Tag: Conditionality

Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work

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The UK’s most extensive study of welfare conditionality has found that welfare sanctions are “ineffective” at “supporting” people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or survival crime. 

Despite dogmatic claims by Conservative ministers in recent years that rigorously enforced conditionality – including mandatory 35-hour job searches – “‘incentivised’ claimants to move off benefits into work”, the research found the positive impact was negligible.

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study of welfare conditionality was carried out between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at six universities. It included repeat qualitative interviews over two years with 481 welfare service users in England and Scotland as well as interviews with 57 policy experts and 27 focus groups.

The five-year research programme that has been following the lives of hundreds of claimants concludes that the controversial policy of cutting benefits as a punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been “little short of disastrous.”

For those people interviewed for the study who did gain employment, the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into sustained, well-paid work.

Sanctions generally delivered poor outcomes, including debt, poverty and reliance on charities such as food banks, the study found. Often imposed for trivial and seemingly cruel reasons, they frequently triggered high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The director of the study, Professor Peter Dwyer, based at the University of York, said “The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative.” 

One research finding is that, in many cases, the threat of sanctions had the unintended effect of encouraging a “culture of counterproductive compliance and futile behaviour” among some claimants, who learned “the rules of the game” rather than becoming genuinely “engaged with work.”  This of course is through necessity, as social security payments are claimed by people who need support to meet their basic survival needs: welfare (barely) covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. 

The authors of the research paper conclude: “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes.” 

Many campaigners, including myself, have been pointing this out for years. It’s a fundamental truth – established by Abraham Maslow, and verified by a range of comprehensive studies, including the Minnesota semi-starvation experiment – that if people cannot meet their basic survival needs, that becomes their “cognitive priority” – their primary motivation. People caught in absolute poverty cannot then higher level psychosocial needs, until their basic survival needs are met. It takes a monstrously authoritarian government to ignore these empirical facts and to continue to punish citizens by withdrawing their fundamental means of survival.

The researchers call for a review of the use of sanctions, including an immediate moratorium on benefit sanctions for disabled people who are disproportionately affected, together with an urgent “rebalancing” of the social security system to focus less on compliance and more on helping claimants into work. 

The research report says that in the “rare” cases where claimants did move off benefits into sustained work, personalised job support, not sanctions, was the key factor. With few exceptions, however, jobcentres were more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people gain employment.

“Although some examples of good practice are evident, much of the mandatory job search, training and employment support offered by Jobcentre Plus and external providers is too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work,” the report says.

It’s very worrying that the research highlighted those citizens with “chaotic lives” – who were homeless or had addictions, for example – reacted to the “inherent hassle” of the conditionality system by dropping out of the social security system altogether. In some cases, they moved into survival crime, such as drug dealing.

Low-paid workers on universal credit who were subject to so-called “in-work conditionality” – a requirement for them to work more hours or face sanctions – in some cases elected to sign off, foregoing rent support and tax credits, to avoid what they saw as constant, petty harassment from jobcentre staff.

Welfare conditionality – the notion that eligibility for benefits and services should be linked to claimants’ compliance with certain rules and behaviours – has been progressively embedded into the UK social security system since the 1990s, although the scope and severity intensified dramatically after 2012, when the Conservative-led coalition “reformed” the welfare system.

Sanctions are imposed when claimants supposedly breach stringent jobcentre rules, typically by failing to turn up for appointments on time, or at all, or for failing to apply for “enough jobs”. They are effectively fined by having their benefit payments stopped for a minimum of four weeks (about £300) and a maximum of three years. This means that money to meet their basic living requirements is cut. 

At its peak in 2013, under the then secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, there were more than a million sanctions. Between 2010 and 2015, a quarter of all people on jobseeker’s allowance were sanctioned, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issuing £132m in sanctions penalties in 2015.

Sanctions fell to 350,000 in 2016 as a series of critical reports emerged questioning their effectiveness and calling for changes, including from the all-party work and pensions select committee, the DWP’s social security advisory committee and the National Audit Office.

fresh inquiry by MPs into sanctions is under way.

Dalia Ben-Galim, the policy director at the single parents’ charity Gingerbread, said: “Rather than threatening single parents with sanctions and widening the ‘conditionality’ agenda, it would be much more valuable to enable the conditions to support employment such as affordable childcare, access to flexible work and personalised support through job centres.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our research shows that over 70% of JSA claimants say sanctions make it more likely they will comply with reasonable and agreed requirements, and it is understandable that people meet certain expectations in return for benefits.

I wonder if this was a reference to the DWP “case studies” made up of fictitious characters and testimonies, as uncovered by Welfare Weekly ?

The DWP spokesperson continued with platitudes: “We tailor requirements to individual cases and sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases when people fail to meet their agreed requirements set out in their claimant commitment.”

Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions Margaret Greenwood said: “The current sanctions system is immoral and ineffective. It is not helping people into employment and at the same time is leaving vulnerable people on the brink of destitution, without any source of income for long periods.”

The authors of the report further conclude that the DWP’s sanctions regime:

“…compromises attempts to end child poverty. At best, current practice fails to support lone parents in the way proposed; at worst, it compounds the disadvantage they already face. The ethical legitimacy of the present system is highly questionable as a consequence.”

wrote in 2015:

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individua ones of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘worklessness.’ The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality.

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative […] ultimately the presented political aim is to ‘mend’ Britain’s supposedly ‘broken society’ and to restore a country that ‘lives within its means’… bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on ‘economic competitiveness’ in a ‘global race.’

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter, rather than […] an inevitable feature of neoliberal […] competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise social problems, while at the same time, justifying […] changing citizens’ behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.

The government’s policies, founded on scapegoating already marginalised social groups, and creating “hostile environments” for the poorest citizens, including those with disabilities, who have been disproportionately weighed down with the burden of austerity, have caused immeasurable human suffering and untold damage to the very fabric of what was once a civilised society.

The answer to the problems generated by the politically imposed system of neoliberalism that fails the majority of citizens, according to the dogmatic government, is to apparently apply even more rigid neoliberal policies as an almost farcical sticking plaster. 

The Conservative’s answer to social problems such as inequality and poverty, which own policies createand extend, is to impose ideologically formulated “behavioural change” programmes on the poorest citizens, as a prop for dismally failing neoliberalism. All authoritarians are bullies and all bullies aim to change the behaviours of others. This technocratic and authoritarian approach to policy always entails the creation of scapegoats that the government then punish.

In 2002, as party chairwoman, Theresa May told the Conservatives that they were seen as the “nasty party”. Sixteen years later and under her premiership, that description of  an authoritarian and rigidly ideologically driven government has never been more apt.

Related

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

 


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Conditionality and discretionary housing payments: when paying rent is more important than buying food

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The government’s behavioural change agenda, which targets the poorest citizens, is being delivered via the increasing conditionality of social security and public service support provision. The underpinning rhetoric is that individual behaviours cause poverty, rather than government policies, which are causing a systemic unequal distribution of wealth.

Councils who are facing shortfalls in government funding to meet their statutory obligations have recently introduced behavioural conditionality to applications for awards of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Most local authorities are now saying they will only help those who will have a “positive outcome” as a result of the support. Yet they claim that this is to ensure limited funds go to only those “most in need”.

The reasoning provided by councils for only supporting those “nearest to the labour market” to encourage “financial independence” is at odds with the aim of ensuring support goes to “those most in need”. Surely those unable to work through illness and disability, who are furthest away from the labour market, actually have more need, yet will be less likely to meet conditionaility requirements and so won’t receive the support that the government tells us is supposed to be in place for us.

DHP is now much less likely to be awarded for those in greatest need precisely because of the new conditionality criteria. It specifically supports people who are more able to find work. Those who can’t are expected to go without food and fuel to meet their housing costs and potentially face destitution.

Disabled people paying for disabled people’s support

On Thursday I went to apply for DHP as I no longer have enough money to live on, partly because of now having to pay council tax and bedroom tax. Like many people, my essential outgoings are considerably greater than my income. The government have claimed that disabled people like me can claim DHP as a safeguard from the financially damaging impact of the bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people.

However, my own council have warned me in advance that they have little funding left for providing DHP support.

ESA and other benefits were originally calculated to meet the costs of food and fuel, and other essential living costs, based on an assumption that you would also get FULL housing and council tax benefit. There hasn’t been full housing benefit provision for some years now, but previously, people who are disabled were exempt from paying council tax, until recent years.  

This is leaving some people without enough money to meet the costs of their basic survival needs – food and fuel. One reason I now have to pay more council tax, according to the statement from my local authority on my bill, is to raise money to meet the costs for the government’s pledged funds for improving adult social care – the adult social care precept. That is being taken from every household, including the poorest, many of which have people with serious medical conditions and disabilities in them.

