Iain Duncan Smith is proposing a scheme which would (try to) ensure that ‘problem’ families could not spend their welfare payments on drink or drugs, perhaps by making them use special cards which would only be valid in authorised shops. There would seem to be several potential problems with this scheme. Who would decide which shops would be authorised? It might be that some families would find they didn’t have such a shop within easy distance of their home. There is also a clear danger of stigmatisation.
I can understand the urge to ensure that money is not diverted away from providing decent food for children, but the people who are the main targets of this scheme are likely to find ways round it:
Those who are caught up in the new scheme will simply trade in goods such as razors and batteries, sell their smart card allocations to others, or resort to begging and stealing. Many small shops who do manage to qualify for the scheme will no doubt still accept the smart cards for fags and booze anyway, although perhaps at a premium. Illicit money changing schemes, under which cards are swiped for cash payments minus a cut, will be inevitable.
If a family’s problems are really so glaring, then there should be other mechanisms already in place to monitor and protect those concerned, particularly the children. This scheme may be well intentioned, but it is doubtful how much it will help its main targets, and almost certain that it will make people whose lives are already difficult still more challenging by forcing them to travel further to shop (a particular problem if you are disabled or have young children), and constraining their choices – which may include the choice to shop around and buy discounted goods from a market stall.