Tag: Compliance

Our social security has been redesigned. It’s now a welfare deterrent

PIP

Hunger and desperation used quite ruthlessly by a “health care professional” to controversially justify refusing a disability support claim. Access to food banks can only happen if you are referred by a professional, such as a doctor or social worker. Furthermore, you can generally have a maximum of only 3 referrals per year. The ESA and PIP eassessment guidance says that a person must be able to walk the distance specified “reliably, consistently, safely and in a timely manner.”

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Iain Duncan-Smith struggled financially once, but then he got off his backside and was given a Tudor mansion by his father-in-law, the fifth Baron Cottesloe, which proves rewards come to those prepared to make an effort.  Reuters.

“Universal Credit doesn’t go far enough – work won’t pay until people are running naked through stinging nettles to get their benefits.

As Universal Credit develops, it can encourage other skills, so if your electricity has been cut off, you have to screw your application form into a ball and dribble it through a line of cones before kicking it into a bucket. That way you can soon come off benefits and earn £5m a year as a winger for Manchester City.” Mark Steel, writing for the Independent

The Conservative notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor is a false dichotomy. No-one deserves to be poor

“Deserving” is a politically divergent word if there ever was one. The Conservatives have used it to apparently wage an all out class war, using austerity as a smokescreen. They certainly don’t take the side of the proverbial underdog. In fact the more need you have, the less this government considers you “deserving” of support and sympathy.

Policies aimed at people with what are politically regarded as “additional needs” are largely about ensuring your compliance, conformity and commitment to “behavioural change”, on the assumption that people somehow erroneously “choose” to need financial support. Claiming any form of state support has come to entail a deeply hostile and extremely challenging process that is causing psychological distress and often, physical harm, to our most vulnerable citizens. There are plently of examples of cases where this has happened documented on this site alone.

Such a disciplinarian mindset is now embedded in social security policy, rhetoric and administration. But we’ve been here before, back in 1832, when the Poor Law Amendment Act was aimed at categorising and managing “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Those considered “deserving” were unfortunately placed in workhouses and punished by a loss of citizens freedoms and rights, in order to “deter” people from being poor. (See also The New New Poor Law, 2013.)

I’ve yet to come across a single case of someone being punished out of their poverty. Someone ought to send every government minister a copy of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and remind them all that our post-war social security was originally designed and calculated to ensure people could meet the costs of basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter.

It was recognised back then that people struggling with basic survival requirements were highly unlikely to fulfil other higher level psychosocial potential, such as looking for work. If we want people to find work, we must first ensure they have the necessary resources to do so. And that the work available will make a real difference to their standard of living. 

Poor people don’t create poverty, state decision-making does. The economy and labor market conditions do. The punitive approach to poverty didn’t work in the 1800s and 1900s, and it isn’t working and can’t possibly be made to work now. It’s an ideological dead horse. It died because of the brutal and unrelentless use of too much political brutality, the heavy hand of the state offering all stick and no carrots for poor people.

Being poor is itself punishing enough. Now the poor are being punished for being punished with poverty.  No-one chooses to be poor, our overarching socioeconomic organisation is founded on the very principles of competition. Neoliberalism invariably means there will be a few “winners” (1%) and a lot of “losers” (99%). It’s embedded in the very nature of such a competitive system that emphasises individualism, rather than collectivism, to create increasing inequality and poverty. 

It’s worth considering that people on low pay, or with part-time hours in work are also being sanctioned, if they claim “top up” benefits to supplement their exploitative rate of pay or poor and unstable work conditions. This fact is hardly a good advertisment for the government’s claim of “making work pay”, unless of course we refer back to the poor law reform “deterrence” of 1834. Apparently, making welfare sufficiently punitive to deter people from claiming it is how we make work pay, not by raising wages in line with the cost of living. Silly me. I mistook a propaganda soundbite at face value. It seems old ideolologies die hard, with a vengeance.

Apparently it’s an individual’s fault for not “progressing in work”. Nothing to do with increasingly precarious employment situations, executive decision-making, or a deregulated labor market, of course. 

