Asking an artificial intelligence to write an essay on social policy

I wanted to see what ChatGPT would make of a social policy essay, so I asked a starter question:

What is a welfare state, and is Britain one?

A welfare state is a government that provides a range of social services and benefits to its citizens, including healthcare, education, social security, and other forms of assistance, in order to ensure that they have a basic standard of living and access to basic necessities. The idea behind a welfare state is to create a safety net for individuals who may not be able to provide for themselves due to age, disability, unemployment, or other factors.

Britain is generally considered to be a welfare state, as it has a long history of providing a range of social services and benefits to its citizens. The British welfare state was created after World War II, with the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 and the creation of the welfare state in 1949. Since then, Britain has continued to expand its welfare state, with the introduction of additional social services and benefits over time.

However, the level of support provided by the British welfare state has been subject to some controversy in recent years, with some arguing that it is too generous and discourages people from seeking work, while others argue that it is not generous enough and leaves vulnerable people without adequate support.

There are some mistakes in this.

  1.  Provision in many welfare states isn’t  made by the government.
  2. Just about every country in the world provides some health care and some education.  More than 150 countries now have some kind of national scheme for cash support.
  3. The welfare state needs more than a ‘safety net’.  Safety net provision, or ‘residual’ welfare, was the model for the Poor Laws centuries before the welfare state was thought of.  That also reflects on the comment that Britain has a ‘long history’ of this – it does, but the welfare state was founded after the second world war.
  4. The NHS Act was in 1946, and the welfare state was introduced formally on 7th July 1948.

Steve Mckay, from the University of Lincoln, got ChatGPT to refine the answer.

A welfare state is a political and economic system that prioritizes the provision of social welfare programs and services to its citizens. These programs and services aim to ensure that all individuals have access to basic necessities, such as healthcare, education, housing, and income support, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The welfare state is often seen as a means of promoting social equality, reducing poverty, and promoting economic stability.

Britain has a long history of welfare state provision, beginning with the introduction of the National Insurance Act in 1911. However, it was not until the post-World War II period that the British welfare state took its modern form. During this period, the Labour government introduced a range of social welfare programs, including the National Health Service (NHS), social housing, and a comprehensive system of social security benefits.

Since then, the British welfare state has undergone significant changes, reflecting broader economic and political shifts. The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism and a growing emphasis on market-oriented policies, which resulted in the privatization of some public services and the scaling back of certain welfare programs. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Labour government introduced a range of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and social exclusion, such as the introduction of tax credits and the Sure Start program for early years education.

However, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent period of austerity saw significant cuts to social welfare spending, resulting in reduced access to certain programs and services. This has been particularly felt by those who are most in need, such as disabled people and low-income families. Critics argue that this erosion of the welfare state has undermined social equality and resulted in growing levels of poverty and inequality.

Despite these challenges, Britain remains a welfare state, albeit one that is undergoing significant transformation. The provision of social welfare programs and services remains a central feature of British society, and there continues to be significant public support for the welfare state. However, the effectiveness of these programs and services in addressing issues such as poverty and inequality remains a matter of debate. Some argue that the welfare state is inadequate and requires significant reform, while others believe that it is a vital mechanism for promoting social justice and economic stability.

I’m not sure quite how he did it, but this version is a lot better than the one I asked for.  The welfare state is now described as a system; it’s tied to a range of principles, including citizenship, equality and being there for everyone; and it’s subject to key tests, including poverty, social justice and economic stability.

Despite that improvement, this still doesn’t add up to an undergraduate essay.  An essay in social science is primarily an exercise in processing information.   The first step is to select material, bringing together information.  At the most basic level, a piece which brings together information from several sources requires more skill (and more work) than one which takes all its information from one source.

The next step is to get the selected material in order.  Referencing is again crucial, because a student  who goes through the material by covering everything said in one book, followed by everything said in another, is showing less skill than someone who can take material from disparate sources and put it in order.