My local authority says: “The introduction of the National Living Wage and increase in population means this is an area where we have seen significant financial pressures. The 2% increase will help us to maintain our current services.”

There’s a certain horrible irony here, too.

My local authority inform me that I now have to pay council tax to fund support for:

  • older people
  • people with a learning disability
  • people with a physical disability
  • people with sensory loss
  • people with mental health needs

The never-ending need to justify need: facing the bureaucratic wall around support provision

I am a person with physical disabilities because of an illness, and my only income is my ESA, at the support group rate. I ought to have claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP) before now. However my experiences claiming ESA were pretty distressing and extremely anxiety provoking, that has deterred me. The enormous stress and anxiety of the assessments, facing a tribunal and then the reassessment almost immediately after I won my case in court exacerbated my already serious illness, and left me acutely and desperately ill for at least two years.

I’m a reasonably robust person ordinarily. I have worked most of my life, and I enjoyed my work, particularly the youth and community posts I undertook. I did a vocational part-time Master’s whilst I worked full time, and later went on to do mental health social work with young people at risk.

I was very unprepared for what followed when I suddenly became very ill with lupus. I was used to being fit, healthy and very active. I also had a good salary and a relatively comfortable standard of living. Though I was never very affluent, I had enough to cover my family’s needs, and to provide enough for my children to have stability.

I was forced to give up work as I was much too ill to fulfil my role competently and there were significant risks to my health in the workplace. My illness and some of the treatments I have also mean that I am very susceptible to infection. I caught a cold from a colleague in work and ended up with pneumonia and pleurisy more than once, for example. My illness impacted on my capacity to work for many reasons, such as an autoimmune bleeding disorder, widespread joint and tendon damage affecting my mobility, severe nerve pain, deteriorating eyesight, neurological problems and cognitive difficulties and so on. The tribunal panel (regarding my ESA eligibility) concluded that I had made the right decision to leave work because of the further serious risks to my health, after reading my medical reports from my specialists. 

My house was repossessed because my modest mortgage payments became unmanageable as I had no way of making the payments. I did approach my local housing office for help, who told me they could only offer support once I was actually homeless. That would have meant having all my family’s possessions left on the street, too.

I found a house to rent just down the street for a very reasonable amount. In fact initially there was very little shortfall between my housing benefit and actual rent. I had two boys at school, they didn’t want to leave the area as they were in their final years, and we have other family in this area. I was informed by the council that I would be eligible for housing benefit for a three bedroom house at that time. I took out a small loan for my deposit, as by then my last wage had long gone. The council were pleased I had managed to find cheap accommodation that suited my family’s needs.

I moved into the property, but I was very ill and struggled coping. My disability advisor at the job centre advised me to claim ESA at this time. By then I was having weekly chemotherapy treatment (Methotrexate) at the hospital and was considered unavailable for work, I didn’t (and couldn’t) meet thhe jobseeker’s allowance conditionality requirements, and my advisor recognised this.

Within two months of moving into the property, the law changed, and I had to pay bedroom tax for my older son’s room, as he was suddenly expected to share a room with his younger brother. There are no smaller houses locally, none with lower rents, and all of the limited number of two bedroom council flats here are inhabited. Not that moving again would have been easy for me as I was so poorly at this time. The first move down the street had affected my health, and exhausted me for months.

However, after almost a year of struggling to pay the bedroom tax, my oldest son reached 18 and my housing benefit went back up not long before he left for university.  I got almost a year of backpay when I won my ESA tribunal and that helped me get on top of my increasing debt, after months of really struggling. I also got a tax rebate from when I worked, also helped enormously. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided that they would take back an overpayment they made in 2007, whilst I was struggling on basic rate ESA, awaiting tribunal in 2011. I was also paying bedroom tax then. I had claimed income support briefly when I changed jobs, whilst I waited for social services to complete background checks that were necessary for my post. I couldn’t start the post until the checks were done. Meanwhile we had nothing to live on. The checks took three months.

I was entitled to a month of run-on benefit as a lone parent once I took up the post. However, despite the fact I had signed off, the income support payments continued another two months. I had phoned a couple of times and then written twice to inform the job centre again that I had taken up my post.

I don’t mind paying back the money I was overpaid. I did mind that the DWP also took back the run-on benefit that I was actually entitled to for the first month, and told me it was far too late to appeal that decision. The hefty deductions from my reduced ESA did cause me a lot of hardship, but at least I didn’t owe anything by the time I won the tribunal. It was claimed I did still owe money at one point and I had a letter saying my ESA back dated payment wasn’t going to be released as I owed money. I didn’t.

It’s almost as if the DWP want to keep you in a state of constant anxiety, despair and precarity, and to make sure that your life is never remotely acceptably comfortable, secure and safe. Social security is no longer a safety net, it seems to have been transformed into a bureacratic wall that exists simply to discipline poor people and ensure as few people as possible have access to any lifeline support. The letters are written in a way that intends to cause anxiety, I am sure.

I managed financially for a couple of years, though budgeting on such a limited income is difficult. But having worked for a long time, I had furniture and household items, enough clothing and when things got very bad, I had a few personal items to sell if need be. 

Of course over time, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, kettles and cookers break down.  Children grow and need clothes and shoes. I went a whole year without a washing machine when mine broke, but saved a little every month until I had enough for a second hand one. I don’t know how I managed to get by because much of the time I could barely walk or use my wrists/hands, but I had to wash clothes and bedding in the bath. It took up a lot of my time and effort. Poverty is cumulative, too. It gets much worse and more wearying as time goes by. If you are ill and disabled, the impacts of poverty are considerably greater.

Both my youngest sons are at university now. They come home out of term times. I feed them and support them as best I can, though we don’t have any money to cover their living costs. Both are at universities out of the region, they have student finance for term times, but both have struggled to meet living costs. When they come home, it’s for a couple of weeks, though considerably longer at christmas. They have never managed to find work locally to tide them over out of term time, despite trying. No-one wants to hire people for a couple of weeks.

My oldest son found a part time job in his first year at university. He didn’t have regular hours and his employer simply called him when he needed him. However, my son’s travel costs to and from work exceeded what he earned, and more than once his allocated hours coincided with his lectures, which are compulsory.

Both boys are considered as living at home as they return home out of term times and are expected to return home once they complete their studies. 

In the new year, I caught ‘flu and within a couple of days I ended up with pneumonia and sepsis. At the time I was far too ill to know I was so poorly. It was my son who realised how serious my condition was and rang the ambulance, just in time.

I was already in a critical condition with septic shock when the ambulance arrived. My illness means my immunity to infection is very low, so I’m always at risk from pneumonia, kidney infections, random abscesses and so on, but this was the first time I have ever had life-threatening and severe sepsis. I was very ill in hospital and spent a couple of days drifting in and out of a bottomless sleep and hallucinating, whilst on the lifesaving IV treatments and fluids. I needed oxygen support for five days afterwards, anticoagulant injections, and continued taking combined oral antibiotics, steroids and a course of Tamiflu for a couple of weeks after I came home. 

When I got home from hospital in late Jaunary, we had no hot water or heating as my boiler had broken. But we used fan heaters, and I managed to keep warm in my room, I focused on recovery, until the electric went off because of a fault on a circuit. My landlord lives in the US currently and I had difficulty in contacting him. I had no choice but to find somewhere else to stay as the house was so cold it was uninhabitable, and we couldn’t cook food. I was still very weak and very slowly recovering. By this time my youngest son had returned to university. My oldest son and I had to stay with a friend.

The electrical fault was fixed and I got a new boiler fitted the following week. I remained weak and my pulmonary specialist told me it would likely be at least three months before I was fully recovered. I have been diagnosed with additional lung problems since, which showed up on a scan, following more tests showing my lung function is just 40% of what it is expected to be. Some of the problems are related to lupus, which has caused a lot of inflammation in both lungs.

My son decided I needed some additional support to recover and he has taken six months out from his degree to care for me. The alternative was for me to contact social services for support.

I now have to pay bedroom tax for his room, in addition to the council tax, as he is classed as a non-dependent adult. Having no boiler for several months has also meant I used a lot more eletricity, so my bill is much bigger than usual, so my direct debit has more than doubled every fortnight. I managed to negotiate it down a bit, but it is still more than twice my ususal payment. My new boiler is a lot more efficient than the old one, luckily, but I am nonetheless struggling to make ends meet.

So I applied for DHP.

I had an interview on Thursday at our local housing benefit office. 

Rent and council tax are more important than food and fuel, apparently

The interview went as follows:

Firstly, I was asked to give an account of my income and outgoings. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for work?