In-work benefits have effectively subsidised employers’ wage costs. Yet low paid workers are being punished by the government for this state of affairs.

It’s not so long ago that we had a strong trade union movement that used collective bargaining as a method of improving wages and working conditions. But the free market ideologues don’t like trade unions, or welfare provision. They like a neat, tidy and very small, limited interventionist state. Or so they claim.

The paradox, of course, is that in order to reduce supportive provisions, and dismantle the welfare state in order to fulfil the terms and conditions of neoliberalism, the government has to implement strategies that ensure citizen compliance. Many of those strategies are increasingly authoritarian, rather than “non interventionist”, in nature.

It’s not the welfare state, but the state of welfare that is the pressing problem

Private companies have become more firmly embedded in the core concerns of all departments of government in designing and delivering on public and social policies, and policies have become increasingly detached from public need, and more directed at meeting private interests, largely involving making huge and private profits. The Conservatives don’t seem to consider that rogue private businesses like G4S, Atos, Maximus, A4E, and so on, are extensions of the state, fulfilling what are, after all, state-determined functions.

Of course this creates an imbalance between the role of the welfare state in aiding private capital and its role in maintaining and supporting labor, and fulfilling the basic needs of citizens. Corporate welfare underpins neoliberal economies, and it costs the public far more than reduced public provisions promises to save.

In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each Work Capability Assessment (WCA) had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus. The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarised:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

65%
Estimated increase in cost per Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)


84%
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

£1.6 billion
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

13%
Proportion of ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

Before 2010, cuts to disability support were unthinkable. Now the Treasury regards our provision as their pocket money for tax cuts for the very wealthy

This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus, and other private companies involved in the delivery of welfare programmes are serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making a massive profit in doing so. It would cost much less to simply pay people the support they were once simply entitled to. However, the Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. 

As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. That’s despite the fact that the government introduced another layer of bureacracy in the form of “mandatory review” in order to deter appeals. People going through mandatory review for a decision to stop their ESA cannot claim ESA again until after mandatory review (if you need to appeal, you can claim ESA once you have the review decision), and so are forced to either try and claim Universal Credit, going 6 weeks at least without any support, or to wait out the Review outcome, which has no set time limit, but usually takes at least 6 weeks for the decision about the original decision. Which is usually the same decision as the original decision, due to outrageous targets that were revealed in the department’s response to a Freedom of Information request, that stated staff conducting mandatory reconsideration reviews were held to a “key performance indicator” that said “80 per cent of the original decisions are to be upheld”.

This is a government that claims social security is “unsustainable” and a “burden” on the public purse, yet has no problem with an extraordinary profligacy with public funds and dispossessing tax payers when it comes to implementing “cost-cutting” and draconian welfare “reforms.” Conservative anti-welfare dogma and traditional prejudices are costing the UK billions of pounds. 

The Tories are all about ideology and not facts. As two authors astutely noted recently, the government seems to be driven by an idea that creating the conditions of purgatory for those they consider “undeserving” will somehow cleanse, redeem and purify people into not being so sinfully poor.  So it’s not actually “welfare” any more, but rather, it’s a “correctional” institution, for coercing citizens into conformity, compliance and a class contingent meekness, with a liberal dash of the protestant work ethic in with the catholic inquisition flavoured ingredients in the mix. Yes, the nasty authoritarian Conservatives really do think like this.

Disability support is virtually impossible to access for many people that doctors consider severely disabled, and involves a measured and ritualised humiliation. The assessments are solely designed to look for “discrepancies” in people’s accounts of how their illness/disability impacts on your day to day living. In other words, it is aimed at looking for reasons, no matter how flimsy, to ensure that welfare support for disabled and ill people is pretty much unobtainable.

Those questions you are asked by the (inappropriately named) Health Care Professional (HCP) that seem like innocent conversation, such as “Do you watch TV? Do you like the Soaps?” translate onto a report that says “Can sit unaided for at least half an hour”. “Do you have a pet?”becomes “Can bend to feed cat/dog.” “Do you use the internet at all?” becomes “No evidence of focus or cognitive difficulties, adequate hand dexterity.”

