On “The shame game”

The Poverty Alliance hosted a session yesterday prompted by Mary O’Hara’s book, The shame game: overturning the toxic poverty narrative.  It’s a powerful and very readable book, notably strengthened by her personal reflections.  I’d part company with her argument, however, right at the end, where she suggests that the central task is to challenge and overturn the ‘toxic narrative’.  Nor do I share the confidence of Nat Kendall-Taylor, the second speaker at the session, that the task is to find better ways of communicating, because we’re better at it than we used to be.

My own work on stigma was done nearly forty years ago – it was the subject of my doctoral thesis, and my first book.   The stigma of poverty is deeply entrenched in our society, and in many others.   The moral condemnation of the poor  didn’t begin with austerity, or Thatcher, or Reagan; modern politicians have simply mobilised and endorsed prejudices that have been there, literally, for centuries. The stigma of poverty is also reinforced by a broad set of overlapping stigmas – such as the rejection of dependency, disability, mental illness and class.   In the course of my work, I came to think that this was not so much a matter of discourse, as a reflection of something much deeper.  It’s hard to explain the association of poverty with immorality and dirt in purely rational terms.  If anyone out there is interested, my book, Stigma and social welfare, is freely available on my open access page.

It follows that I don’t think that challenging the narrative – a strategy which has been tried repeatedly since at least the 1930s – is likely to be effective in eradicating age-old prejudices.  If we look at what is effective instead, I’d argue that the policies which have worked best have not been directly concerned with poverty at all.  For example, we’ve largely taken health care out of the picture; we don’t criticise the poor recipients of health care for their dependency.  The same is true of the beneficiaries of primary education, libraries, buses and sanitation.  State Pensions and Child Benefit are very effective at helping people who are poor, but they’re understood in different terms.  The least stigmatising policies have been aimed, not at the poorest, but at the welfare of everyone.

Thinking collectively

Policy Press have contacted me to say that three of my books are now available on their online service, Policy Press Scholarship online.  This is subscribed to by many institutions – I have access by way of the National Library of Scotland.  The books are, in order of publication, Reclaiming Individualism (2013), Thinking Collectively (2019) and The Poverty of Nations (2020).

If the books were being written now, I’d need of course to take account of the current pandemic; but oddly, there’s little in the intellectual content that would need to be changed.  In Thinking collectively, I review a range of moral arguments for collective action, and competing conceptions of the ‘common good’.  The common good might be understood as the sum of particular interests, such as economic development; on interests which are shared with other people, like the arguments for clean water; on interests which we share as members of a collectivity, such as defence or foreign policy; and, beyond that, the process of collective action, such as democratic participation.  The response to Covid-19 is – or should be – an example of aiming for the common good in every sense.

Tax rises won’t pay for the deficit – but they might help to make Britain fairer

The central fallacy behind the strategy of ‘austerity’, so-called, was the assertion that the deficit had to be made up by cutting public expenditure. The policy was built on two key mistakes: that the deficit was something that mattered in itself, and that the belief that cutting public spending would make the books balance. Governments can’t cut their way out of a slump, because the very process of cutting increases the size of the hole the economy has to fill. The argument for paying off the debts incurred during the pandemic is open to the same objection: now is not the time to take money out of the economy.

There seems to be a general consensus, on both right and left, that tax rises would make our economic situation even worse. It’s generally true that tax takes money out of the economy, and that’s not what we ought to do when the economy is depressed. The same is true, of course, of cuts to public services, which are not just bad economics, but bad for well-being.

Does it follow, however, that tax rises have to be avoided? I think that has to depend on what kind of tax rises they are. One of the peculiarities of the way we’ve come to record ‘public spending’ in the accounts is the treatment of every form of expenditure as if it all had the same kind of effect on the economy. When people are taxed, money is taken out of the economy; when people receive benefits, money is put back in; and so, it seems, the two sides of the process have different effects on economic activity. If we look at the finance of benefits, however, we find that there is a direct relationship between tax and spending, and that in some cases it makes no visible difference to the performance of the economy. The National Insurance Fund, which took in £109bn in 2019, is an example. State pensions aren’t, properly speaking, a form of ‘expenditure’ at all. They’re a transfer payment: money is taken from one group of people (workers) to move to another (pensioners). If there are any economic implications of a transfer payment, it has to do with the possibility that the two groups will treat the money differently – they may have different patterns of spending and saving.  However, the initial assumption has to be that, unless there are reasons to the contrary, transfer payments are economically neutral.

