The poverty of nations: a relational perspective

I’ve signed a contract to deliver my next book by the end of this month.  The working title is “The poverty of nations: a relational perspective”, and it develops an argument I’ve been building over the last few years about the relational elements of poverty – understanding poverty, not as a lack of resources or income, but as a set of social relationships.  I posted, two years ago, the abstract of a paper on this general theme. Here is that abstract again:

Poverty is at root a relational concept, which can only be understood by locating the experience of poor people in the social and economic situation where they are found. This is not just saying that poverty is ‘relative’. Developments in policy and practice are increasingly focused on dynamic, relational and multi-dimensional understandings of poverty; our conceptual frameworks have failed to keep pace.

Much of the consideration of poverty in the course of the last hundred years, relative or absolute, has found it convenient to rely on three fallacies. The first is that poverty is a condition or state of being, which can be considered exclusively from the perspective of the individual who experiences it. The second is that can be understood solely in terms of resources, when resources themselves have to be understood in terms of social and economic relationships. The third is that there is a clear and decisive threshold below which people can be said to be poor, and above which they are not poor.

All of these positions are tenable – they are supported by many of the most eminent writers in the field – but they are not adequate, either as a way of describing the positions that people hold, or as a conceptual tool to analyse the issues.  Discussions of exclusion, a concept which is self-evidently relational, come closer to the idea of poverty than much of the academic literature on poverty in itself, offering a way to escape from the limitations of conventional models of poverty.

The book will be out next year. It will be my twentieth, depending on how you count them, and the fourth since I left my post in 2015. People may be surprised at the short time between contract and delivery of the final copy.  It’s been my practice for many years to write a book before I submit it.  I started to do that early on, after working through the more conventional route of proposal and writing to order, only to find when I delivered the script at the end of two years the publisher thought that I should have written a different book.  This way, I can guarantee is that we all end up with what we’re expecting to get.

I wouldn’t, however, advise any young academic to follow in my footsteps.  The fact is that academic institutions don’t like books very much, or social policy, and don’t really rate either when it comes to counting the beans.  When I left my employment, I was making a choice; I wanted to do more on poverty, benefits and social theory, and going independent was the best way to do it.  I don’t regret it; in the last three years I’ve done four books, a few research contracts and a semester in Poland, which I loved. If anyone out there wants an academic career, however, you’ll all be better off writing bids for research funding.

The reform of social care will take more than money

The House of Lords Economic Affairs committee has called for free personal care in England, on lines similar to the system in Scotland.  “Under free personal care individuals would therefore only receive funding for support with these basic activities of daily living, based on the minimum threshold of eligible needs as defined by the Care Act.” They are recommending a major increase in the funding for social care, so that care can be delivered on much the same terms as health care.  However, they accept that people should pay accommodation costs themselves, with means-tested support, and they recognise that this might entail “catastrophic accommodation costs” which might have to be subject to a cap.

This has been welcomed as a radical proposal, but it doesn’t touch on most of the problems that go with social care.  We’re still thinking of social care as a set of needs which can be satisfied by specific cash payments.  The Lords report explains:

“Personal care means essential help with basic activities of daily living, such as washing and bathing, dressing, continence, mobility and help with eating and drinking. It does not include other areas where support might be needed, such as assistance with housework, laundry or shopping.”

I don’t believe that a system based on this approach can ever deliver what people want to see.  I don’t believe people want, or are comfortable with, successive 15 minute visits from a team of people who bathe them, or dress them, or help them to bed.  I don’t believe that what most people really want in life is to manage a rota.  I don’t think that providing for a series of events, sold as if they were commodities, meets people’s human needs.  What we should be allocating is time with a person, and that calls for a different approach to assessing needs from one that focuses on whether or not someone needs help with brushing their teeth.

Social policy and interpersonal relations

Screwing my courage to the sticking place,  I have added a new page to An Introduction to Social Policy.  It’s about Social Policy and Interpersonal Relations, and it includes coverage of topics including the body, terminating pregnancy, sexuality, suicide and domestic violence, amongst other issues.

The website is used around the world, but few people have noticed the new page yet – there were 21 visitors last week out of 2,730 for the whole site.  The new page covers  potentially sensitive material, and  I’ve been acutely aware that what I write has to be useful for people in a variety of cultural settings.  I’d appreciate feedback.

What’s wrong with the idea of opening the NHS to US traders? Plenty.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the potential for a trade agreement with the USA and its possible impact on the NHS.  “I think everything with a trade deal is on the table,” Donald Trump has said.  “When you’re dealing in trade everything is on the tabl,e so NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely.” The response of those who want there to be such an agreement has been to say that it won’t matter – a “storm in a teacup”, one IEA spokesperson commented. US firms are already providing services in UK health care.  Services can be provided by a range of providers; what matters for the consumer is that the NHS continues to offer services that are free at the point of delivery.