If you wear any jewellry, that may be noted and used as evidence that you have dexterity in your hands, even if you have severe arthritis and can’t fasten your buttons or a zip,  you won’t be asked if you ever remove your locket/ring/earrings. It will be assumed that you do. It’s a kind of opportunism of neglect and assumption used by HCPs to justify refusing some elements of PIP, or all of your claim. Or it’s the difference between being placed in the ESA Support Group, being placed in the WRAG on the lower award, or simply being refused an award altogether, and told you are “fit for work”. 

If you are unfortunate enough to need a referral to a food bank, and you actually manage to get to the appointment,  because you are desperate, that may also be used as evidence that you can walk further than 200 or 500 metres, even if you can’t, and managed to get a lift there and back.

Challenging such ridiculous assumptions wears you down. It creates distress when someone acting as a gatekeeper to the support you need dismisses your medical reports and account with such disdain, just stopping short of calling you a liar. Challenging the reasons provided for the DWP refusing you a PIP or ESA award is tedious, very stressful and time consuming and tiring. I’m sure that if you manage to do so successfully, even the fact that you managed to collate evidence, ask you doctor for supportive evidence and so forth may be used as evidence that you can function too well to warrant any support. If you demonstrate any ingenuity in coping with your condition, you’ve basically had it.

Once upon a time, support for disabled people was designed to help us remain independent, and to enable us to participate in society. PIP is non means-tested and people can claim it (allegedly) whilst in work.

However, I worked for social services until I became too ill to work. I loved my job, and my salary was very good, too. It was a terribly dehumanising experience to have to face the fact I was no longer well enough and fit for my post. 7 years later, at my PIP assessment, it was decided that my previous job “proved” that I don’t currently have “any cognitive problems.”

That’s despite the assessor acknowledging  in the report I now even need an aid to remember to take my treatments and medications, and that during the appointment, I had to be reminded several times what I’d been asked, as I kept forgetting what I was supposed to be answering. I have systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and cognitive dysfunction is very commonly experienced  symptom of this illness

People have even been refused PIP at appeal because they “spend too much time on Facebook.” Too much for what, exactly? Last time I checked, there were no laws in place that meant sick and disabled citizens were prohibited from using social media. Since when did it become acceptable for government officials to endorse and promote the social exclusion of disabled people online? 

But apparently, contradictions and paradoxes are allowed if you happen to be the assessing HCP. The report said that I was “thin” abut “adequately nourished”. She didn’t check my vitamin and mineral levels at all. Nor did she ask me about what I ate and how often. She just said that the aids I have were “adequate” (a perch stool, easy to use tin opener and specially designed easy to use cutlery, which are not especially designed for disabled people, but are easier for me to use because of the handle design and the steak knives instead of standard ones.)

What’s the point of welfare “support” if so few people are able to access it, despite their obvious need?

The United Nations (UN) inquiry into the allegations many of us made regarding the systematic abuse of the human rights of disabled people in the UK has exposed the multiple injustices of targeted cuts and the disproportionate burden of austerity heaped on sick and disabled people, their carers and their families, evidencing and detailing the effects of a range of policy measures affecting them that have been introduced since 2010. These include the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits, funds to support independence and social care.

The report concludes that the overall effect of what is now an essentially punitive welfare regime, which has been based almost entirely on unevidenced political claims and assumptions, has had an extremely detrimental and regressive effect on the rights of disabled people, to live independently, to meet their basic needs, to seek and stay in work,  and to be able to live an ordinary life as citizens.

The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund.

I wrote a lengthy article about the unsurprising but nonetheless disquieting report findings and recommendations, as I read throughit at the time, here.

The government have of course indignantly refused to accept the findings of the UN, or accept the accounts of individuals and campaigners like me, disability groups and charities, and other organisations. That’s because the government prefer to cling relentlessly to free market dogma and their traditional prejudices rather than face empirical evidence, facts and truths.