Me: I am in the Employment Support and Allowance Support Group (ESA). This is because I became too ill to work and it’s been agreed by my doctors, myself and the state that I can’t work “consistently, reliably and safely” due to the severity of my illness and the substantial risks I would face if I were to return to the workplace. I have tried to find a job writing from home that pays a wage to support myself, but had no luck so far. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for cheaper accommodation?

Me: I wasn’t aware I was expected to. However, there is no cheaper accommodation in the area, unless you have any two bedroom social housing to offer me. Then I would need considerable support in moving, as my illness means I have mobility problems, severe problems with profound fatigue, other health problems that make moving risky, and I also need to be organised to accommodate a strict routine for my health care.

Housing Officer: Have you considered taking in a lodger?

Me: I have no spare room to offer a lodger as my sons occupy them out of term time and are expected to return home once they graduate. However, I would not consider taking a stranger into my home because I am disabled and ill, therefore I am potentially vulnerable and feel that this may present an unacceptable risk to my wellbeing and safety. (See for example: Mother and son who ‘gave shelter to homeless man’ stabbed to death at family home.)

Housing Officer: Your weekly shopping average looks slightly high.

Me: Well at the moment it is for two of us. On Friday my youngest son is home for the Easter break, and I will then need to feed him too.

Housing Officer: I only want details of what you spend on yourself.

Me: Do the council expect that I leave my children without food?

(No response)

Me: My weekly shop includes essential items I can no longer get on prescription, such as eye drops, because my tear film is very poor, I don’t produce tears as I have Sjogren’s – painfully dry eyes – as part of my illness. I used to get moisturising drops on prescription from my opthalmologist but they have been discontinued. If I don’t use the eyedrops my cornea becomes scarred and I get eye infections.

I also have to buy sunblock, because I get a blistering and painful rash in the sunlight, even in winter – that’s also part of my illness.  

I have to buy detergents and toiletries that are very hypoallergenic and gentle because my skin is fragile, hypersensitive, prone to rashes and painful blistering in places because I have lupus and eczema, all of which leaves me prone to infection if I don’t treat the conditions with care. I also have to buy cleaning products and antibacterial items, to keep my home as clean as possible because my illness and treatments mean my immunity to infection is very poor. 

None of these items are available on prescription, but I do unfortunately need them. I have also included very modest clothing/footwear costs (I have to take care with footwear because I have severe Raynaud’s – a condition that causes very poor circulation that shuts down in my hands, feet and nose with even slight fluctuations in temperature – and so I need to keep my feet and hands warm.  I am prone to blisters from badly fitted shoes which then turn into serious infections and have developed sepsis at least once because of this. I also need shoes that are cushioned and support my Achilles tendons because of damage to them and my joints. 

I’ve also included modest costs for essential household items, which everybody needs sometimes due to wear and tear. I have a bleeding disorder, which affects me in a way that means I have to spend more on sanitary items than most people. I also have additional dietary needs because I am underweight, and I have IBS and acid reflux, which means I have to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. This is not a lifestyle choice: it’s because of my medical conditions.

Housing Officer: Don’t take any of the questions personally, everyone is asked the same.

Me: The problem with having the expectation of everyone having the same needs is that you then don’t have any opportunity to recognise the more vulnerable clients who need additional support because of their additional needs. Not everyone finds it easy to find suitable employment to support themselves.  Illness and disability can happen to anyone, it is sometimes a major barrier to working and I am not ill because of “lifestyle choices”: it’s not because of something I did or didn’t do. I have worked. Now I can’t. 

People are dying because of that built-in oversight and other government policies that don’t accommodate people’s circumstances and disregard their additional needs because of disability and illness. Many others are suffering unacceptable distress and harm to their health.

Housing Officer: I know.

She delivered that comment with complete and almost menacing detachment. I was so taken aback I couldn’t speak for a few moments. She didn’t even pause for breath, however.

The part that was by far the worst during the interview was this matter-of-fact agreement that people are dying as a result of the policies that she was calmly sat implementing.

It was delivered almost like a veiled threat: that if I didn’t or couldn’t comply with certain unstated behavioural requirements, which were not made explicit at any point during the interview or prior to it, I would also be left to die. 

I was then told I must “prioritise” my rent and council tax payments above everything else.

I explained that my rheumatology consultant has also told me I must prioritise eating well, putting weight on (I weighed less than 8 stones), and keeping warm. I don’t have enough income to do both of those things, as it is. I explained again that I could meet my husing costs before I had to pay council and bedroom tax, and have managed to do so until now, and this is why I had applied for DHP.

My comment was met with silence. 

Apparently, not falling into rent and council tax arrears is more considered more important than meeting basic survival needs such as eating and keeping warm.

I was also almost casually asked if I had any pets or Sky TV. Next I was asked if I had a TV, broadband and a mobile phone contract. I was asked how much I spend on my phone monthly (it’s a pay as you go). I felt I was being turned into a Daily Mail stereotype by bureaucratic questioning that was designed to find ways of dismissing me as ineligible for support in an arbitrary way, under the cover of mundane chit chat.

The more I responded the more demand was placed on me to justify my outgoings, the more information I presented, the bigger the scope for potentially finding reasons for refusing my application.

ESA and PIP assessments work in much the same way – assessors fish for as much information as possible about your everyday life so they can use it to try and claim you are more able to work and less disabled than you and your doctor are claiming.

For example, “Do you watch soaps on TV?” – a deceptively conversational and informal question – may translate your response on the report potentially, as “Can sit unaided and concentrate for at least half an hour”.  The aims and motives behind the questions are deliberately obscurred, so that you don’t have an opportunity to explain or clarify any details or challenge the assumptions being made to justify ending your lifeline support.

That gold locket and chain that was your mother’s, which you wear all the time because you can’t take it off, as the clasp is too difficult for your arthritic fingers, becomes a sign of finger and hand dexterity to an assessor, as it’s just assumed you take it off and put it on again. When I had a chest x-ray rencently, I had to ask the radiographer to take it off. The whole process is designed to search out ways to discredit your doctor’s and your own account by any means at all concerning the level of your disability and the impact it has on your day to day living and work capability.  

Agents of state control and “changing behaviours”

Behavioural conditionality has now been built into every aspect of social safety net provision, this is to save costs and ultimately, to justify the dismantling of social security, public services and healthcare provision. It is justified by an ideological narrative of the neoliberal “small state”, austerity and paying off the national deficit, the “unsustainability” of safety net provision and the state re-translation of competitive individualism into a rhetoric of self help, thrift and “personal responsibility”.

However, the behavioural change programme is being applied only to poor and vulnerable citizens. Against a backdrop of austerity and welfare “reforms” (cuts), millionaires were awarded a tax cut of £107,000 each per year, exempting them from the same obligation to practice personal responsibility, thrift and self help. The Conservatives’ low tax and low welfare society means that perversely, those who have a lot of money are not expected to contribute to our society, whereas those who are low earners or unemployed are expected to pay down the deficit and pull themselves up by invisible bootstraps.

If you suffer or die in the process, apparently that is okay because the government inform us there is no “causal link” between such “adverse” consequences and their adverse policies. However, a correlation has been well-established by independent research and the narratives of many of those affected by the draconian polcies, as well as campaigners.

What really struck me during my housing benefit interview was how the ordinary and seemingly reasonable woman in front of me seemed to suddenly shapeshift into a resentful, disapproving and prejudiced state drone who didn’t feel I deserved any support, about a third of the way into our interview.  I felt like Iain Duncan Smith was conducting the interview.

The government have built up almost impenetrable walls of authoritarian bureacracy around social security provision, and a hive mind army to deliver their distinctive and punitive approach to poverty, which is now all pervasive. All bullies seek the “behavioural change” of others to get their own way.  Conditionality is built upon a behavioural change agenda to prop up neoliberal policies aimed at removing social provisions that the poorest citizens need to survive. Work is no longer the panacea it is held to be, since labour market deregulation and intentionally low social security creates a reserve army of labour, which “incentivises” profiteering employers to keep wages low. 

Even a trip to your GP is likely to trigger the question “do you work” these days, as job coaches are co-located in surgeries to enforce the government’s “work cure” and suck you back into a supply side reserve army of desperate labour. However, sometimes people are simpy too ill to work. The state and its wall of bureaucracy, however, are absolutely refusing to accept this.

There is no end to intrusive state nudging and shoving, especially when you just want to be left to cope with being progressively ill in peace. The government believe that illness and disability are simply a set of “faulty” behaviours that need correcting, and that people will respond to a particularly punitive form of operant conditioning in order to change their behaviours to bring about a miraculous recovery. Work is considered a “health” outcome. However, work is a work outcome and has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s health. In my own experience, work considerably contributed to the progression of my illness. Being constantly expected to work has also contributed significantly to the deterioration in my health.

