Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

Academic sources can’t be relied on

I’ve never been keen on the dominant style in conventional academic referencing, represented by Harvard or Vancouver – the notes generally appear as the author’s name stuffed in brackets with a date, such as “Marx, 1990”.  (That’s from a book I was looking at which is citing Das Kapital.  Karl Marx didn’t write very much in 1990, being dead, but we’re all supposed to know what it means.)   The notes often disguise the original source, which will appear on a different page, and lots of people will stuff a small reading list into a note to support points. I’m used to my own stuff being dragged in like that.  Whenever I write an academic paper, I’ll usually try to include arguments for, arguments against and my own conclusion.  That gives people the chance to find three contrasting opinions in most of the stuff I do, and I’m pretty much used by now to having all sorts of weird, ill-founded or obnoxious views attributed to me, from both left and right.  To take a small example, I’ve recently read an otherwise rather good article which cites my work on covert research, saying that covert research generally relies on deception.  That’s a fairly direct contradiction of what I do say.

Lots of academic writing seems to rely on sources to convey the necessary gravitas, but people can be a bit cavalier about the way that names are dropped.  I’ve just come across this, which seems to have been put together by pulling the names of likely contenders from a hat:

There is a long-standing problematisation of impoverished individuals subverting the basis of state or charitable support (Rousseau, 1762) and a strong conservative tradition of individualistic and behavioural understandings of poverty (Hobbes, 1651; Burke, 1790; Smith, 1776).

Rousseau, Hobbes and Burke’s Reflections (the 1790 reference) didn’t have much to say about state support for poverty, and it could be argued that Smith said the opposite.  It would have made more sense to refer to Joseph TownsendThomas Alcock or the traditions of the Poor Law.  The misattributions just get in the way of what is, otherwise, a very creditable and solid bit of empirical research.  Peer review is supposed to protect against this sort of thing, but frankly most peer reviewers won’t pick them up when they’re commenting – inaccurate referencing is hard to spot, and it’s almost never the main issue requiring comment.

 

 

India’s response to open defaecation

A billion people in the world defaecate in the open, largely because they have no toilet.  Half of them are in India. The graph below comes from an atlas of the Sustainable Development Goals produced by the World Bank.

SDG6.2

The government of India hoped, five years ago, that it could end open defecation by 2019.  It is well behind that target, but claims that 72.3 million toilets have been constructed, out of a target of 110 million. Reports from India number such things in lakh, a unit of 100,000; 72.3 million is 723 lakh.  The position was slightly confused last month by the Prime Minister’s claim that the state of Bihar had constructed 8.5 lakh, that is 850,000, toilets in a week – it seems that the toilets have been constructed, but not so quickly.

The Economist is sceptical about the figures more generally; some of the toilets that were supposed to be constructed appear not to exist, the claims of one state to have ended the practice have been shown to be false, and besides some people continue to defaecate in the open even though they have a toilet.   In Bangladesh, improved sanitation has been linked to education about hygiene, to great effect.   Regardless, the government deserves some credit for the priority it has given  to issues that are intended to make people’s lives better – including housing, electricity, financial inclusion and sanitation.

 

“No-one is illegal”

I came across this slogan for the first time earlier this week, in a café in Oświęcim, shortly after a visit to the extermination camp at Auschwitz.  It struck a chord, for more reasons than the obvious one. There’s something deeply disturbing about with any system that accuses people, not of offending, but of being an offence – making their very presence a matter for the criminal law.

The words and the logo are the badge of a movement, “No One is Illegal”,  described on Wikipedia as a “loosely connected international network”.  The  groups describing themselves in these terms take subtly different positions – “a world without borders” (Sweden), an end to immigration controls (UK) , or “freedom to move, freedom to return, freedom to stay” (Canada).   (These are not the same thing: the first of these is about status and citizenship, the second about movement, the third about membership.)  It is probably fair to say that the movement represents some extreme viewpoints; but sometimes, thinking about the extremes can help to clarify issues that matter for those of us who live in the murky, muddy middle.  The challenge that No One is Illegal puts before us is this:  can immigration controls be justified?

The basic arguments for free movement are these:

  • Individualism – that every individual should have a choice of where they live, and opportunities to improve their lives through their own actions
  • Freedom – people are free to move, and no-one has the right to deny them a chance of a decent life
  • Free markets – the efficient operation of labour markets depends on the movement, not just of goods and services, but of people.
  • Humanitarianism. Migrants are not fleeing war, famine and disease lightly. People have a duty to each other, including a duty to strangers.
  • Arguments about consequences.  The effect of denying people access to legitimate means of movement has been disastrous – a human rights catastrophy that has costs the lives of tens of thousands of people.   People use boats or walk because they cannot fly or drive.   They use dangerous, illegitimate routes because the safe, legitimate routes have been closed to them.

