Ronald Reagan once said that ‘‘welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”
He also noted, “I think the best possible social programme is a job”.
The ‘Gipper’s’ logic is hard to flaw, but that is not the way much of Northern Ireland’s political class sees things. If our elected representatives demonstrated the same level of commitment to economic development as they do to maintaining the current levels of state handouts then we would all be much better off.
Predictably Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican movement that spent decades attacking “economic targets” and destroying jobs and economic opportunities, is leading the charge against reform of the welfare system. However, they are merely the sharp edge of a broad consensus that considers any reduction in handouts to be a bad thing.
The current crop of politicians largely hold on to their positions by promoting continued welfare dependency. As the eminent economist Thomas Sowell points out, “the more people who are dependent on government handouts, the more votes the left can depend on for an ever-expanding welfare state”.
Northern Ireland has long topped the UK league for welfare dependency and as a result the votes continue to go to the politicians who shout loudest for continued state largesse. A significantly expanded prosperous and vibrant private sector economy in which people no longer depend on the state for their income would cause power and influence to seep away from the Stormont gang.
Self-reliant, working people in decent jobs are a Northern Ireland politician’s worst nightmare. People who pay taxes resent seeing their money being spent on handouts and tend not to vote for political systems that promote high levels of welfare dependency. Perhaps that is why Stormont’s efforts to stimulate economic development are so abysmally lacklustre.
Northern Ireland does not produce enough wealth to support itself, and shows no sign of doing so anytime soon. We are funded by taxpayers on the mainland, who, against a crippling national debt, send us enough money to keep the Province afloat. How that money is allocated is up to Stormont.
If there are funding crises in hospitals and schools, that is because the politicians have prioritised splashing the cash on welfare recipients. But patience is wearing thin and unless Northern Ireland can demonstrate that it is using the money it is given responsibly we can expect to be given a lot less in future.
The purpose of state benefits is to help those in genuine need, but across the UK, and particularly in Northern Ireland, this noble aim has been grossly perverted to the extent that welfare dependency has become a viable career opportunity.
We all know welfare royalty who manage to obtain designer sports clothing, cars and the latest electronic gadgets without resorting to gainful employment.
The extent to which the true purpose of welfare has been distorted can be seen by the way in which the welfare payments are often described as contributing to the local economy, when in reality they are a drain on other spending priorities and a major obstacle to economic growth.
The purpose to the national programme of welfare reform, which is being resisted by Stormont politicians, is to reduce this burden on the wealth-creating sectors of society, to make employment the preferable option and to ensure that welfare payments go to those who really do need them. It also seeks to change the multi-generational culture of welfare dependency that has eradicated the spirit of aspirations from millions of people.
Welfare reform has passed off elsewhere without the sky falling in, and it seems to have encouraged people to move into work. Across the rest of the UK people are being nudged off benefits and into employment, resulting in economic and social benefits to the individuals concerned and to the population as a whole.
It is to the shame of Northern Ireland’s political class that they would seek to deprive people here of the same opportunity.