Third comes evaluation.  Again at the most basic level, commenting on the material which has been selected and ordered  is a way of showing one understands it.  But evaluation that is not based on evidence and argument  is nothing more than an opinion, and markers cannot legitimately mark a piece up or down just because they happen to like or dislike what has been said.   The test, yet again, is a test of skill in handling the material.

The AI falls short of this at every point, for two reasons.  The first is that it doesn’t sift and sort information in its own right: it gets words in order, but there is no material here to sort, and none to evaluate.  The second is that it has not provided any referenced material.   Referencing is a crucial part of the exercise, at every stage.  It reveals how much material has gone in to the selection; it distinguishes material that has been sifted and sorted by the student from ordering that is carted whole from a single source; and it distinguishes the student’s critical commentary and understanding from what came from the sources.  Without that evidence of understanding, there is nothing to mark.


News from Maine: a “welfare magnet”?

The state of Maine, in an article I’ve just read, has ‘an international reputation as a welfare magnet’, a claim that might surprise the European countries  which have taken in hundreds of thousands of people.   There were no fewer than – do sit down if you find you need air and smelling salts – 400 unauthorised migrants who came to Maine last month.  I don’t have comparable figures for January, but I do have them for December, from the EU’s Frontex agency.  Here they are, in a table reporting unauthorised crossings into the EU and the UK. They seem to be a little larger than Maine’s figures, despite its ‘international reputation’.

The article on Maine conveys the author’s sense of disapproval at the existence of the people it calls ‘illegals’.  (My own view on that term is here.) The writer tells us:

The 400 foreign nationals who crashed the southern border and headed for Maine last month include 63 families with an average of 2 children each, most of whom will soon be enrolled in local public schools if they aren’t already. In addition, another 151 of the border-crashers who arrived in January are individuals without spouses or children.

So one of the principal items of concern seems to be that people are travelling with children who will need schooling.  Even more daring, there is talk of providing free basic health care to people who have very low resources:

this radical proposal … would make Maine the first state to offer Medicaid benefits to all adult residents who are in the country illegally.

The Federal rules, under  Obamacare , are restrictive by European standards – it is difficult for migrants even to get access to the ‘marketplace’ for health insurance – but Minnesota explicitly exempts refugees from the 5-year waiting period that otherwise applies to non-citizens.

The proposal to extend basic health care, or ‘MaineCare’, is described here.   Maine already makes that provision for children, and California and New York have extended provision for older people.  The opponents of the proposal to extend basic health care have tabled legislation ‘to protect Maine taxpayers’. Perhaps they might like to consider the advantages of becoming a ‘magnet’ for the citizens of the future.


Misreading the SDGs

Although I’ve been booked in for an online conference on the Sustainable Development Goals, I’ve found hardly anything in it I can relate to.  A large part of the problem rests with the SDGs themselves.  There are simply too many tests, and too many priorities.  Wildavsky, in Speaking truth to power,  complains that long lists of targets become “mechanisms for avoiding rather than making choices”.  The Economist commented, when the SDGs were first announced, that “a set of 169 commandments means, in practice, no priorities at all.”

A second problem rests in the voluntary nature of the SDGs.  Governments have been left to decide for themselves what they are going to choose from the pick-and-mix in front of them.  In this respect, the process looks a lot like the ‘open method of coordination’ in the European Union – an excuse to carry on with whatever they were doing before.

The third problem, however, rests in the injection of that word, ‘sustainability’. The agenda of the conference I was booked in for seems to be devoted entirely to sustainability – nature, climate change and the planet – and says virtually nothing about development.  As so often happens, the discussion of the needs of the global south has been been diverted into a discussion of the priorities of the developed world.

How much should income be cut by?

The government claims to be concerned about ‘inflation-busting’ settlements.  Public sector wages have generally ‘risen’ by 2.7%; private sector wages by 6.9%.  Many benefits (not all) have ‘risen’ in line with inflation.

I have put ‘risen’ in inverted commas because incomes have not risen at all.  As a simple matter of maths, a rise ‘in line with’ inflation is not an increase in income; it is a reduction.

