Call me naive, but what staggered me about the coalition's proposal to cap annual benefits at £26,000 is that any family on public support would ever exceed such an income. But that was before I appreciated the dumbfounding buffet of benefits the exchequer puts on offer: jobseeker's allowance, income support, employment support allowance, council tax benefit, carer's allowance, working tax credit, child benefit, child tax credit...An industrious household that plays this system can, according to both the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, pull in up to £800 a week, or £41,600 per year. So apparently limiting welfare payments to the amount that George Osborne cites as what "the average family gets for going out to work" would crimp the style of some 50,000 families.
First, one mystery solved. I've long been perplexed why so many immigrants gather around Calais trying to stow away in lorries headed for Britain, when these migrants are already in France — a rather pleasant country in my experience, and doubtless a vast improvement on Afghanistan. Now I get it: because in the UK, your family can get merely £26,000 a year for doing nothing and it's an outrage.
Of course, a big source of this welfare bloat is housing benefit. Britons are used to this system, but as an American I'm still astonished that, rather than providing workless families a set allowance, here the state simply pays their market rent, whatever it is. This is not the way most countries do things. The policy has led to numerous high-profile scandals of families on public support living literally in mansions, of which most of us could only afford to snap photos from the pavement.
But let's skip a long middle-class whinge about the unfairness of it all — about how in inflated property markets such as London's hard-working families on modest incomes are priced out of the very homes that the unemployed poor inhabit for nothing. That would risk the ugly, sour resentment of Guy Drake's song Welfare Cadillac. There's nothing faintly enviable about being on "benefits", a less than apt expression, since dependency on the state does not benefit anybody.