One of the nastier political memes of recent times is the attempt to distinguish between "strivers" and "scroungers." This must be resisted.
In saying this, I'm not referring to the fact that Osborne's real-terms benefit cuts are also a cut in tax credits which will hurt "strivers". Nor am I referring to the fact that the rise in housing benefits owes less to scrounging than to a failure to build homes and to a subsidy for landlords. Nor do I mean that "scrounging" might well be an endogenous preference - a rational response to the inability to find work. Nor do I mean that there's a strong case for supporting "scroungers". And nor do I mean that politicians' claims to support "strivers" is merely rank hypocrisy when they stigmatize, exclude and harrass hard workers who have the misfortune not to be born here.
Leave aside all these facts. I'm referring to something else - that, in very many cases, there's no sharp distinction between "strivers" and "scroungers".
Look at the latest labour market flows numbers. These show that, in Q3, 871,000 moved from employment to unemployment or inactivity*. 3.1% of "strivers" (those in employment) thus became "scroungers". Also, 591,000 moved from unemployment to employment. So 23.2% of those "scroungers" became "strivers". Another 437,000 left economic inactivity to become employed.
This tells us that unemployment is not so much a pool, in which there are "scroungers" and "strivers" outside, but is instead a river, in which many people move from "scrounger" to "striver".
Because of this, the number of long-term unemployed is low. There are only 436,000 who have been out of work for more than two years, compared to over 1.1 million who have been unemployed for less than six months. And some of this long-term unemployment reflects not "scrounging", but the difficulty of finding jobs in a recession. When the economy was doing OK in 2007, there were fewer than 200,000 long-term unemployed - a mere 0.4% of the working-age population. If we equate this number with "scroungers" (and the overlap is only rough) then the prevalence of scrounging is slightly greater than that of polydactylism and rather less than dyscalculia.To put this another way, paying £71 per week to 200,000 people costs less than £800m a year, which is less than half of one per cent of GDP.
To a large extent, then, we should regard out-of-work benefits not as something that "strivers" hand out to "scroungers", but rather as a form of insurance.
Worrying about "scroungers" is, to a large extent, fact-free ideology. The attempt to distinguish between "strivers" and "scroungers" is the oldest tactic in the ruling class's book - divide and conquer. And the British people seem daft enough to fall for it.
* This understates the numbers losing their jobs, as some people would have lost a job and found one again in the three month period.