The UK government is reforming welfare benefits. If anyone still used metal type, it would be worth keeping that phrase permanently set up. Benefits systems designed for the few – the few who survived to retirement, the few who were unable to work – have become a source of income (not much, of course) for the huge number of us who live longer, and keep on living with our illnesses rather than dying of them.

The question no-one wants to ask is this ‘What is the obligation of society as a whole to the poor and the ill – when there are so many of them?’ Much easier to moan about scroungers, or talk up the possibilities of levering people back into work. Neither of those are unimportant of course – but the way all other things are tackled will depend on the fundamental viewpoint. Are the poor and marginalised ‘us’, or are they ‘them’?

I have a suspicion that the present UK government wants to find out – to make people sign up as one of ‘us’: eager to work (and ready to take anything that’s offered); preferably not a single parent; definitely not fecklessly producing extra children without the means to feed them; not insisting on trying to live in expensive areas of the country (however long their families may have been there). ‘Them’ are of course the opposite: the ones who will have their benefits taken away for refusing work (any work? – will Muslims lose benefit for refusing to work in a pork packing factory?); the ones who won’t (in the words of a previous Tory minister) ‘get on their bikes’ in search of work.

I live among people who live on the edge of, or well into poverty. If only it were as simple as that to work out who are the deserving poor, and who are the others. The complexity of people’s’ lives, and the degree of damage that so many carry with them, make me doubtful whether the government’s moral analysis by way of benefit payments is likely to make much progress.

It seems to me there’s no choice; we have to start from the position that we are all ‘us’. In politics, that means that a genuinely universal benefit system is the only way to benefit all of us universally. Much of the government’s rhetoric is very positive, but I suspect an underlying morality of coercion which can only undermine whatever positive things overlay it, and conceal it from too much public view.