The days of genuine support, to ensure disabled people can maintain dignity and independence, and to be socially, economically, politically and culturally included, are gone. PIP and ESA focus exclusively on what you can’t do: on “functionality”. If you walk your dog or take a holiday, this is taken to somehow indicate that you are not ill or disabled enough to need support. In fact the media turns you into some kind of nasty folk devil and state parasite for trying to live as normal life as possible. If the government and media had their way, we would be trapped indoors in abject misery, or institutionalised.

How dare we try to live an ordinary life.

The government have formulated draconian policies aimed particularly at disabled people. And unemployed people, low paid people, and young people. And migrants. And old people who, like many disabled people, have paid in contributions towards a welfare system, should they need it, but now they also have to work until they drop.

Hey, and you thought governments are elected to meet public needs and spend our money wisely? No, apparently we’re here to serve government needs, to behave exactly as the Conservatives think we should. 

Welfare as a deterrent to… well, welfare.

 

Image result for poverty welfare punishment

And social security has been redesigned to punish those citizens who have the misfortune to find themselves in poverty.

 


 

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The media need a nudge: the government using ‘behavioural science’ to manipulate the public isn’t a recent development, nudging has been happening since 2010

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Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s Nudge Unit. The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that we are fundamentally “irrational” and that many of our choices are influenced negatively by “cognitive bias.” They go on to propose that policymakers can and ought to nudge citizens towards making choices that are supposedly in their best interests and in the best interests of society.

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

And how can human interests be so narrowly defined and measured in terms of economic outcomes, within a highly competitive, “survival of the fittest” neoliberal framework? The Nudge Unit is concerned with behavioural economics, not human happiness and wellbeing.

The welfare reforms, especially the increased application of behavioural conditionality criteria and the extended use of benefit sanctions, are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – the cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. But nudge was always going to be an attractive presentation at the top of a very slippery slope all the way down to open state coercion. Most people think that nudge is just about helping men to pee on the right spot on urinals, getting us to pay our taxes on time, or to save for our old age. It isn’t.

How can sanctioning ever be considered a rational political action –  that taking away lifeline income from people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs is somehow justifiable, or “in their best interests” or about making welfare “fair”?  The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. But there is an established body of empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that denying people the means of meeting basic needs, such as money for food and fuel, undermines their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and serves to further “disincentivise” people who are already trapped at a basic level of struggling to simply survive.

The Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment for example, provided empirical evidence and a highly detailed account regarding the negative impacts of food deprivation on human motivation, behaviour, sociability, physical and psychological health. Abraham Maslow, a humanist psychologist who studied human potential, needs and motivation, said that if a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also represented in his classic hierarchy of needs. 

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to job seek.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions. (See Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions.)

Evidently the government have more than a few whopping cognitive biases of their own.

I have previously criticised nudge because of its fundamental incompatibility with traditional democratic principles, and human rights frameworks, amongst other things. Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, policies are no longer about representing and reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

I’ve also pointed out that nudge operates to manipulate at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination.

So we really do need to ask exactly in whose “best interests” the new paternalist “economologists” are acting. Nudge is being targeted specifically at the casualties of inequality, which is itself an inevitability of neoliberalism. The premise of nudge theory is that poor people make “bad choices” rather than their circumstances being recognised as an inexorable consequence of a broader context in which political decisions and the economic Darwinism that neoliberalism entails creates “winners and losers.”

I have seen very little criticism of nudge in the mainstream media until very recently. On Monday the Independent published an article about how the Chancellor exploited our cognitive biases to secure his cuts to welfare, drawing particularly on the loss aversion theory. To reiterate, in economics decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

From the Independent article:

“Researchers have also found that people do not treat possible forgone gains resulting from a decision in the same way as equivalent potential out-of-pocket losses from that same decision. The forgone gains are much less psychologically painful to contemplate than the losses. Indeed, the gains are sometimes ignored altogether.

There was an apparent attempt to harness this particular psychological bias in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Of course the Chancellor was forced into a memorable U-turn on his wildly unpopular tax credit cuts. Millions of poor working families will now not see their benefits cut in cash terms next April. Yet the Chancellor still gets virtually all his previously targeted savings from the welfare bill by 2020.

