliberate neo-liberal stigmatisation of social security. Sadly, Covid’s impact has pushed many “strivers” overnight into supposed “shirker” territory, demonstrating just how divisive and wrong that language is and has always been.

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