It’s time to stop penalising the poorest

Six years ago New Start magazine highlighted the way community activists, many of them unemployed or on incapacity benefit, were left out of pocket by their efforts to regenerate their own communities.

Our Just Rewards campaign called for a better deal for volunteers on regeneration schemes, including prompt and full payment of expenses and an allowance that could be paid to volunteers without affecting benefit entitlement.

We got as far as a meeting with Chris Pond, then a junior minister at the DWP. He hummed and hawed and talked about the difficulties. Nothing much changed: our key point about the need to relax the earnings disregards so that people could be rewarded for community activity without loss of benefits was ignored.

Community Links, an organisation feted by Gordon Brown and other ministers whenever they want to highlight community-inspired regeneration, takes its campaign for a new deal for benefit claimants to the House of Commons. Need not Greed has three key demands: an end to the rule that cuts benefit entitlement for anyone working more than 16 hours a week; more generous earnings disregards; and support for projects designed to help people move from informal to legitimate work.

The campaign is backed by Oxfam, the TUC, and a host of other organisations. It ties in strongly with the ‘Create’ community allowance proposal, highlighted by New Start on numerous occasions. The campaign is important because many benefit claimants find themselves in an impossible position. It’s a position that some of the financial advisers, architects, surveyors and housebuilders now losing their jobs will appreciate when they try to make do on jobseeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week.

Do one hour’s work at the minimum wage as a claimant, and you start to lose benefit entitlement – you can’t earn more than £5 a week without loss of benefits. Instead of caricaturing everyone who works for cash in hand as cheats and fraudsters, we need a mature, intelligent approach that offers them real routes into work.We should remember, too, that despite the rhetoric of recent years, the government hasn’t fulfilled its side of the bargain – a strong labour market and the tax credit system have failed to eradicate poverty.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation examination of government anti-poverty strategies last year found that ‘…in the absence of good wages, moving into work does not guarantee an escape from poverty and… higher wages do not always translate into higher household incomes.’ More reason, then, to stop penalising the poorest.


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