No One is Illegal starts from the premise that everyone has a right to be where they are.  If immigration controls are to be justified, there have to be some considerations to set against that presumption.   The key arguments for control are these:

  • Communitarianism.  People in different places have connections, networks, shared values and culture that have to be respected.  Migrants are not excluded, but have to be integrated; free movement is not compatible with this.
  • Citizenship.  Citizenship can be understood, for this purpose, as membership of a social and political community; membership depends on status, mutual obligations and relationships with the wider community, not just on physical presence.
  • Pragmatism.  Migrants can be admitted when they are useful for a nation, and excluded when they are not.
  • The argument about capacity.  If people are going to be absorbed into any new society, there have to be the services, facilities and infrastructure to support them.  This, like the communitarian argument, does not mean that migration is excluded; it means that it needs to be controlled.

(There are also lots of bad arguments for restricting migration, including racism, ethnocentricy, and the defence of privilege.  I am not going to look at them here, except to note that they have been made.)

All of the the arguments for free movement are good ones, and some are very strong; but I am not convinced that they trump  all the arguments for some controls.  Even if people should be able to move much more freely, some thought has to be given about integration and management – housing, education, medical care, language and so on.  The countries which are most welcoming to migrants are the countries which do just that.

That brings me back to the slogan, “No-one is illegal”.  What, if that was more generally accepted, would that mean? Taken to the extreme, it could be taken to imply a free-for-all, or or an unregulated labour market, or unrestricted laissez-faire.  However, the position does not need to be taken so far (and I doubt that the supporters of the principle, many of whom think of themselves as ‘anti-capitalist’, mean to say that). In general terms, it implies only:

  • that being present in a country is primarily a question of fact, not a legal status;
  • that countries which intend to regulate migration need to accept that migrants have rights, too; and
  • that it should not be a criminal offence simply to be present in a country.

The arguments considered here would mean that migration can still be controlled by regulating and managing permissions to reside, and taking steps to integrate migrants.  For the UK, it seems to me to follow that :

  • The UK has a responsibility to manage the integration of migrants, to ensure appropriate facilities and access to services;
  • The onus of showing that a person does or not not have permission rests with the authorities, not the individual;
  • While some permission to reside may be explicit, permission to reside is  also implicit in a range of actions that governments may take, including levying personal taxation,  licensing actions (e.g. issuing a driving licence), regularising employment (National Insurance numbers) or recording the presence of the person (births, marriages or divorce).    It follows that any of these could be considered to be proof of residence.
  • The rule which has applied since 1971 – that being present without permission is in itself a criminal offence – is wrong in principle, and should be discontinued.

I should add one further issue, which is not implicit in the slogan: the principle of natural justice, which is that no person should be deprived of his or her liberty without due process and a hearing.  That should be true for everyone that the state comes into contact with, regardless of nationality, status or permissions.

Shamefully, the Home Office is harassing British citizens

This note was posted on Twitter by David Lammy MP.  Lammy writes:

I am disgusted and appalled by the case I have just received. My constituent arrived from Jamaica in 1964 aged 6. He has shown me his letter from the Home Office telling him that he will be deported despite having a National Insurance card from 1974 & NHS documentation from 1964.

I cannot say, in all honesty, that I have never seen anything like this, but I did hope never to see it in the UK.  Over the last 18 months or so, I have been reading, in short bursts, a fairly detailed account of the life of Jews in Vichy France – it’s hard to take, and I’ve still not finished the book.  Most of my father’s family escaped from France, because my grandfather was English, but others, like his cousin and aunt, didn’t; they’d thought they were French. For those who stayed, the little restrictions added up piece by piece.  At first people couldn’t go out at certain hours, then they couldn’t work or earn.  People who conformed to the rules, reporting to the authorities as requested,  realised too late what was happening.

Governments may find it convenient to blame this policy on mistakes or insensitivity, but it’s much worse than that.  This policy breaches the most basic principles of natural justice:: it offers a sentence before a verdict, and a verdict before a hearing.  It threatens people with bodily force, and we have to presume that the threat has been carried out.  It denies UK citizens the rights of their citizenship.  As David Lammy has said, the people who came to Britain before 1971 don’t need to be granted UK citizenship – they were UK citizens before they arrived.