This view may be disingenuous, because there is a strong financial incentive not to see the problems.  It is certainly mistaken.  The usual complaints from the left are that profit-making firms are extractive, and that competition consumes resources.  Either might be true, but the problems run much deeper than that.  There is now abundant evidence of what happens to public services when ‘competition’ or part-privatisation is introduced.  I have just had a paper rejected which makes the arguments in some detail – admittedly it’s too tendentious for an academic journal – but I can sketch out a couple of points here.

There is no system, anywhere, that is wholly public, any more than there is a system that is wholly private.  The NHS has had an uncomfortable relationship with the private sector, but its successful functioning relies mainly on two pillars: that the private sector is small and select, and that the services are sufficiently integrated to ensure that really serious cases can be taken over by the national service.  Both of those are at risk from creeping commercialisation.

The fundamental problem in any mixed system is that commercial providers get to choose what they cover; public providers, committed to meeting the needs of a population, do not.  Commercial providers select those areas of operation which they are undertaking to provide – that is how markets work.  That means that in general they will select those activities which deliver the best return per unit.   It follows that some things will be left out; when they are, the public services will have to deal with them as provider of last resort.  (Take a simple illustration, delivering post and parcels.  If private firms can subcontract for the profitable bits, they choose the easy runs – between major cities, or within busy areas.  In the case of private health care, that has generally meant a preference for relatively low-risk elective surgery, while long term psychiatric or geriatric care don’t attract the insurers or the services.)

Taking those points together, that must also mean that public services have a higher cost per unit than the private services – the difference is built into the process.    Politically, there are constant complaints that public services don’t work as well as private ones.  Of course they don’t; they have to take on the bits that private providers leave behind.

That’s the unavoidable part of the problem.  Some other things follow in the wake of that structure.  They may be avoidable, but they are still difficult.

  • There is a continuing incentive for private providers to cut corners – skimping on service, paying less, holding to the letter of complex contracts.
  • The public sector has to develop processes for sub-contracting and compliance, which are expensive and uncertainly effective.
  • When private providers get it wrong, and services collapse, the public services have to pick up the pieces.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about competitive structures, but that’s why I started out trying to write a paper on it rather than a blog entry.

Thinking Collectively

I’ve just received the first print copies of my new book, Thinking Collectively: social policy, collective action and the common good. In Reclaiming Individualism, I made a case for social and government action in order to protect and enhance the conditions of individuals. Thinking collectively complements those arguments by considering collective approaches to social policy.

These comments are from the reviews obtained by the publisher:

“Paul Spicker asks how to think-with, live-with, and be-with collectives in this important new book which sees afresh the possibilities of collective life. Crucially, it also reinstates the significance of the common good and value of the common weal for social scientists and activists.”   Stephen A. Webb, Glasgow Caledonian University

“This concise and well-written book is a compelling and timely reminder of the importance of collective action and political community.”   Daniel Béland, McGill University

It’s my nineteenth book, my third since leaving Robert Gordon University.

Functional illiteracy in Scotland: Andrew Neil’s figures were out of date, but they weren’t made up

Andrew Neil has been censured by Ofcom for saying in an interview in 2017 that one in five pupils who left primary school in Scotland were “functionally illiterate”.   According to the BBC report of the judgment, the BBC submitted that

“the figure had come from a 2009 report, but that “it was not accurate to say that this allowed the conclusion quoted in the programme  … It should have been made clear that the phrase ‘functionally illiterate’ was not used in that report and that its source was the education spokeswoman of the Scottish Conservatives.” When it published its findings in November 2017, the ECU said that the 2009 survey “contained no reference to ‘functional illiteracy’, and no data which would have justified the claim in question”.

That surprised me, because I’d come across the 20% figure before.

The main source of the figure is arguably a report written by Professor J Lo Bianco, Language and Literacy Policy in Scotland, published in 2001 by SCILT at the University of Strathclyde.  Lo Bianco’s report was a wake up call for Scottish education – it had a major impact on the treatment of Gaelic and BSL.  He wrote that “More than one adult in five is not functionally literate in English and even more people have problems with numeracy.”  He wrote:

The UK-wide Report Improving Literacy and Numeracy, A Fresh Start (Moser Report 1999) notes in its opening paragraph that ‘something like one adult in five in this country is not functionally literate and far more people have problems with numeracy. This is a shocking situation and a sad reflection on past decades of schooling. It is one of the reasons for relatively low productivity in our economy, and it cramps the lives of millions of people.’ Whilst the situation that is reported is indeed shocking it is far from clear that it is valid to make a direct and causal connection between the levels of assessed adult literacy and ‘past decades of schooling’. The International Adult Literacy Study of 1997 suggests that 23% of adult Scots have low literacy skills.