That implies, in turn, that there are different implications of raising  different types of tax, depending on the use that the money is put to. Some tax which represents a withdrawal from the economy, and some other tax doesn’t, because the same money goes straight back in to the economy in the form of a transfer payment. The objection to raising taxation, that it will take money out of a depressed economy, only belongs to the taxation in the first category. If taxation is increased to pay for benefits, the same doesn’t apply. There may be other objections to doing that – though some of the objections, such as arguments around incentives for very highly paid people, are pretty iffy – but the effect on the economic activity overall wouldn’t be one of them.

The implication is that taxation can be used directly for redistribution without any evident damage to the economy. If, for example, we want to increase taxation to pay for the pensions, the costs of social care, benefits for disability or Child Benefit (which was developed from a combination of benefits with tax reliefs), we should be able to do that. By extension, it should also be possible to pay for some services, providing only that there is a direct equivalence between transfers (for example, wages) and the level of tax raised.

So – why don’t we do that? There are many political objections which defend established rights to property, which is at least a moral principle, even if it is one that I disagree with. By contrast, the economic arguments seem particularly thin. They are that the economy is too complex to be tampered with, and there may be unexpected effects (the argument made by Hayek); that public expenditure devalues the currency, an argument that is not applicable to transfer payments, because the amount of money they put in circulation is the same as the amount taken out; and that public expenditure needs to balance the books, which is probably wrong but doesn’t apply to transfer payments anyway.

There is one practical issue to consider, too, which is also a political obstacle: our public accounts don’t allow for it. We don’t have hypothecated taxation, which means that we can’t tie taxation to specific expenditure, and we don’t distinguish transfer payments from public expenditure used to pay for things. We can do things differently; these are conventions, and not very helpful ones. We should take transfer payments out of the public spending figures altogether, and account for them in their own right.

Some of the complexities of social protection, laid bare

The World Bank’s  Sourcebook on the foundations of social protection delivery systems is a substantial document, but it’s a bit of a curate’s egg: while some parts of it are excellent, others should be avoided.  ‘Social protection’ mainly refers to benefits; it seems to take in social work – part of the same process only in some countries – but doesn’t apparently extend to medical care, and social care for older people is largely dismissed in a page (half on page 254, half on 264-5).  The text is based around a seven-stage process of application and service delivery, shown in the graphic.

I wasn’t convinced at the outset that this  was an ideal way to explain how the process of administering benefits and services was translated into practice; that’s partly because they’ve opted not to use or even refer to some well-established literature about claiming, and partly because the labels they use  don’t quite capture what they intend to refer to.  ‘Outreach’ is about how the intended population is identified, and becomes aware of services prior to claiming; ‘registration’ is mainly about basic documentation; ‘onboarding’ is induction.  These stages aren’t necessarily sequential; many services apply eligibility criteria as a part of acquiring information about the population, and needs assessments are sometimes done to winnow out initial enrolment.  (I think the point is made for me in chapters 7 and 8, which have to track backwards to get a view about information, contact, referral and verification.)

Despite those reservations, I warmed to the model as the book went on, because it does at least give shape and structure to discussion of the issues.  It may be particularly useful for some of the advocates of Basic Income to consider: any viable Basic Income scheme still has to negotiate issues relating to documentation, identity, addresses, banking, how updates and corrections are made,  and such like.  This is the first document I’ve seen in an age which engages with that kind of issue.