There’s more.  The Home Office has ignored the evidence it was offered.  It has responded aggressively to enquiries from legitimate citizens and residents (including EU nationals).  It has denied people access work, health care and employment.  It has created a situation where the only most sensible thing for a citizen to do may be to hide.   And it all results from the deliberate decisions and actions of those in power.

I’ve seen some bad administration in Britain in my time, and some shameful decisions. This may be the worst.

How selective benefits affect people who are not being targeted

A technical study for the World Bank challenges one of the central arguments for ‘targeting’ the poorest – as well as posing a major challenge to conventional economic theory.  The report is snappily titled General equilibrium effects of targeted cash transfers: nutrition impacts on non-beneficiary children.   The first effect of cash benefits to selected poor people was substantially to improve the extent to which their children were able to get protein rich foods.  There were marked improvements in nutrition, particularly on stunting – the effect that malnutrition has over time, in limiting children’s growth.

However, the policy also had a side-effect: the relative price of that kind of food increased. That, in turn, had a further effect: it reduced the access of other children, children in families who were not getting benefits, to protein-rich foods.  The effect was clearest in poorer villages where more people were getting benefits.  “We find that weight-for-age is significantly lower and the likelihood of being underweight significantly higher in program villages that have high rates of saturation. Average height-for-age is also lower and stunting rates higher …”

There are two major implications.  The first is about targeting.  One of the key problems with selectivity has always been that a line has to be drawn somewhere: the effect is that people a little above the line are not necessarily being treated fairly relative to those who are just below it.  The way to avoid this is to make the benefits universal – which is what has been happening with basic health care and universal primary education.

The second implication is about one of the received principles of economic theory, ‘Pareto optimality’.  Most economic analyses about of suppose that welfare is increased if at least one person is made better off, and no-one is worse off.  I’ve argued in previous work (for example, my book Reclaiming individualism) that this cannot happen, because prices are relative to resources.  This  study demonstrates the effect very clearly.

An OECD economist argues that Universal Credit is better than Basic Income

I was surprised to read a report from the Helsinki Times, that the OECD is recommending Finland to forget about Basic Income and adopt Universal Credit instead.  It took me a little while to find the source; it’s in a blog post written by Jon Kristian Pareliussen.  He  had previously expressed his appreciation for Universal Credit in a paper written in 2013, when the system was still imaginary rather than practical.  Even at that time, the idea that work incentives would be preserved by a marginal rate of deduction of possibly three-quarters – that’s the combined effect of tax or NI plus the loss of  UC – was fantasy.

The OECD’s opposition of Basic Income has a rather stronger foundation.   Last year’s report on Basic Income explained that in each of the countries they looked at, schemes for a Basic Income were likely to leave many poor people worse off.  What Basic Income wouldn’t do is to undermine work incentives, because there is no added marginal rate of deduction.

 

The IMF takes steps to scupper universal benefits

A  report from Stephen Kidd about Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan tells us that the IMF have been forcing governments to limit the scope of universal benefits for children.  At a time when the evidence for universal programmes in less developed countries has rarely been stronger – see, for example, S Davala, R Jhabvala, G Standing, S Mehta, 2015, Basic Income –  this is deeply depressing.

I discuss the issues about targeting briefly on my social policy website.  If “targeting” means that there’s a choice of group (for example, payments to pensioners or nursing mothers), it can work.  Targeting “the poor” is much vaguer and more difficult to do effectively.  The process is complex and hard to do with any precision; some favoured methods, such as geographical selection, really don’t work well.  A report by Australian Aid,  Targeting the poorest, found that for poor people the process could seemed bizarrely random, with outcomes that they attributed to luck or divine judgment.  The evidence suggests that selectivity is rather more effective at stopping people from getting benefits than it is at getting them to the people who need them most.  By contrast, universal benefits work.  Arguing to scrap benefits that work and replace them with rules that don’t makes very little sense.

My role as a straw man: no, I don’t think that poverty is the fault of the poor

There are times when I wonder what is the point of writing academic arguments – it doesn’t seem to matter what you say, because people will just make it up anyway.  In the course of the last year,   I’ve commented on a couple of references which have set me up with positions I don’t hold.  Today I’ve come across a paper written for a conference in Indonesia which says this:

Paul Spicker argues that poverty is an individual issue caused by the weakness and choice of the individual concerned. Poverty will disappear if market power is expanded to the maximum and  economic growth is driven to the highest possible level.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not hold this position, and I have never held it.  I cannot imagine why anyone who has read what I do write should suppose that I might think this way.

