Stephen Kidd on universal social security benefits

I’ve just heard a superb  presentation by Stephen Kidd, of Development Pathways.  He argues that developing countries should be focusing on universal benefits, like child benefit or a universal pension, rather than the means-testing which is being rolled out in many poorer countries.  The  report, by Development Pathways and the Church of Sweden, is here.

To give a flavour of his argument, here are two graphs.  The first highlights the failure of selective benefits.  The best performing selective programme, in Brazil, excluded 44% of the eligible group.  The worst performing, in Rwanda, used community based targeting, and excluded more than 97%.

The second graph shows something about the tax take.  Offering universal benefits means that people feel included in the support offered by governments – and that means that they are more ready to pay tax.  Kidd argues that universal benefits create trust, and the sense of a social contract.

‘Welfare’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean

The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office is not, I have to admit, one of the sites that I regularly monitor for information.  I get daily notifications from Google on a range of topics, including  ‘benefits’, ‘poverty’ and ‘welfare’.  It was the third of these that pointed me towards a police report from Nevada. Here it is:

12:16 p.m. — A woman dialed 911 accidentally. She was told to provide her address or law enforcement would perform a welfare check. She said, “I’m not on welfare and never have been,” before hanging up.

‘Welfare’ in the United States used to mean social assistance – Aid to Families with Dependent Children, then Temporary Aid to Needy Families. However, I’ve noticed, over the last three or four years, that nearly all of the notifications I’ve been getting from the United States have been about something else: a ‘welfare check’, which usually means a visit from a police officer or other official to make sure you’re alive. The term is also used by police forces in the UK, Canada and Australia. Try this, from Cleveland:

Woman tries to run from police during welfare check … Police responded to a business at 9:16 a.m. Nov. 3 regarding an employee who was “acting strangely” and refusing to leave the property. The employee appeared to be upset when police arrived and tried to jump into her car to flee at one point.  Suspected marijuana was found inside the woman’s car and she was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation.

And this one is from a recent report in Texas:

Welfare check leads to large police presence at Smith County home

Authorities have cleared the scene of a welfare check at a home in Smith County. A SWAT team, Tyler police officers, Smith County sheriff’s deputies, and an ambulance could be seen at the home in the 5500 block of Old Henderson Highway during the noon hour Friday. Traffic was blocked while law enforcement surrounded a home. … the welfare check started with an individual calling the VA hotline and threatening to harm himself … the man did possess a handgun.

A SWAT team is just what you need if you’re thinking of killing yourself.  The Samaritans seem to be missing a trick.  But back to Nevada.  The report throws up two other issues.  One is that this woman, whoever she was, obviously thought that ‘welfare’ did still refer to social assistance.   The second is that an accidental call to 911 is considered to be a good reason for police to come out for a ‘welfare check’.  I can see the reasoning behind that – someone who is being threatened might have been intimidated into dropping a call.  However, it does seem to be part of a new interpretation of ‘welfare’, up to and including calling out the SWAT team.

The Danmask-19 trial has not told us if masks work or not

A study from Denmark has put into question the effectiveness of wearing a mask.  It’s based on a randomised control trial of 6024 people, assigned either to a mask-wearing group or a control group that didn’t wear a mask.   42 people who wore masks, and 52 people who did not, contracted Covid during the test period.  The study notes that “the findings are inconclusive, with CIs [confidence intervals) compatible with a 46% decrease to a 23% increase in infection.”  Prof. Carl Henegan, writing for the Spectator, has seized on this as proof that any effect masks have is small.  (The Spectator, of course, has serial form in seeking to belittle or deny the seriousness of the disease.)

The problem with that conclusion (or the lack of it) is that the Danish study has not actually tested whether masks are doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to slow the rate of infection.  The graphic which follows, from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, explains what should happen.   The control trial has been looking at people on the top two lines – putatively, groups at higher risk.  The distinction between the higher and lower risk (lines 1-2 and 3-4) depend on people who are infectious wearing masks to stop the spread.  There are claims on the web that the risk on line 1 is 90%, the risk on line 2 is 70%.  I don’t know whether those numbers are well founded, but if they are right, the expected values from 94 cases would be 41 masked cases (42 actual) and 53 unmasked cases (52 actual), which is bang on the nose.  The claim that the risk of transmission reduces to 5% on line 3 is potentially far more important, but Danmask-19  can tell us nothing about that.  Whatever the true figures may be,  the risk of transmission is not the subject of the control trial.

Mask Up!

Labour is found guilty of institutional racism

The Twitter-sphere is full of misinformation about the judgement of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the Labour Party’s conduct towards Jews.  There are two rather serious misunderstandings doing the rounds.  The first is the mistaken claim that “the EHRC did not find that Labour was institutionally antisemitic”.  Here is an example, ‘liked’ by more than 1500 people :

 The EHRC report does not refer to ‘institutional racism’ at all.  However, the report does specifically and directly confine itself to actions which can be said to have been the responsibility of the Labour Party, as a collective organisation.   The methodology is explained in Annex 3.    It follows that report’s finding of unlawful conduct is, precisely, a finding against the Labour Party as an institution.  So yes, the Labour Party has been found guilty of institutional racism.

The second claim, as expressed by serial provocateur Chris Williamson, is based in a related misunderstanding: that “Despite cries about ‘institutional anti-Semitism’ and an ‘existential threat to British Jews’, the EHRC based its report on a tiny sample of 70 complaints made over a three-year period. It only found two examples of supposed ‘unlawful harassment’ – out of half a million members.”  The report did not look at the conduct of members (let alone that of former members such as Mr Williamson).    The actions of individuals, former members, and members communicating to other members in an individual capacity, were expressly excluded from the scope of the inquiry (p 127). What the EHRC was looking for was something different: actions which could legitimately be said to be conduct of the Labour Party, rather than of individuals.  And that is what the report has condemned.

I think there is some cause for regret here.  The report’s careful and measured tone doesn’t really get the point over to people who have convinced themselves, over a period of years, that the accusations of racism were fabricated – an allegation that is racist in itself.  There are references in the report to the suggestion that complaints about racism were ‘smears’ – that was a major part of the two examples of institutional harassment – but there is not the warning that was needed to explain to people that if they continued to maintain that position, it would amount to further harassment.  The EHRC needed to say it in terms.

 

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.