Furthermore, I don’t recall giving consent for my taxes and national insurance to be used to pay rogue companies that cost the public billions to “save” relatively meagre amounts in welfare and public service spending just to punish, bully and coerce people who need support.

Nor did I give consent to a state experiment in value-laden, poorly designed and prejudice-determined operant conditioning on ill, disabled and unemployed citizens. 

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Cameron was surely mocking when he used this phrase as a slogan from Terry Gilliam’s darkly dystopic film, “Brazil”, which was coincidently about nightmarish totalitarian bureaucracy 

There were no innocent and random comments from the interviewing housing officer. Almost every question was geared towards making me feel guilty for being poor and not being in work, I was challenged over every single penny I spent, as if I have no right to food, items that I need to meet my complex health needs, and no right to extend an ordinary gesture of basic kindness and decency by taking in a stray cat that had no home and no-one. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to sell everything I had bought and kept from when I worked.

I had no idea that disabled people could be refused support if they had a pet. Regardless of whether that pet was one you had when you were in better circumstances, working. How utterly callous to expect people to dispose of their cherished companions when they experience hard times, it’s cruel on the person and cruel on the poor and innocent animal.

Most pets cost very little to feed, too.

My cat is a great source of calm and comfort for me, at a time when I am struggling trying to constantly adapt to a progressive illness, and increasing absolute poverty.  I couldn’t bear to part with her.

I wonder what the decision-makers, who are gatekeeping funds that are meant to support disabled people rather than punish them, expect a person should actually do with a cherished family pet, which may have been a part of a family long before severe financial problems and illness came along.

It’s rather like financially penalising people by cutting off support for some children just because a parent has lost a job and encountered difficult times. It’s a Poor house mentality – we are all categorised as either “deserving” or “undeserving” based on our previous choices as well as our current ones. How very dare anyone have anything at all that gives them a little joy and comfort if they become too ill to work. Even if they worked for it prior to losing their job or becoming ill.

This said, those people who have never been able to work should be supported, unconditionally and without any resentment, to meet their living needs and to lead safe and secure lives. This is how a democratic, decent and civilised society should behave, after all.

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I don’t need a behavioural change agenda. My behaviour didn’t put me in a position of hardship: ill conceived state policies that disproportionately target ill and disabled people for austerity cuts are the root cause of my financial problems. I am not ill because of my behaviour, my medical condition arose because of a complex interplay between genetics (my mother and her father had a connective tissue disease, and both my maternal aunt and uncle do), hormonal events (pregnancy was probably the trigger in my case, as that is when I first became ill, 21 years ago) and possibly some environmental triggers too, such as an infection. It was not because I did or didn’t do something. No-one could have predicted a pregnancy would trigger a connective tissue disease. No-one knows how it will progress either, unfortunately. I managed to work for some years whilst being ill, and stopped only because I absolutely had too when I my symptoms became too severe.

Neoliberalism is founded on the principles of “market competition” and competitive individualism. In competition, a few people do very well and “win”, and many more don’t. That is the nature of competition. This is how it works.

Neoliberalism itself causes inequality and poverty, whilst rewarding most the people who are already very wealthy. Addressing the “behaviours” of poor people to punish them into not being poor won’t change the consequences of inequality because of our socioeconomic organisation one bit. Poverty, by it’s very nature, reduces behavioural choices and opportunity.

It’s really the government who need to change their policies and prejudiced behaviours, not poor, ill and disabled people.

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Related 

What do good Local Welfare Support and Conditionality Schemes look like? – The introduction of local welfare support and conditionality schemes are a side-effect of localisation.


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you. 

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Report shows significant challenges facing the Universal Credit system

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It’s disappointing and very worrying that a published report from the Work and Pensions Committee says: “The employment support service for in-work claimants of Universal Credit (UC) holds the potential to be the most significant welfare reform since 1948, but realising this potential means a steep on-the-job learning curve, as the policy appears to be untried anywhere in the world.”

The Work and Pensions Committee recommendations in the report are:

Given there is no comprehensive evidence anywhere on how to run an effective in-work service, the DWP will be learning as it develops this innovation. The Committee says:

  • for the reform to work, it must help confront the structural or personal barriers in-work claimants face to taking on more work, such as a lack of access to childcare and limited opportunities to take on extra hours or new jobs
  • the question of applying proposed sanctions is complex: employed people self-evidently do not lack the motivation to work.  The use of financial sanctions for in-work claimants must be applied very differently to those for out-of-work claimants
  • a successful in-work service will also require partnership between JCP and employers to a degree not seen before.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee said:

“The in-work service promises progress in finally breaking the cycle of people getting stuck in low pay, low prospects employment. We congratulate the Government for developing this innovation. As far as we can tell, nothing like this has been tried anywhere else in the world. This is a very different kind of welfare, which will require developing a new kind of public servant.”

This imprudent comment from Field implies that individuals need financial punishments in order to find work with better prospects and higher pay. Yet there are profoundly conflicting differences in the interests of employers and employees. The former are generally strongly motivated to purposely keep wages as low as possible so they can generate profit and pay dividends to shareholders and the latter need their pay and working conditions to be such that they have a reasonable standard of living. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining. In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they hate it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else.

Workplace disagreements about wages and conditions are now typically resolved neither by collective bargaining nor litigation but are left to management prerogative. This is because Conservative aspirations are clear. Much of the government’s discussion of legislation is preceded with consideration of the value and benefit for business and the labour market. They want cheap labour and low cost workers, unable to withdraw their labour, unprotected by either trade unions or employment rights and threatened with destitution via benefit sanction cuts if they refuse to accept low paid, low standard work. Similarly, desperation and the “deterrent” effect of the 1834 Poor Law amendment served to drive down wages.

In the Conservative’s view, trade unions distort the free labour market which runs counter to New Right and neoliberal dogma. Since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst declines in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards.

It’s worth considering that in-work conditionality and sanctions may have unintended consequences for employers, too. If employees are coerced by the State to find better paid and more secure work, and employers cannot increase hours and accommodate in-work progression, who will fill those posts? Financial penalties aimed at employees will also negatively impact on the performance and reliability of the workforce, because when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, their cognitive and practical focus shifts to survival, and that doesn’t accommodate the meeting of higher level psychosocial needs and obligations, such as those of the workplace. It was because of the recognition of this, and the conventional wisdom captured in the work of social psychologists such as Abraham Maslow that provided the reasoning behind the policy of in-work benefits and provision in the first place. 

In-work conditionality reinforces a lie and locates blame within individuals for structural problems – political, economic and social – created by those who hold power. Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a signifant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

Last month I wrote about the Department for Work and Pensions running a Trial that is about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” 

The Department for Work and Pensions submitted a document about the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) they are currently conducting regarding in-work “progression.” The submission was made to the Work and Pensions Committee in January, as the Committee have conducted an inquiry into in-work conditionality. The document specifies that: This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.” 

The document focuses on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security, and evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit. (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”

Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial is mandatory. There is clearly no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychopolitical approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some very serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. It’s also very worrying that this intervention is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.

Owen Smith MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, commenting on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report  into ‘in-work progression’ in Universal Credit, said:

“This report shows there are significant challenges facing the new Universal Credit system, not least how to ensure work pays and people are incentivised in to jobs.  As a result, it is deeply worrying that at the early part of the rollout, huge Tory cuts to work allowances will undermine this aim, as 2.5 million working families will left over £2,100 a year worse off. 

“If Universal Credit is to be returned to its original intentions of supporting and encouraging people in to work then Stephen Crabb needs to change his mind and reverse the Tory cuts to working families urgently. 

“It’s also problematic that the committee found there is insufficient information available after a year of piloting in-work conditionality, especially given the complete mess that has been made of the existing sanctions regime.  The DWP should move quickly to make available as much information as possible, to ensure the roll out of Universal Credit is properly scrutinised.”

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Related

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

It’s time to abolish “purely punitive” benefit sanctions


This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.

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Why I strongly support Trade Unionism

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Trade Unions are fundamental to a functional democracy. Research shows that Trade Unionism is linked with higher levels of social equality and better public services, as well as better working conditions and rates of pay that ensure people have a decent standard of living. The Conservatives have always hated Trade Unions because Tory governments tend to value, perpetuate and endorse inequality and poor pay. We currently have the highest levels of social inequality in the EU, and it’s even greater than in the USA. We also have the biggest wage drop, pay hasn’t fallen this much since the 1800s. Tories like cheap labor, and profit for big business

That isn’t in ordinary people’s best interests. The largest study of UK deprivation shows that full-time work is no longer a safeguard against poverty. Yet Conservatives claim to be the party for “hard-working people.”