There are, however, some problems with the way that the questions are explored, and arguably they reflect the agenda that the authors are implicitly following, much of which assumes that shiny new IT contracts and commissioning are the way to go.  I suspect that some readers will have strong reservations about the criteria the authors of this report set for schemes for disability assessment, which need to be ‘valid, reliable, transparent and standardized’ (p 107) rather than being, if it’s not too wild a leap of the imagination, personal,  dignified, expert or sensitive to complexities. The report promotes  a sizeable range of approaches using digital tech, but  the detailed coverage is fairly casual about many of the familiar problems that relate to reliance on such approaches – the obstacles the technology presents to claimants, the difficulty of determining whether their personal circumstances fit the boxes that people are offered, the role of the officials administering the system (most are not ‘caseworkers’ – a bureaucratic division of labour is more common), and the role of  intermediaries.   It doesn’t consider, with the main exception of enforcing conditionality, the possibility of using existing institutions such as schools and hospitals as the base for service delivery.

There are eccentricities in the way that benefits are described – the bland acceptance of proxy means testing, for example, the idea that a tapered minimum income is a ‘universal’ policy, and the treatment of grievances as a ‘confidential’ issue, when systematic reporting and review of complaints is essential to public management and scrutiny.   Taking the UK as an exemplar for the recording of fraud and error is a bit rich, when the accounts have had to be qualified for years because of it.  The entry that grated most, however, was about a ‘predictive tool’ for child protection, in  Box 4.10.   It claims that they have an instrument that can predict future out-of-home placements “accurately” and “to a high degree”.

Specifically, for children with a predicted score of 1 (predicted low risk), 1 in 100 were later placed out-of-home within two years of the call. For children with a predicted score of 20 (predicted highest risk), 1 in 2 were later removed from the home within 2 years of the call.

Calling this ‘accurate’ is overstating the case somewhat: if 1 child in 2 is going to be removed from the home, the other 1 child in 2 isn’t.    I tried to dig for more information, but couldn’t find it – the source the report cites for this study isn’t public.  From a previous published paper on the same project, it seems that the account given here is a misinterpretation anyway.  The purpose of the scheme was not to predict whether the child ought to be removed to a place of safety, but to stop the people who are answering the telephone hotline from dismissing calls about child abuse that might otherwise seem innocuous.  If similar low-level calls were being made repeatedly, they might all be dismissed in the same way.  This looks more like a problem in logging and managing referrals than it is a problem with casework judgments. But for what it’s worth, predictive tools based on profiling referrals have major limitations when it comes to managing benefit claims, too.  The problem is that there are too many variations and complexities for generalisations about claimants to work at the level of the individual.

The government’s misleading figures about poverty reflect a wider problem

The Prime Minister has been upbraided by the Office for Statistical Regulation (part of the UK Statistics Authority) for his assertion that child poverty is falling, when on all the tests used by the government the opposite is true.  I’m not greatly enamoured of those tests.  I’ve considered the case for the standard test of ‘relative’ poverty, 60% of the median income, in other work – it’s not bad, but we need to accept that it’s a pointer, not an authoritative measure. The claim that the figures for 2010/11 represent a test of ‘absolute poverty’ is particularly suspect.  Having said that, however, there’s no real excuse for blustering that poverty has been getting better, when your own figures say that’s not so.

This is part of a wider problem, and one we’ve seen increasingly in the course of the last few years.  The UK Statistics Authority was formed in the hope that it would be possible to maintain confidence in the integrity of official statistics.  In the course of the last ten years, however, we’ve seen a growing contempt for statistical evidence,  shown in the treatment of figures about crime, social security claims, incapacity, the management of coronavirus and more.  It’s done whenever departments publish figures that are not official, when the press is steered to have a go at popular targets like migration or benefit fraud, and when ministers just make stuff up. There is a cost to undermining public trust: it’s not just that some figures can’t be believed, but that everything becomes open to doubt.

Racism is about now, not the distant past

Boris Johnson has ‘announced’, if that’s no too grand a word for a bit of a burble in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an inquiry into inequalities.  I’ve found it intensely depressing that a powerful moral argument about racism and police brutality has somehow been diverted into a discussion of public statues. The slave trader Edward Colston died in 1720, three hundred years ago.  The focus on people like him is a poor substitute for addressing the problems now.