 

Tunisia’s social security scheme expands

Tunisia is reported to be improving its social security system. They’ve aimed to offer a stable minimum income, comprehensive coverage and provision for decent housing.  The amounts being offered are not large: an increase from 70 dinars a month (less than $29) to 150 dinars earlier this year and now 180 dinars (a bit under $74), a little extra (10 dinars) for each child in school, a fund for loans to house buyers, and exemption from fees for medical care (but I don’t know enough to say how that is actually going to work).   The national GDP per capita now seems to be in the region of $10,800 (USD), so the benefits are not likely to be enough to live on.   Having said that, the commitment to extended  coverage is a big deal: Tunisia has previously been reported as having something on the region of 80% coverage, and the people not covered before included agricultural workers, domestic servants and unemployed people.

The extension of coverage in low to middle income countries in recent years has been remarkable.  In a recent lecture, Minouche Shafik of LSE pointed to the rapid growth of a range of welfare measures across the developing world – more than 80 have social security pensions, more than 120 have some unconditional cash transfers.  Around the world, she argues, the “state” is coming to mean a “welfare state”.

 

Time to turn back the clock?

Last week, I offered a list of truly awful policies, most of which were rolled out after the responsible politicians had been confronted with evidence that they didn’t work but went ahead anyway.  I thought I’d follow it up with a list of social policies which worked, more or less, before governments decided to scrap them.  It’s all part of the Great British tradition: find out what works and put a stop to it.

Hospital social work.  Social workers were in hospitals for more than a century, first as “almoners”, then as medical social workers.  It’s nearly forty years since I saw the work up close while on placement; alright, there was some bad practice, but there was good practice too.   They weren’t always able to clear people out of hospitals, because it’s not possible to conjure residential placements out of thin air, but they were there for the patients and for the medical team.    We seem to imagine nowadays that the way to bring social care and medicine closer together is to have a joint committee.   If we’re serious about integrating health and social care, this is the way to go.

Mobility Allowance.   Between 1975 and 1992/3, we had two main benefits: Attendance Allowance for severe disability, and Mobility Allowance for impaired mobility.  Then mobility allowance was combined with Attendance Allowance to form Disability Living Allowance, and then DLA was translated into PIP.  Now we have three sets of rules for mobility support – DLA for those under 16, PIP or DLA for 16-64, and DLA extensions versus nothing for those 65 and over.  It’s unfair, it makes no sense, takeup is rotten and from DWP it seems that lots of the people who do apply don’t know what they’re applying for but think they may as well have a crack at it.  Bringing back Mobility Allowance would make it possible for one part of the system, at least, to apply consistent rules and make sense.

Special case officers.  After the reforms of the 1980s, the Department of Health and Social Security – later the Department of Social Security, now the DWP – put people in local offices with the remit to deal personally with the complex, difficult and sensitive cases that came their way.   There’s an argument, of course, for dealing with everyone’s circumstances by nominating an officer for  personal contact, but at the least it should be possible  to invest social security officers with a degree of professional powers and respect.

General needs housing subsidies.  Although the intention to get rid of subsidies was first expressed in the 1970s, it took decades for governments gradually to abandon housing subsidies and put the money into Housing Benefit instead.  The only way to replenish our housing stock is to put money into it.

Universal Child Benefit.  Child Benefit was always one of the simplest benefits, with the best takeup in the system.  The principle was breached by the decision to exclude higher rate taxpayers, leading to confusion, uncertainty and millions of forms.  If we want higher rate taxpayers to receive less, don’t introduce new, complicated tests: just tax them more.

Professional probation officers.  Probation officers used to be social workers – in Scotland, they still are.  Then the government in England decided that a private firms could do the job of supervising offenders just as well.  We’ve just been hearing this week about some of the practices:  “supervision” over the phone and failure to breach offenders amongst them.  This is symptomatic of a wider problem (Economics 101 stuff).  Private firms work by making choices; choices imply decisions about what to do and what not to do; decisions not to things involve risks; rational decision makers work to the percentages.   If we don’t want services delivered by the numbers, we need professionals.

We could bring any of these policies back; some are expensive, some less so.  Unfortunately, that implies that we might have to learn something from experience, and the main thing we learn from the lessons of experience is that many politicians aren’t interested in the lessons of experience.