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In a democratic society, governments don’t attempt to oppress opposition by using partisan policies to restrict their funding in order to turn a first world nation into a one party state. This government has established quite an impressive track record of punishing its critics to silence them. The proposed abolition of the Lords’ right to vote on or veto secondary legislation, delivered by the Strathclyde Review, but written in the rancorous and authoritarian hand of David Cameron, is another measure of draconian decision-making to stifle dissent, a tactic commonly deployed, it seems, when the Conservatives are faced with challenges and the prospect of not getting their own way, regardless of how unpopular and unreasonable their own way is.

Cameron’s rancour arose following the defeat in the House of Lords of a sneaky legslation in the form of a Statutory Instument that would have removed in work support for workers on low pay – tax credits. The defeat and ensuing publicity of the Lords debate and the exposure of an underhand legislative move forced the government to back down. But the shadow secretary for Work and Pensions, Owen Smith, has pointed out that cuts to benefit in-work entitlements being introduced through Universal Credit mean that the controversial tax credit reductions have been simply been “rebranded” by the government rather than reversed.

Secondary legislation is unamendable and is allocated 90 minutes debate in the Commons at best, by the Conservatives. Secondary legislation in the form of Statutory Instruments was only ever intended for non-controversial and small tidying up legislative measures. A Tory aide admitted that the Government are trying to get as much unpopular legislation in through the secondary route as possible. But this has been very evident anyway. The government is intent on dismantling any inconvenient piece of the constitution.

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Then there are the electoral reforms and proposed constituency boundary changes which are aimed at decreasing opposition votes and increasing Conservative seats. These are all examples of a very worrying authoritarian approach that the Conservatives have adopted to stifle challenges and concerns regarding the ideological basis and the impact of their policies without any democratic dialogue whatsoever.

Trade union funding is the cleanest money in politics: it comes from you and me, and therefore will ensure our interests are reflected in policy-making, rather than just those of big business tax-avoiding Tory donors.

It’s very worrying that vulture capitalists like Adrian Beecroft, a longstanding Conservative donor, has been permitted to re-write our employment laws as part of the government’s wider “labor market “reform.” Amongst Beecroft’s known personal investments are Gnodal, a computer networking company, and Wonga.com, an eye-wateringly high interest, opportunist loan company, that commodifies the poorest people with low credit ratings for massive profits. Beecroft has donated more than £500,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006.

The Beecroft Report caused considerable controversy because it recommended that the government should cut “red tape” in order to make the hiring and firing of employees much easier. In the report, Beecroft claimed this would help to “boost the economy” although no evidence for this was provided. It was alleged that significant sections of the report had been doctored. It was also reported that some recommendations had been removed from the original draft of the report.

The (then) Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable, condemned the report, saying it was unnecessary for the government to scare workers. Beecroft responded by accusing Cable of being “a socialist who does little to help business” and cited his own personal experience of “having to pay out” £150,000 for unfairly dismissing an HR employee as one of the reasons he included the idea in the report. In an excellent article, James Moore, writing for the Independent, said that the Beecroft report contained “the seeds of the ruthless social Darwinism” and he connected the recommendation to Beecroft’s career of cutting jobs, and highlighted Beecroft’s long history of “wholesale attacks on workers’ terms and conditions.”

In a society that puts profit before people; where employees are regarded as a disposable cost and not an asset to employers; where noone but the powerful have rights; where wages are kept to the bare minimum, there can be no economic growth. Instead we are witnessing increasing economic enclosure and widespread exclusion – small pockets of privilege characterised by stagnant, accumulated wealth and increasingly widespread poverty elsewhere. With little public spending to stimulate small business and general growth, there can be no economic security.

All Conservative politics pivot on a fundamental commitment – the defence of privilege, status, and thus sustaining social inequality. But it is only by shifting money from the high-hoarding rich to the high-spending rest of us, and not the other way around, that investment and growth may be stimulated and sustainable.

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Despite their recent rhetoric, the Conservatives are not and never have been the “party for workers.” New measures under Universal Credit will make benefit payments to people who are in work, but on low earnings, conditional on them taking “certain steps” to increase their pay or hours.

Many people in work are still living in poverty and reliant on in-work benefits, which undermines the libertarian paternalist/Conservative case for increasing benefit conditionality somewhat, although those in low-paid work are still likely to be less poor than those reliant on out-of-work benefits. The Conservative “making work pay” slogan is a cryptographic reference to the punitive paternalist 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility.

The government’s Universal Credit legislation has enshrined the principle that working people in receipt of in-work benefits may face benefits sanctions if they are deemed not to be trying hard enough to find higher-paid work. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining.

In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they hate it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else. There are profoundly conflicting differences in the interests of employers and employees. The former are generally strongly motivated to purposely keep wages as low as possible so they can generate profit and pay dividends to shareholders and the latter need their pay and working conditions to be such that they have a reasonable standard of living.

Workplace disagreements about wages and conditions are now typically resolved neither by collective bargaining nor litigation but are left to management prerogative. This is because Conservative aspirations are clear. They want cheap labor and low cost workers, unable to withdraw their labor, unprotected by either trade unions or employment rights and threatened with destitution via benefit sanction cuts if they refuse to accept low paid, low standard work. Similarly, desperation and the “deterrent” effect of the 1834 Poor Law amendment served to drive down wages.

In the Conservative’s view, Trade Unions distort the free labor market which runs counter to New Right and neoliberal dogma. Since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. That isn’t a coincidence. It’s an intended consequence of Conservative policy.

The Conservatives talk a lot about the need for citizen responsibility, but seem to have exempted themselves. They also seem to have forgotten that responsibities are generally balanced with citizen rights. The right to withdraw labour as a last resort in industrial disputes is fundamental to free societies, as the European Convention on Human Rights recognises.

Not that this government concerns itself with international human rights laws. We are currently the first country to face a UN inquiry into serious disability rights violations. Conservative policies are also in breach of the human rights of children and women. Conservatives operate from within a non-cooperative, competitive individualist, relatively non-altruistic framework . Their anti-humanist, social Darwinist, anti-welfare policies reflect this. 

The government’s proposed changes to Trade Union laws are a major attack on civil liberties. The Conservative’s proposals have been criticised by Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights, amongst others. The three organisations issued this joint statement:

“By placing more legal hurdles in the way of unions organising strike action, the Trade Union Bill will undermine ordinary people’s ability to organise together to protect their jobs, livelihoods and the quality of their working lives.

“It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people. We owe so many of our employment protections to trade unions and we join them in opposing this bill.”

Trade unionists are at the forefront of the struggle for human rights; they are committed to social justice and international solidarity, and typically have strong community roots. These values make them prime targets of this government’s repression. 

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“I oppose the government’s Trade Union Bill and I will stand up for rights and freedom at work.” Sign the petition here.

Conservative governments are bad for your health

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Context: the politics of blame

Increasing employment and pushing ill and disabled people into work are key elements of the UK Government’s public health and welfare “reform” agendas. The arguments presented for this approach are primarily economic and particularly, moralistic. The reasoning presented is not founded on biological, psychological or sociological evidence. The government maintains that work is the most effective way to improve the wellbeing of individuals, their families and their communities. There is a perception that unemployment is harmful to physical and mental health, so the corollary has been assumed – that work is beneficial for health. 

However, that does not necessarily follow, and to claim that it does is distinctly unscientific and irrational. As the Conservatives themselves have often pointed out in less appropriate circumstances in order to avoid democratic accountability and responsibility, there is a difference between an association and a causal relationship.

There is a clear ideological context from which the welfare “reforms” proceeded, and the politically-directed media campaigns that have purposefully stigmatised and outgrouped unemployed people demonstrates quite clearly that reducing welfare support is not about a politically calculated extension of social inclusion and social justice policies, Conservative bonhomie, or overall concern for the wellbeing of welfare recipients and people who are disabled.

The government are attempting to entrench neoliberal ideology in our culture by co opting GPs, social workers and other professionals as agents of the state. The idea that “work is a health outcome” has been embedded in policies such as the Orwellian renaming of sick notes (now “fit notes”), which are designed to explore what work a person who is absent from work because of illness may undertake.  However, the government intend a much more far-reaching outcome than simply attempting to reduce the sick “role” and recovery time. The government’s “behavioural change” agenda has become a centrally-orchestrated programme for governance. The provision of public goods and crucial support, from housing and discretionary housing payments to employment benefits and disability support is becoming increasingly conditional. 