The diversion from the real issues reflects, unfortunately, a failure among many people who think of themselves as anti-racist to focus on what matters.  The dominant narrative in the 1980s tried to link  the explanation for all racial problems in terms of a combination of slavery, colonialism and contemporary racism.  I hoped and thought the debates had moved on since then: it seems I was wrong. The same narrative makes sense only for particular ethnicities.  The narrative says a lot about the USA, and quite a lot about people who came to Britain from the Caribbean; but it overrides the experience of other disadvantaged groups, whose circumstances just  didn’t fit the same pattern.

The first set of issues concerns slavery.  The dehumanisation and brutality associated with slavery is often represented as something that is distinctive to colonialism, but it’s something that has been widely practised in a wide range of other circumstances.  In contemporary terms, the serfs and peasants of the middle ages were pretty much treated as slaves.  Various types of serfdom were practised in Europe over eight hundred years or more; serfs were still having to redeem themselves in Russia in the early 20th century .  Let me pick up, for instance, the example of the 1351 Statute of Labourers (one of the major causes of grievance in the peasants’ revolt, thirty years later) which stipulated that “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve.” This is not the same thing as a slave trade – land and property could not at that time be bought and sold.  But the staggering assumption at the root of this law was the assertion that everyone must have a master, and not having one constituted grounds for being taken and set to work. The lives of most people, in most places, were not their own.

Next, there is colonialism. A dogged Marxist might, I suppose, argue that it all boils down to money: empires work by extracting resources from one place and moving them to another.  However,  what money does depends on where it does it.  It seems painfully obvious that what colonialism or Empire meant in South America, India, Ireland, China and much of Africa was quite different.  The East India Company, a private concern, was based in trade leavened with piracy – it was not much like anything before or since. Slavery in the Spanish empire was characterised by degradation, inhuman treatment and chattel slavery, but it still didn’t look much like the system in the USA.  To my mind, the claim that any of this can be reduced to a common factor of ‘race’ disregards  the distinct history – and the pain – of people in the colonies and the conquered nations.

And then there is contemporary racism – what is happening now.  It’s clear enough that history plays a part in forming the condition and opportunities which shape the experience of disadvantage: the position of indigenous peoples, or the continued inequalities affecting people of Irish descent in the UK, are markers.  History matters, but it doesn’t matter that much. The kind of issue that should be exciting all our concern is not about a remote history. People who have some tenuous connection with foreign countries are being stripped of their rights.  The policy is, deliberately and explicitly, ‘hostile’.  Citizens are being expelled from their countries.    Migrants are left to drown.  People are being killed in the streets.

This is about the world as it is now, not as once it was.  This morning, David Lammy has been making a powerfully articulate case for government action about things that matter – among them,  policing, safeguarding people from minority groups and workplace discrimination.  We have loads of information, reports and recommendations for action.  Nothing is being done about them.

We have to make up for a gulf in educational provision

I wonder if we have forgotten what schooling is for. The system we have – or perhaps, had – is far from perfect, but for years teachers and schools have been arguing that missing school is enormously damaging to children as people, and parents have been subject to huge pressure (and often legal action) to ensure that not even a day is missed.

The things that children learn in school aren’t easily summed up in terms of bits of knowledge, or anything as mechanical as a national curriculum.  Education is all about development.  The point of insisting that every child comes to school is not because they will learn, on a given day in March or April, a particular thing that they must learn ; it is so that they can grow, build skills, change, and develop.

Our  public authorities seem, however, to be taking this in a very different spirit.  There’ll be supplementary programmes over the summer: children will be taught faster to catch up.  They will be processed through the system.  Those facing exams will be allocated grades regardless of what they might actually be achieving.  In The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow may have no brain, but the wizard can offer him a certificate. This is not much better.

Pupils need to make up for lost time and opportunities – already somewhat more than a full term, and arguably rather more. That implies that the educational career of every schoolchild needs to be extended, probably by half a year at least.  We will need more teachers and more resources: we can do that.  But anything less will not be good enough.