How? Because the working age welfare system will still become much less generous in five years’ time. As research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation has shown, the typical low-income working family in 2020 will be hit just as hard as they were going to be before the Autumn Statement U-turn. The Chancellor seems to be calculating that the pain of future forgone gains will be less politically toxic than immediate cash losses.”

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It’s hardly a revelation that the Conservative government are manipulating public opinion, using scapegoating, outgrouping and the creation of folk devils in order desensitize the public to the plight of the poorest citizens and to justify dismantling the welfare state incrementally. As I’ve pointed out previously, this has been going on since 2010, hidden in plain view.

In the article, Ben Chu also goes on to say:

“Experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler also suggest that this stealth approach fits with people’s sense of fairness. They found that in a time of recession and high unemployment most people they surveyed thought a hypothetical company that cut pay in cash terms was acting unfairly, while one that merely raised it by less than inflation was behaving fairly.

There was another exploitation of our psychological biases in the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced an increase in stamp duty for people buying residential properties to let. That underscored the fact that the Chancellor remains wedded to the stamp duty tax, despite pressure from public finance experts to shift to a more progressive and efficient annual property tax (perhaps an overhauled council tax).

But Mr Osborne, like all his recent predecessors, realises that stamp duty, for all its deficiencies, tends to be less resented as a form of taxing property. Why? Because of “anchoring”. When people buy a house they are mentally prepared to part with a huge sum, usually far bigger than any other transaction they will make in their lives. The additional stamp duty payable to the Treasury on top of this massive sum, large though it is, seems less offensive. People resent it less than they would if the tax were collected annually in the form of a property tax – even if, for most, it would actually make little difference over the longer term. Sticking with stamp duty is the path of least resistance.”

There is another economologist “experiment” that seems to have slipped under the radar of the media – an experiment to nudge sick and disabled people into work, attempting to utilise GPs in a blatant overextension of the intrusive and coercive arm of the state. It is aimed at ensuring sick and disabled people don’t claim benefits. I don’t recall any mention of behaviourist social experiments on the public in the Conservative manifesto.

When I am ill, I visit a doctor. I expect professional and expert support. I wouldn’t consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith about my medical conditions. Or the government more generally. There are very good reasons for that. I’m sure that Iain Duncan Smith has Dunning–Kruger syndrome. He thinks he knows better than doctors and unreliably informs us that work can set you free, it can help prevent and cure illness.  Yet I’ve never heard of a single case of work curing blindness, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer or even so much as a migraine. I’ve also yet to hear of a person’s missing limbs miraculously growing back. The Conservative “medical intervention” entails a single prescription: a work coach from the job centre. State medicine – a single dose to be taken daily: Conservative ideology, traditional prejudice and some patronising and extremely coercive paternalism. The blue pill.

I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ben Chu draws in his article. Whilst he acknowledges that:

“The Government has a Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) whose objective is to exploit the public’s psychological biases,” he goes on to say that it’s merely “to push progressive policies, such as getting us to save more for retirement and helping us make “better choices”, perhaps by counteracting the negative impact of loss aversion. But, as we’ve seen, the Chancellor is not above exploiting our biases in a cynical fashion too.” 

Progressive policies? The draconian welfare “reforms” aren’t remotely “progressive.” In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical (and nudge-driven) normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of such policies.

There is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and that person’s actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a technocratic fad that is overhyped, theoretically trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of its capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

At worst, the rise of this new form of psychopolitical behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

But for the record, when a government attempts to micromanage and manipulate the behaviour of citizens, we call that “totalitarianism” not “nudge.” 

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Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Some problems with the design of Universal Credit

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Monthly payments
The government thinks this will help promote good budgeting and more closely replicate monthly salary payments.  Campaigners are worried that the shift from weekly and fortnightly payments to this new regime may push claimants recipients into debt. The Social Market Foundation says:

Most households in our sample opposed the idea of a monthly payment. This was the case for the majority of households, who tended to budget on a daily, weekly or fortnightly cycle.