Political rhetoric, aimed at perpetuating an extremely divisive and intentionally misleading “strivers and skivers” dichotomy is designed to undermine public support for the welfare state and the other gains of our post-war settlement – the NHS, legal aid and social housing for example – also betrays the lack of coherence, rationality and empirical support for the Conservative’s “reforms.” Furthermore, the extremely targeted, class-contingent and punitive nature of the Conservative austerity programme indicates that the welfare “reforms” were founded on traditional Tory prejudices, rather than on any genuine causal relationship based on empirical evidence and social or economic necessity.

This explains why the government have persistently ignored the many evidence-based concerns raised by academic researchers, campaigners and opposition MPs that their austerity policies are having an extremely harmful effect, most often on our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

The Conservatives are ideologically bound to notions of a small state, minimal levels of political responsibility and intervention, minimal levels of government spending, the heavy promotion and administration of privatisation, competition, fiscal austerity, deregulation and free trade in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy, all of which are the central strands of the neoliberal hegemony. Conservative ideology runs counter to any notion that all citizens must be treated fairly, which also means that they must be given equal economic opportunities and provided with a adequate minimum standard of living. Neoliberal ideology is incompatible with a human rights-based society.

Democracy exists partly to ensure that the powerful are accountable to the public, and particularly to our most vulnerable citizens. This government have blocked that crucial exchange, and show disdain for human rights, the welfare state and the NHS, all of which provides ordinary people and the most vulnerable citizens basic protection from those in power.

Conservatives despise human rights and rights-based social provision. They absurdly claim that welfare provision causes vulnerability, and a “culture of dependency,” despite the fact that there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this view. History has consistently taught us otherwise. The Conservative’s policies are expressions of contempt for the lessons and empirical evidence from over a century of social history and administration.

Tory rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor people if the welfare state didn’t somehow “create” them. If the Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst a neoliberal system has a few beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for many others. That is what a system based on competitive individualism is about: it creates a few “winners” and a lot of others lose.

Conservative cuts are based on nothing more than the ridiculous myth that poverty is somehow a lifestyle choice or a moral failing which people can be punished or starved out of. The new Tory neoliberal “paternalists” really seem to believe that if they make life for poor people insufferable, they will simply be “incentivised” to choose to be wealthier. It’s a thinly disguised revamp of the ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law deterrence principle of “less eligibility” – that was supposedly aimed at “making work pay” too. But it didn’t. It’s not possible to frighten and punish people out of poverty. Only a Conservative government would claim to be making work pay by cutting welfare down to the bare bones, rather than increasing wages. The welfare cuts have actually had the effect of driving down wages too.

Of course, by framing the issue of poverty in terms of personal responsibility and morality, the Conservatives have stifled debate and restricted public discussion in the hope that people won’t recognise the wider structural inequalities and economic failings, for which this government are solely responsible.

Debbie Abrahams said: “The Conservatives point the finger at sick and disabled people for the rise in spending. They are still shamelessly spinning their tired “shirkers” and “strivers” narrative, designed to whip up public support for cuts to the most vulnerable. But this divisive rhetoric can no longer conceal the fact their economic strategy has failed. It is the government’s failure that has led to rising social security costs. 

As we saw at the Autumn Statement (2016), borrowing is up, growth is down, deficit targets have been hopelessly missed and wages have flat-lined. At the same time, the government has refused to tackle the driving forces behind increased social security spending, from low pay to high housing costs. Instead, the government is slashing support to those who need it most, exacerbating the financial strain so many are facing this Christmas, and failing its own targets in the process.   

[…] Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that we need to be building 80,000 affordable homes a year to meet demand and keep the current spend on housing benefit stable. This government managed a pathetic 30,000 homes last year. It is this refusal to build enough homes that keeps the housing benefit bill growing. People are left struggling to find somewhere affordable to live, and the state is forced to subsidise the sky-high rents charged by private landlords 

We could also look at tax credits, which currently make up more than £20bn a year in the spending under the cap. Tax credits top up working people’s pay where it is insufficient. Wages today are lower than they were in 2008, and won’t even return to the levels of 2008 until 2021. A record six million workers are paid less than the living wage. This is why tax credit costs have risen – because the government has had to increase the amount spent on topping wages up. 

Labour founded the welfare state to give pensioners and disabled people dignity, to prevent homelessness, children going hungry, and to cover for periods of unemployment or ill-health. It was never designed to be spending tens of billions substituting for low-wage employers or subsidising rip-off landlords.”

Economic productivity is the new health outcome

The claim that “work is good for you” is allegedly based on “scientific evidence” that people in work tend to be healthier than those claiming unemployment and sickness benefits. However, to draw the conclusion that “employment is good for you” from the data is an example of inferring causality inappropriately, from what is only an association. Yet it is being used to prop up Conservative justifications for dismantling the welfare state.

Unemployment has been linked to increased rates of sickness, disability and mental health problems, and to decreased life expectancy. The claim has also been made that it results in an increased use of medication, medical services, and higher hospital admission rates. However, surely it makes much more sense to say that sickness, disability and mental health problems, the use of medication, medical services, and higher hospital admission rates all cause unemployment, rather than the converse. This government seem to have a major problem accepting the fact that sometimes, people really are simply too ill to work.

Most people who are too ill to work are obviously not as healthy as those who can work. That is hardly controversial. However, that doesn’t mean that work itself is good for your health, it just means those who don’t work tend to have worse health than those who do. People don’t work because they have poor health.

Linking ill health with “worklessness” is an ideological preference which ignores other variables. It is much more likely that the “reforms”, which have reduced welfare provision to inadequate levels – leaving people all too often unable to meet their basic needs – is bad for health, rather than being out of work. 

But the Conservatives have used this “evidence” of an association between poor health and unemployment to make an inference based on a “causal link” that hasn’t actually been empirically verified. Iain Duncan Smith has made the claim, for example, that “work is good for you.” He has even claimed that work can make people’s health problems “better.” But that isn’t very likely to be true. It’s akin to claiming that chatting and exercise is a cure for multiple sclerosis, lupus, blindness or cancer. Or that a work coach on prescription will cure rheumatoid arthritis, a disc prolapse or schizophrenia.

This is why I visit my doctor when I am ill, and not Iain Duncan Smith or the government.

The claim that work is good for your health is simply a part of Tory justification narratives for cutting support for sick and disabled people, and hounding people who need to claim benefits. Yet this axiom informs current UK policy towards increased benefit conditionality, harsh sanctions, compulsory work experience and the “workfare” or “work-for-benefits” thinking which the Conservatives favour. However, this is an approach that can never work, unless, of course, the aim is to completely dismantle the welfare state. Oh, hang on…

The biopsychosocial model

The biopsychosocial model (BPS) of ill health is not without controversy, although many see it as more pragmatic or humanistic than the medical model of illness, which came to be regarded as reductionist and deterministic. The biopsychosocial model is the conceptual status quo of contemporary psychiatry, and many believe that it has played an important role in combatting psychiatric dogmatism.

The biological component of the model is based on a traditional allopathic (bio-medical) approach to health. The social part of the model investigates how different social factors such as socioeconomic status, culture and poverty impact on health. The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model looks for potential psychological causes for a health problem such as lack of self-control, emotional turmoil, and negative thinking.

Of course a major criticism is that the BPS model has been used to disingenuously trivialise and euphemise serious physical illnesses, implying either a psychosomatic basis or reducing symptoms to nothing more than a presentation of malingering tactics. This ploy has been exploited by medical insurance companies (infamously by Unum Provident in the USA) and government welfare departments keen to limit or deny access to medical, social care and social security payments, and to manufacture ideologically determined outcomes that are not at all in the best interests of patients, invalidating diagnoses, people’s experience and accounts, and the existence of serious medical conditions. (See also: Getting rich on disability denial, and  A Tale of two Models by Debbie Jolly.)

Unum was involved in advising the government on making the devastating cuts to disabled people’s support in the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill. (See also: The influence of the private insurance industry on the UK welfare reforms.)

This is a government that tends to emphasise citizen responsibilities over rights, moralising and psychologizing social problems, whilst quietly editing out government responsibilities and democratic obligations towards citizens.

For example, poverty, which is caused by political decisions affecting socioeconomic outcomes, is described by the Conservatives, using elaborate victim-blame narratives, and this is particularly objectionable at a time when inequality has never been greater in the UK.

Poverty may only be properly seen in a structural context, including account of the exclusion and oppression experienced by those living in poverty, the global neoliberal order, the gender order, the disability, racial, sexual and other orders which frame social life and precipitate poverty in complex and diverse ways. It’s down to policy-makers to address the structural origins of poverty, not the poor, who are currently regarded as the “collateral damage” – casualities – of politically imposed structural constraints.