The European Union and the new social policy

The Journal of European Social Policy has launched a blog, intending to consider some of the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for Europe.  The first entry is a dialogue between some leading scholars about the prospects for the EU, in what Frank Vandenbroucke calls an ‘existential moment’.  Unfortunately, the editors haven’t quite grasped yet two of the most basic principles of blogging: put the blog where people can find it, and keep things short. The link to the site is here , and as that link is 379 characters long, here is a shortened form to pass on: https://bit.ly/3eNzEge

The dialogue did set me  thinking about the role of the EU in this crisis, and that of course is its purpose.  I think it’s fair to say that the experience of Brexit has shifted my view of the EU, and the answers I might give to several key questions are different from those I would have given in the 1990s (my 1996 article on “Social Policy in a Federal Europe” is accessible here).

First: what is the EU?  25 years ago, I would have said that it was a set of political institutions aiming to establish common laws and principles across nations.  The EU had asserted ‘exclusive competence’ in a range of areas, and its member states had acceded to the general principle that some things were beyond their power or capacity.  Now, I would describe the EU as little more than an association of states, where every joint action, regardless of the nominal powers of the Union, has to be negotiated and is liable to be locked in limbo.

Second: what responsibility does the EU have to its citizens?  In the 1990s, the answer seemed clear: the EU had made a commitment to offer to each and every citizen of the Union a set of rights and statuses that were distinct from, and not dependent on, the actions of its member states.  That is what the European Charter of Fundamental Rights said.  It has become clear, from the process of Brexit, that this guarantee was worthless: the EU has simply abandoned its commitments to sixty million European citizens.    The Union, it seems, is nothing more than a club, and if a member state doesn’t wish to subscribe to the rules of the club, the citizens who live there can’t expect to have access to the facilities.

Third:  what does it mean to say the EU works on a principle of solidarity?  The idea of solidarity is central to the arguments made by the contributors to the JESP dialogue –  Bea Cantillon, for example, complains that “The lack of solidarity is a shameful mockery of all the great principles enshrined in the Treaties.”  The European view of solidarity was always, I think, more nuanced than this.  European solidarity would be built, not by the adoption of universal European rights and policies, but through the establishment of networks of mutual responsibility, both within and across national borders; generalisation happens slowly and incrementally.  In the context of the current crisis, however, Vandenbroucke argues, I think rightly, that the EU already has the powers it needs to act.

 In the current context, solidarity requires large-scale ‘disaster relief’. The European treaties not only make this possible, they even demand it: Art. 222 TFEU stipulate that the Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the victim of a natural or man-made disaster; Art. 122 TFEU makes financial assistance to members states threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters….

If this is not happening, it is only another mark of the unwillingness of the EU to accept direct responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.   The contributors to the dialogue are fearful that the EU may not survive this crisis, if it remains inactive.  If it does nothing, it may not deserve to survive.


Coronavirus: another week of mismanagement, misleading statements and mixed messages.

There are good things to say about the response to the pandemic.  The response of health service staff is beyond reproach.  Many people in hazardous occupations – cleaners, refuse workers and police – have carried on despite an almost complete absence of appropriate protections.  The public have behaved wonderfully.  The central response to a plague  is not to ensure 100% compliance from every individual: it’s for enough people to change their behaviour to make an impact, and that’s certainly been happening.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government or for the public authorities.   The most obvious problems have been about preparedness – it’s not as if there were no warnings – and procurement.  This comes from The Lancet:

February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily. It is, indeed, as one health worker wrote last week, “a national scandal”. The gravity of that scandal has yet to be understood.

Then we have a series of misleading statements from the government about what is happening.  Some are prevarications – that discussion of strategy is impossible at this stage, that there is consolation to be drawn from the horrifying figures, and so on.  But some have been downright lies: that the Prime Minister was in good spirits and actively engaged at the point where he was about to go into hospital, that 19 members of NHS staff had died when the government already knew there were 36, or that there is a full supply of personal protective equipment when the ministry has deliberately degraded the acceptable standard of that equipment.  The government is behaving as if it had a monopoly of information, which it doesn’t, and that it is not open to scrutiny or discussion, which it must be.