Initial income 100
Inflation 10.7%
Value of income after inflation 89.30
Increase of:
2.7% (recent public sector awards) 91.71
6.9% (recent private sector awards) 95.46
7% (NHS in Scotland) 95.55
10.7% (‘in line with’ inflation)
12.32% (break even) 100
19% (the claim made by the RCN) 106.27

Increasing benefits ‘in line with inflation’ implies a cut in real income. It would take an increase of 12.32% before that did not happen.  And the supposedly unaffordable claim by the RCN for 19% is actually a request for an increase in real terms of 6.27%.  Since 2010, the real wages of nurses have fallen by 8%.  The RCN claim would not restore that level of income.

A case for higher taxes

Professor Richard Murphy argued yesterday in a tweet that the government should be aiming to cut taxes in a recession.  He duplicated that tweet in his  blog, but the core point he makes is this:

When facing a recession a government should
– cut interest rates
– cut taxes
– increase its spending.

In a recession, a government needs to stimulate the economy, and that can be done by injecting resources.  I’d question, however, whether either of the first two would actually stimulate the economy as things stand.  Interest rates have been close to zero for some time, and while lowering them further (perhaps into negative rates) would have some effect on economic activity – primarily, dis-saving, converting holdings from money to goods (such as houses) and diverting money to activities or locations which offer higher interest rates  elsewhere – most of those effects have already been realised. Cutting taxes – the policy of the catastrophically inept Truss government – would primarily release money to those who pay more in taxes, and the resources released will go in large part to rentiers.

The simple case for higher spending is made by Keynes:

Pyramid building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth …. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

Higher spending doesn’t have to be financed point for point, and it doesn’t have to be financed by tax – there are lots of other options.  However, it can be inflationary if it means that ‘too much money is chasing too few goods’.

A large tranche of what we call ‘public spending’, however, is something different.  Benefits and pensions are transfer payments, a point I’ve made in previous blogs.   Government doesn’t spend the money it allocates to pensioners; it passes them the money so that they can spend it.  Taxation to fund cash transfers doesn’t withdraw money from the economy.  When transfer payments are directly financed – that is, being transferred from someone else – they are presumptively neutral in economic terms. This is not inflationary, because the amount of money in the economy remains the same after the transfer.  Any differences will depend on whether the recipients spend money differently from those who pay. That will be true to some degree, but it’s marginal: people on lower incomes spend proportionately more on food and energy, and save less.

Taxation is not the only way to finance public spending, but there are particular advantages in funding cash benefits this way.  If transfer payments are funded by ‘helicopter money’ – like the extra £20 pw for Universal Credit during the pandemic – they’re politically vulnerable and implicitly temporary.  Transfer payments financed by taxation, or by an equivalent mechanism such as national insurance, imply a more equal distribution of income than the same payments financed indirectly through creating credit.  They will fund markets that function better for people on lower incomes. They do it without risking inflation. And they offer a better prospect of growth. The IMF have argued that a 1% increase in the income share of the lowest paid 20% produces growth of 0.38%, four and a half times the growth that comes from increasing the income share of the top 20%.


The uses of theory in social policy

States and welfare states is my twenty-third book. Its main arguments are that:

  • All states provide some welfare; all leave gaps.
  • The main methods used in comparative social policy don’t tell us what’s happening.
  • The ‘welfare state’ refers to guiding principles, not specific actions.

This leads to some distinctive insights about the subject matter:

  •  An examination of the sources of legitimacy in modern government, founded in a distinctive understanding of sovereignty and governance;
  •  An explanation for the burgeoning of social policy initiatives in many states which in the past would not have engaged with it; and
  • A new model of the development of greater universality, moving from particularism to solidarity and solidarity to welfare states.

Forty years ago, while being interviewed for a post in a relatively prestigious university, I said that I wanted to work on the theory of social policy. I was told that that didn’t exist as a subject.  This is my ninth book set in that non-existent field, and I’m not convinced that people out there are any more persuaded of  the relevance of theory now then they were then. One reviewer complained of the ‘high level of abstraction’; two others said it was ‘connected to policy’ and ‘clearly (and always) topical’.  Two reviewers thought it was original; one that ‘it will not say anything new to academics in the field’; and one more commented that, rather than being distinctively original, ‘it does draw together a variety of ideas … ‘ Yes, that’s what original theory does. Theory is used to clarify, to structure and to identify the relationships between ideas and evidence. The originality comes from the distinctive synthesis and critical evaluation of material, not from new facts.