Conservative governments are unhealthy

The effects of loss of income on people who can’t work because of illness is a confounding factor, too. How is it possible to isolate the devastating impacts of the Conservative “reforms” and the steady dismantling of the welfare state on unemployed people from the misleading generalisation that unemployment is bad for health? Surely if the Conservatives genuinely believed their own claims, they would be more inclined to increase rather than radically decrease provision and support for unemployed people.

Of course, not all work is beneficial. The review that led to the widespread folk tale that work is good for you is based on research involving people who had common and minor illnesses, and fulfilling, secure jobs. That doesn’t reflect the experiences of many people.

Not all jobs are rewarding and positive experiences, and some work can cause serious risks to health.

Doctor Frank Scheer, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says:

“There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

These differences we’re seeing can’t just be explained by lifestyle or socioeconomic status.”

Shift work and poor quality working environments and employment conditions are also linked to stomach problems and ulcers, hypertension, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, general health complaints, all-cause mortality and an increased risk of accidents or injury. Long working hours are equally linked with a detrimental impact on health, according to medical research – see: The impact of overtime and long work hours on occupational injuries and illnesses: new evidence from the United States.

There is a growing and potentially corrosive problem of low paid, poor quality, precarious and temporary work which threatens levels of social inclusion and, ultimately, the health of the workforce.

Research shows unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment. Peter Butterworth examined the mental health implications of those moving from unemployment into employment and found that:

“Those who moved into optimal jobs showed significant improvement in mental health compared to those who remained unemployed. Those respondents who moved into poor-quality jobs showed a significant worsening in their mental health compared to those who remained unemployed.”

Overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. However the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality. (See: The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey.)

More recently, in a letter to the Guardian, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors called on the Government “to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.

Findings from the National Audit Office (NAO) show limited evidence that the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective.

But, even more worrying, we see evidence from NHS Health Scotland, the Centre for Welfare Conditionality hosted by the University of York, and others, which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems. This is also emphasised in the recent Public Accounts Committee report, which states that the unexplained variations in the use of benefits sanctions are unacceptable and must be addressed.”

The impact of poverty on health

The largest study of poverty conducted in the UK has laid out the dire extent of British material deprivation – and seriously undercut the government’s claim to be lifting people out of poverty through work.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE) project details how, over recent years, the percentage of households living below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14% to 33% – despite the fact that the economy has increased in size over the same period. The study found that low wages are a central cause of widespread deprivation. For many people, full-time work is not enough to lift them out of poverty; almost half of the working poor work 40 hours a week or more. And one in six adults in paid work (17%) is poor, suffering low income and unable to afford basic necessities.

Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York said they showed many parents who work full time still have to make huge sacrifices to try and protect their children from deprivation.

“We already know from DWP data that the majority of children with incomes below the the relative income poverty threshold have a working parent. The PSE survey shows that the majority of deprived children, those lacking two or more socially perceived necessities, and very deprived children (lacking five or more socially perceived necessities) have a working parent.

We found that 65% of the deprived and 58% of the very deprived children had a working parent, and 50% of the deprived and 35% of the very deprived had at least one parent working full-time. Child poverty is not being driven by skivers, but is the consequence of strivers working for low earnings while in-work benefits are being dissipated by government austerity measures.”

Responding to the findings, Clare Bambra, a professor at Durham University, said that the research was a shameful picture of “the devastating and far-reaching human costs of inequality and poverty in the UK today.”

She said:

“It’s shameful for a rich country like ours to be tolerating such levels of poverty especially amongst our children and young people. The mantra that work sets people free from poverty has been shown to be a grand old lie.

We will be living with the long term consequences of this social neglect for decades to come – there are clear links between poverty and reduced life expectancy and higher rates of ill health, especially concentrated in deprived areas and the north.

These findings show us the true cost of austerity.”

Public health experts from Durham University have denounced the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the wellbeing of the British public in a comprehensive study which examines social inequality in the 1980s.

The study, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of wellbeing.

The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under Baroness Thatcher – the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985.

Baroness Thatcher’s governments wilfully engineered an economic catastrophe across large parts of Britain by dismantling traditional industries such as coal and steel in order to undermine the power of working class organisations, say the researchers. They suggest this ultimately fed through into growing regional disparities in health standards and life expectancy, as well as greatly increased inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.

Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, co-author of the research report, commented:

“Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”

Thatcher’s policies  have been condemned for causing “unjust premature deaths.” Cameron’s policies are even more class-contingent and cruel.

I think there is a growing body of empirical evidence which indicates clearly that Conservative governments are much worse for public health, prosperity and wellbeing than unemployment.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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The Minnesota Starvation Experiment provided empirical evidence that demonstrates clearly why welfare sanctions can’t possibly work as an “incentive” to “make work pay”

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“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”

Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications (Source).

 

Introduction

The Conservatives have always used emotive and morally-laden narratives that revolve around notions of “national decline” and a “broken society” to demarcate “us and them”, using overly simplistic binary schema. Conservative rhetoric reflexively defines what the nation is and who it excludes, always creating categories of others.

David Cameron’s government have purposefully manufactured a minimal group paradigm which is founded on a false dichotomy. People who “work hard” are deemed “responsible” citizens and the rest are stigmatized, labelled as “scroungers” and outgrouped (inaccurately) as irresponsible economic free riders. This prejudiced distinction requires a single snapshot of just one frozen point in time, and an assumption that people who claim welfare support are the same people year after year, but longitudinal studies indicate that over the course of their lives, most people move in and out of employment. Most people claiming welfare support have worked and made responsible contributions to society.

The Conservatives also claim that welfare provision itself is problematic, because it creates “a culture of dependency.” Yet there has never been evidence to support this claim. In fact, a recent international study of social safety nets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programmes in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programmes discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependencywas designed to intentionally divert attention from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens.

The Conservatives have always constructed discourses and shaped institutions which isolate some social groups from health, social and political resources, with justification narratives based on a process of class-contingent personalisations of social problems, such as poverty, using quack psychology and pseudoscience. However, it is social conditions which lead to deprivation of opportunities, and that outcome is a direct consequence of inadequate and biased political decision-making and policy.

Conditionality

One of the uniquely important features of Britain’s welfare state is the National Insurance system, based on the principle that people establish a right to benefits by making regular contributions into a fund throughout their working lives. The contribution principle has been a part of the welfare state since its inception. A system of social security where claims are, in principle, based on entitlements established by past contributions expresses an important moral rule about how a benefits system should operate, based on reciprocity and collective responsibility, and it is a rule which attracts widespread public commitment. National Insurance is felt intuitively by most people to be a fair way of organising welfare.

The Conservative-led welfare “reforms” had the stated aim of ensuring that benefit claimants – redefined as an outgroup of free-riders – are entitled to a minimum income provided that they uphold responsibilities, which entail being pushed into any available work. The  Government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for employment.

Conditionality for social security has been around as long as the welfare state. Eligibility criteria have always been an intrinsic part of the social security system. For example, to qualify for jobseekers allowance, a person has to be out of work, able to work, and seeking employment.

But in recent years conditionality has become conflated with severe financial penalities (sanctions), and has mutated into an ever more stringent, complex, demanding set of often arbitrary requirements, involving frequent and rigidly imposed jobcentre appointments, meeting job application targets, providing evidence of job searches and mandatory participation in workfare schemes. The emphasis of welfare provision has shifted from providing support for people seeking employment to increasing conditionality of conduct, enforcing particular patterns of behaviour and monitoring claimant compliance.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits in cases where claimants are deemed to be out of compliance with  requirements.” They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence – the threat that puts a big stick behind coercive welfare programme rules and “incentivises” citizen compliance with a heavily monitoring and supervisory administration. The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people, pregnant women and lone parents.

The new paternalists often present their position as striking a moderate, reasonable middle ground between rigid anti-paternalism on the one hand and an overly intrusive “hard” paternalism on the other. But the claim to moderation is difficult to sustain, especially when we consider the behavioural modification technique utilised here – punishment – and the consequences of sanctioning welfare recipients, many of whom are already struggling to meet their basic needs.

Nudge permits policy-makers to indulge their ideological impulses whilst presenting them as “objective science.” From the perspective of libertarian paternalists, the problems of neoliberalism don’t lie in the market, or in growing inequality and social stratification: neoliberalism isn’t flawed, nor are governments – we are. Governments don’t make mistakes – only citizens do.

Work programme providers are sanctioning twice as many people as they are signposting into employment (David Etherington, Anne Daguerre, 2015), emphasising the distorted priorities of “welfare to work” services, and indicating a significant gap between claimant obligations and employment outcomes.

Ethical considerations of injustice and the adverse consequences of welfare sanctions have been raised by politicians, charities, campaigners and academics. Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University’s Department of Sociology, amongst others, has found clear evidence of a link between people seeking food aid and unemployment, welfare sanctions and budget cuts, although the government has, on the whole, tried to deny a direct “causal link” between the harsh welfare “reforms” and food deprivation. However, a clear correlation has been established.