Subsequently, England developed the “Skills for Life” survey, which by 2011 recorded marked improvements in functional literacy.  A Scottish report in 2008, “New Light on Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland”  avoided the question of functional literacy.  Based on a study of adults aged 34, it commented that ” literacy levels in England and Scotland were nearly identical”(p 8)   but commented that ” 39% of men and 36% of women in the survey had literacy abilities at a level likely to impact on their employment opportunities and life chances.”

What’s been happening since is important.  The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows a marked improvement in standards in primary schools, where the foundations of literacy are laid, and now 88% of pupils in P7 are considered to be performing ‘well’ or ‘very well’.  That improvement probably wouldn’t have happened without those earlier reports.

I don’t much like Andrew Neil’s politics, but he’s a terrific journalist.  Even if on occasion he gets things wrong, he doesn’t make things up.  The main charge against him is not that he was wrong, or that his use of the term ‘functional literacy’ was inappropriate, but that he was outdated.  That’s a mistake that any of us who are trying to distill information drawn from a wide field might have made.

Intergenerational fairness shouldn’t mean that we cut pensioner benefits

The House of Lords report, Tackling Intergenerational Fairness, is a strange document. Most of it – six chapters out of seven – is a sober, well-documented account of demographic shifts in the pattern of disadvantage.  When it comes to policy, however, there is a serious disconnect.  There’s precious little about policies to remedy disadvantage within the older population – Pension Credit hardly gets a look-in, Housing Benefit (due to be shifted into PC) disappears, social care is punted into the long grass while waiting for a different report.

What there is an attack on policies that benefit old people: the report tilts at National Insurance, benefits for pensioners and universal provision, suggesting cuts for all of them.  Winter Fuel Payment is attacked, foolishly, because it doesn’t do much about fuel (a category mistake: as I’ve previously argued in this blog, we mustn’t get confused between the title of a benefit and the purpose it serves).  The welfare state, Alan Walker once commented, is largely a welfare state for older people, and the apparent premise behind the recommendations of this report is that the answer to that imbalance is to have a go at the welfare state.  It might be more constructive to think about how the benefits of secure, solidaristic benefits might be extended to younger people and people of working age.

The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2018.16)

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

The problems of people who beg

Shelter Scotland has published a noteworthy report profiling people begging in Edinburgh.  The report asked questions of 420 people; that’s unlikely to be everyone, but it’s a lot.

Addiction plays a large part, with nearly 90% misusing drugs or alcohol; more than 80% had mental health problems, mainly depression and anxiety, and more than 60% also had physical health problems.  It’s a population that overlaps with street homelessness – 43% said they slept rough – but the two things are not equivalent, and I was struck as much by the differences as by the similarities.  When I worked on the census of homeless people in Aberdeen, it was the support staff who tended to say that the problems were problems of life-style and personal issues; homeless people said that the main problems were that they were cold and they were hungry.  People begging in Edinburgh seem far more likely to say that it’s down to their personal issues.

I did wonder if people might have been steered in some directions by the shape of the questions asked.  One of the messages from the qualitative studies I’ve done with psychiatric patients in the past is that family matters; the people left without support to become homeless are mainly those whose relationships with the family have broken down.  This is hinted at, but overall it’s not a major factor here.  In fairness, though, it’s difficult to set up exploratory, discursive interviews with homeless people (been there, done that); the remarkable thing about the Shelter study is how much information they’ve been able to bring together.

Some thoughts on nationalism and social policy

Over the last few days, I’ve hopped round a series of apparently unconnected sources which seem, nevertheless, to have a common theme.  I’ve been looking, for example, at material about the experience of poverty in low income countries; at political arguments concerning Zionism and anti-Zionism; at arguments for a distinct Scottish currency; and a constitutional arrangements concerning the rights of European citizens.  The issue that they have in common is a sense of the nation as a body which defines the scope of public policy.

Some years ago, Daniel Béland and André Lecours wrote a fascinating book on the relationship between nationalism and social policy.  The key question they are concerned with is how far our communities, and our responsibilities, extend. The case examples they looked at, such as Belgium and Canada, are effectively multi-national states, but so are others which see themselves as having a unifying culture – look, for example, at the constitutions of Ireland or Poland.   (Those constitutions, for what it’s worth, show that there is nothing exceptional about Zionist nationalism.)  The link between nationalism and social policy isn’t just that nationalist movements tend to emphasis the importance of mutual welfare, though it makes sense that they should do so.  It’s that social policy itself depends on the construction of a political community – an identifiable group which defines the scope and limits of mutual responsibility and support. However, solidarity in a political community commonly extends across nations and ethnicities – and some political communities extend beyond territory, too, which is how a few hundred thousand people have recently been able to claim Irish citizenship.  To be legitimate, solidarity and citizenship have  to be reasonably inclusive: any such community needs to accept that there will be people from more than one nation within it. Scottish nationalism meets that test; I’m not sure that all the other contenders do.