Retrenchment after the pandemic

An outstanding report by Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins explains what’s been happening to welfare around the world as the pandemic recedes.  A disturbingly large number of countries – 143, covering 85% of the world’s population – have been introducing ‘austerity’ measures, aiming to scale back the role of the state.  More than 50 countries are planning to cut services back to less than they were before the pandemic.

For many of these countries, the policies which seem most vulnerable have been introduced relatively recently – notably expenditure on health care and cash benefits.  A commitment to health care seems to have been maintained in most, while changes to cash benefits or ‘social protection’ have tended to focus on ‘targeting’ (or limiting entitlement) rather than the wholesale abandonment of such policies.  It’s worth considering, too, that in the past the legacy of managing major crises – famously, through the impact of war – has been to increase, not to reduce, expectations and the role of the state.  On that basis, I don’t believe this retrenchment represents a long-term trend – but it is a major setback.

The Natcen report on disability benefits is disappointing

The DWP declined to publish the Natcen report on The uses of health and disability benefits.  It’s now been released to the Work and Pensions Committee, and is available here.  The report is presented as a qualitative study; wisely, the authors have avoided numbers.  However, the form of the report is disappointing, and I cannot suppose that it is an adequate reflection of the work that was done.

Qualitative social research works, or needs to work, on two guiding principles.  The first is that what people tell you is evidence.  That is often derided by people in love with quants, but it is fundamental to the nature of evidence.  Courts of law judge evidence by looking for corroboration – probabilities and statistics aren’t enough.  As a broad proposition, evidence is corroborated when two or three witnesses  say the same things, confirming what the others have said.  This report doesn’t do that. It consists very largely of the researchers’ summaries of what people told them.  In a 79-page report, there are 15 ‘case illustrations’, and only 27 direct quotations from respondents.  That means, simply put, that while there are plenty of judgments, there is hardly any evidence given for those judgments.

The second principle is voice: what people tell you, and the way they tell it, matter.  Direct quotations, right or wrong, have a purpose and a moral authority.  Researchers have an ethical duty to report what people are telling them.  The way the respondents express themselves is fundamental to any adequate qualitative social research.

It may well be that this format was demanded by the DWP.  (I’ve been asked by other commissioners, in the past, to dump direct quotations and to just say what I think instead – and I’ve refused to do so.)  It’s very likely that the researchers intend to provide the evidence for this report, and to reflect the voice of the respondents,  in a separate publication.  However, they will need the DWP’s permission for this.  Their report, as it stands, does not do what it needed to do.

The TUC proposes a ‘replacement’ for Universal Credit

It’s been obvious for many years that Universal Credit is failing. On this blog, I’ve considered a long series of critical reports.  When I first made criticisms of the benefit – that was done on the same day that Iain Duncan Smith announced the measure – my concerns were about the concept and its practicability.  Then the criticisms moved on to its implementation, and the impact of further complexity to make up for the deficiencies.  Nowadays, the areas of concern are more likely to be focused on the abundant empirical evidence of failure – for a benefit that has still not fully been rolled out.

The TUC has realised that Universal Credit is a ‘disaster‘, and a new report makes proposals for its ‘replacement’.  The detailed report covers six main areas:

  • making work pay
  • increasing the level of benefit
  • changing rules about conditionality and the initial waiting period
  • changing the process
  • altering the assessment periods, and
  • changing rules for payment.

These are all ways to improve the benefit.  I don’t think this goes anything like far enough.  The fundamental problems will remain:  a tapered benefit, a central focus on getting people to work  when most of its claimants are either already in work or aren’t going to be in the labour market, and a reliance on information that can’t be supplied or managed. The TUC’s proposals are well meant, but they leave all of those elements in place.