And then there are the mixed messages, usually preceded by the fatuous claim that ‘we have been perfectly clear’.  Confusion is easy: two prominent public figures have been pilloried for taking steps that were within some guidelines and not within others.  For the avoidance of doubt, social distancing (or physical distancing) is not the same as staying at home, and staying at home is not the same as isolation or quarantine.  Having a ‘reasonable excuse’ for travelling is not the same as ‘travelling only for expressly permitted tasks’.  The government seems to favour ‘stay at home’ as a message, thinking (disputably)  that it is straightforward, but it is a message with exceptions; it’s really not clear why they think this is more likely to be effective than ‘keep your distance’.

There’s a bitter lesson to be drawn from France, where the rules have been much stricter but the spread of the disease has been at least as bad and arguably worse.  What matters is breaking connections that lead to cross-infections.  The current strategy may be having an effect, but what we can’t tell in the absence of decent information is how large that effect is, or whether it’s enough.

That leads us back, in a circle, to the mismanagement of the problem – the failure from the earliest days to test and trace.  We have few usable indicators: verified hospital admissions and deaths (the ONS is adding in deaths not in hospital).  I very much doubt that the government does not have stats for notifications of COVID-type illness made to NHS 111 – it is, after all, a notifiable disease – and they should be pressed to release them.   There may, too, be another indicator that we have the capacity to obtain: the presence of COVID-19 in sewage. The purpose of indicators is not to obtain a precise and accurate individual count: it’s to see the general direction of movement when taken along with other indicators.  Indicators travel best in convoys.  Given the lack of general community testing, it’s the best we can do.

Towards an exit strategy

The government and its advisers have fobbed off repeated queries about an exit strategy.  There was not enough information about the progress of the pandemic; it was too early to say; they didn’t want to distract from the message of social distancing.

I don’t know what our exit strategy should be, but I know what a strategy looks like, and none of those answers is relevant. A strategy, in this context, is a review of information, priorities, options and possible choices.  It’s not an action plan – that’s what you come up with after the approach has been agreed.  And if there’s only one option, and the choice has been made, it’s not a strategy –  it’s a policy.  Claiming that this is no time to consider an exit strategy is basically announcing that the government hasn’t thought about  what the priorities, options and choices might be.

I doubt that this is true.  The government almost certainly has a strategy; it just doesn’t want to tell us what its priorities, options and choices are, in case we, the public, should happen to disagree.  Their way is the only way.   It’s a fortress mentality – the same approach that they have taken to social protection, to Brexit, and to recent measures to help business.  And invariably it leads to worse decisions than there would be if the matter was opened to informed discussion.

One of the defining characteristics of a democracy, Joshua Cohen argues, is that it is ‘deliberative’: people are able to engage, to discuss and to disagree.  For any strategy to work in the current crisis, the government has to bring people along with it.  If they don’t consult about their options and choices, it puts compliance in jeopardy.  Imposing a single, authoritative policy is not ‘leadership’; it’s arrogance.

Additional note, 8th April I am feeling the same sense of irritation at statements that the government cannot ‘review’ its policy, as the Prime Minister promised.  It is too early to end the lock-down, they say.  ‘Review’ does not mean ‘bring to a close’; it means that one looks at a policy to see how it is working.  And it’s pretty clear that while some parts of the policy are working very well, others aren’t. 

The bits that are working:

  • there has been excellent compliance from the bulk of the population, slowing the spread.  We don’t need full compliance; we just need there to be enough.
  • time has been bought for the NHS to cope – we have reasonable hopes that what happened in Italy will not happen here.
  • food distribution – the supermarkets have done brilliantly.

The bits that aren’t:

  • social care provision – the model that depends on multiple visits by peripatetic staff doesn’t work
  • the protection of front line workers
  • the protection of people’s incomes 
  • management of access to public spaces, such as parks – closing them is bad practice
  • restrictions which have nothing to do with the spread of the disease – the ending of legal transactions, stopping people going to allotments, visits to second homes (the test is social distancing, not travel) and over-zealous policing.  Whatever happened to ‘reasonable’ grounds  for going out?
  • policing of abuses.  Where is the heavy equipment that was supposed to be used for major construction projects today?   (I ask because I already know it’s not where it’s supposed to be.)