One of the most controversial aspects of Universal Credit is the introduction of a new seven-day waiting period before an individual qualifies for benefit.

What is more, people on Universal Credit will have to endure a wait of one calendar month whilst their entitlement is calculated, and then a further seven-day wait for payment into their account, which will produce a total wait of at least five weeks before people already in hardship  receive any money.

Benefit payments will go directly to one member of a couple
In cases of domestic abuse and violence, this could give perpetrators command of household income, further enabling them to control and isolate their partners. As Sandra Horley from Refuge points out:

The housing benefit on which refuges depend is the lifeblood of the national network of services that keep women and children safe. But this vital source of income is now at risk. Many of our refuges do not meet the official definition of “supported exempt accommodation”, which means that a lot of the women we support will fall foul of the benefit cap.

This will be particularly damaging for women who pay two rents – one for the refuge they are living in temporarily, and the other for the home they have fled. Women who move on from refuges and resettle in areas of high rent may also be plunged into debt as a result of the cap. Those who accumulate rent arrears may face eviction and be left with an impossible dilemma either to sleep rough or return to their violent partner.

Direct payments
The prospect of stopping housing benefit payments to landlords and directly paying the claimant is causing a lot of unease. The National Housing Federation says the shift from paying landlords to paying claimants direct for the housing benefit element could trigger unprecedented levels of arrears and increased rent collection costs.

Of all the reforms, the introduction of direct payments to tenants is expected to have the biggest impact – more than 80% of housing associations say it will affect their organisations a great deal or a fair amount,” an NHF report warns. “84% of associations believe that rent arrears will increase as a direct result of welfare changes. The average increase expected is 51%, which, if replicated across the sector, would mean an additional £245m of arrears.

The government has said that “vulnerable” tenants may be excluded (pdf) and has devised an “automatic switchback mechanism” – paying rent to the landlord when a tenant’s arrears hit a threshold level – but there are currently very few details of what constitutes a vulnerable tenant.

There are concerns that more people could be evicted as a result. The BBC obtained figures that showed when the direct payments were piloted in six areas of the country there was a big rise in rent arrears as some tenants failed to pass that money on, with arrears rising from about 2% to 11%.

Conditionality and sanctions
The government says:

Entitlement to UC is subject to a strict regime of ‘personalised’ conditionality (ie mandatory activity to prepare for and obtain work), backed by tough benefit sanctions (ie loss of benefit) for non-compliance.

The Child Poverty Action Group warns:

The need for more conditionality comes across as a moral crusade, rather than being evidence based … There are concerns that some vulnerable claimants could face repeated sanctions for failing to comply with the demands of the system and that personal advisers and the Work Programme (within a culture of ‘payment by results’) will have too much power and discretion to impose unreasonable requirements on claimants.

The charity warns in a UC training document:

Sanctions, in the form of loss of benefit, are designed to incentivise claimants to meet their work-related requirements and punish them for unreasonable failures. The regime is harsh, and there is concern that some claimants who repeatedly fail to comply with the system could be sanctioned and forced to survive on below subsistence income for long periods. This could include vulnerable claimants with mental health or social functioning problems, who find it difficult to comply with directions.”

A high level sanction can be imposed if, for example, a claimant fails for no good reason to take up an offer of paid work. The higher level sanction is the loss of the standard allowance of 91 days for a first failure, 182 days for a second higher level sanction within a year, and 1,095 days (three years) for another failure within a further year (disregarding “pre-claim” failures).

Hardship payments will be available of 60% of the sanctioned amount for those who cannot meet their “immediate and most basic and essential needs for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene”.

Lone parents could lose out
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that “because of the way the parameters of universal credit have been chosen, couples, and particularly those with children, look set to gain by more, on average, than single-adult families, particularly lone parents, who will lose on average according to our analysis”.

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For a more detailed critical account of Univeral Credit please see: It’s the design of Universal Credit and not the delivery that presents the biggest concern: from striking to altercasting

544840_330826693653532_892366209_nThanks to Robert Livingstone for the illustrations