The current government demand an empirical rigour from those presenting legitimate criticism of their policy, yet they curiously fail in meeting the same exacting standards that they demand of others. Often, the claim that “no causal link has been established” is used as a way of ensuring that established, defined correlative relationships, (which often do imply causality,) are not investigated further. Qualitative evidence – case studies, for example – is very often rather undemocratically dismissed as “anecdotal,” which of course stifles further opportunities for important research and inquiry regarding the consequences and impacts of government policy. This also undermines the process of a genuine evidence-based policy-making, leaving a space for a rather less democratic ideology-based political decision-making.

Further concerns have arisen that food banks have become an institutional part of our steadily diminishing welfare state, normalising food insecurity and deprivation amongst people both in and out of work.

There is no evidence that keeping benefits at below subsistence level “incentivises” people to work. In fact research indicates it is likely to have the opposite effect. In 2010/2011 there 61,468 people were given 3 days emergency food and support by the Trussell Trust and this rose to 913,138 people in 2013-2014.

At least four million people in the UK do not have access to a healthy diet; nearly 13 million people live below the poverty line, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to afford food. More than half a million children in the UK are now living in families who are unable to provide a minimally acceptable, nutritious diet. (Source: Welfare Reform, Work First Policies And Benefit Conditionality: Reinforcing Poverty And Social Exclusion? Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research, 2015.)

There is plenty of evidence that sanctions don’t help people to find work, and that the punitive application of severe financial penalities is having an extremely detrimental, sometimes catastrophic impact on people’s lives. We can see from a growing body of research how sanctions are not working in the way the government claim they intended.

Sanctions, under which people lose benefit payments for between four weeks and three years for “non-compliance”, have come under fire for being unfair, punitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes they result in death.

I want to discuss two further considerations to add to growing criticism of the extended use of sanctioning which are related to why sanctions don’t work. One is that imposing such severe financial penalities on people who need social security support to meet their basic needs cannot possibly bring about positive “behaviour change” or “incentivise” people to find employment, as claimed. This is because of the evidenced and documented broad-ranging negative impacts of financial insecurity and deprivation – particularly food poverty – on human physical health, motivation, behaviour and mental health.

The second related consideration is that “behavioural theories” on which the government rests the case for extending and increasing benefit sanctions, are simply inadequate and flawed, having been imported from a limited behavioural economics model (otherwise known as libertarian paternalism) which is itself ideologically premised.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely a set of theoretical propositions, 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 capacity for generating comprehensive, coherent accounts and understanding about human motivation and behaviour.

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are consequently isolated from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. The libertarian paternalist approach also places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory, claiming that their collective “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy, David Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

In other words, 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 glossed over somewhat.

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about unemployed and sick and disabled people rests is also fundamentally flawed. Neoliberalism and social Conservatism are not working to extend wealth and opportunity to a majority of citizens. The shift away from a collective rights-based democratic society to a state-imposed moral paternalism, comprised almost entirely of unfunded, unsupported, decontextualised “responsible” individuals is simply an ideological edit of reality, hidden in plain sight within the tyranny of decision-makers shaping our “best interests”, to justify authoritarian socioeconomic policies that generate and perpetuate inequality and poverty. Libertarian paternalists don’t have much of a vocabulary for discussing any sort of collective, democratic, or autonomous and deliberative decision-making.

The Conservatives and a largely complicit media convey the message that poor people suffer from some sort of character flaw – a poverty of aspiration, a deviance from the decent, hard-working norm. That’s untrue, of course: poor people simply suffer from material poverty which may steal motivation and aspiration from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival.

It’s not a coincidence that those countries with institutions designed to alleviate poverty and inequality – such as a robust welfare state, a strong role for collective bargaining, a stronger tax and transfer system, have lower levels of income inequality and poverty.

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The Minnesota Starvation Experiment volunteers

1. “Starved people can’t be taught democracy.” Ancel Keys

Imposing punishment in the form of financial sanctions on people who already have only very limited resources for meeting their basic survival needs is not only irrational, it is absurdly and spectacularly cruel. There is a body of evidence from a landmark study that describes in detail the negative impacts of food deprivation on physical and psychological health, including an account of the detrimental effects of hunger on motivation and behaviour.

During World War Two, many conscientious objectors wanted to contribute to the war effort meaningfully, and according to their beliefs. In the US, 36 conscientious objectors volunteered for medical research as an alternative to military service. The research was designed to explore the effects of hunger, to provide postwar rehabilitation for the many Europeans who had suffered near starvation and malnutrition during the war.

A high proportion of the volunteers were members of the historic peace churches (Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites). The subjects, all healthy males, participated in a study of human semistarvation conducted by Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, as it was later known, was a grueling six month study designed to gain insight into the physical and psychological effects of food deprivation. Those selected to participate in the experiment were a highly motivated and well-educated group; all had completed some college coursework, 18 had graduated, and a few had already begun graduate-level coursework.

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The Minnesota laboratory

During the experiment, the participants were subjected to semistarvation, most lost 25% of their body weight in total. Extensive tests were given to the participants throughout the experiment. Body weight, size, and strength were recorded, and basic functions were tracked using X-rays, electrocardiograms, blood samples, and metabolic studies. Psychomotor and endurance tests were given, as the men walked on the laboratory treadmills, and participants received intelligence and personality tests from a team of psychologists.

The men ate meals twice a day. Typical meals consisted of cabbage, turnips and half a glass of milk. On another day, it might be rye bread and some beans. Keys designed the meals to be carbohydrate rich and protein poor, simulating what people in Europe might be eating, with an emphasis on potatoes, cabbage, macaroni and whole wheat bread (all in meagre proportions). Despite the reduction in food, Keys insisted that the men try to maintain their active lifestyle, including the 22 miles of walking each week.

The negative effects of the reduced food intake quickly became apparent. The men rapidly showed a remarkable decline in strength and energy. Keys charted a 21 per cent reduction in their physical strength, as measured by their performance, using a variety of methods, including a back lift dynamometer. The men complained that they felt old and constantly tired.

There were marked psychological effects, too. They developed a profound mental apathy. The men had strong political opinions, but as the grip of hunger tightened, political affairs and world events faded into irrelevance for them. Even sex and romance lost their appeal. Food became their overwhelming priority. The men obsessively read cookbooks, staring at pictures of food with almost pornographic obsession. One participant managed to collect over a 100 cookbooks with pictures over the course of the experiment.

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Some subjects diluted their food with water to make the meagre proportions seem like more. Others would savour each little bite and hold it in their mouth as long as possible. Eating became ritualised and took a long time.

One of the volunteers recalled memorising the location of all of the lifts in the university buildings because he struggled climbing stairs, and even experienced difficulty opening doors, he felt so weak. The researchers recognised that “energy is a commodity to be hoarded – living and eating quarters should be arranged conveniently” in a subsequent leaflet designed to help in accommodating the increasing weakness and lethargy in people needing aid and support to recover from semistarvation.

Within just a few weeks of the study, the psychological stress that affected all of the subjects became too much for one of the men,  Franklin Watkins. He had a breakdown after having vivid, disturbing dreams of cannibalism in which he was eating the flesh of an old man. He had to leave the experiment. Two more subjects also suffered severe psychological distress and episodes of psychosis during the semistarvation period, resulting in brief stays in the psychiatric ward of the Minnesota university hospital. One of the men had also reported stealing scraps of food from bins.

Amongst the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semistarvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis, which was measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Most volunteers experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression. There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally.)

The men also became uncharacteristically irritable, introverted and argumentative towards each other, they became less sociable, experiencing an increasing need for privacy and quiet – noise of all kinds seemed to be very distracting and bothersome and especially so during mealtimes. The men became increasingly apathetic and frequently depressed.

The volunteers reported decreased tolerance for cold temperatures, and requested additional blankets, even in the middle of summer. They experienced dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears. They were forced to withdraw from their university classes because they simply didn’t have the energy or motivation to attend and to concentrate. Other recorded problems were anemia, profound fatigue, apathy, extreme weakness, irritability, neurological deficits, and lower extremity fluid retention, slowed heart rate amongst other symptoms.

The Minnesota Experiment also focused study on attitudes, cognitive and social functioning and the behaviour patterns of those who have experienced semistarvation. The experiment illuminated a loss of ambition, self-discipline, motivation and willpower amongst the men once food deprivation commenced. There was a flattening of affect, and in the absence of all other emotions, Doctor Keys observed the resignation and submission that hunger very often manifests.

The understanding that food deprivation dramatically alters emotions, motivation, personality, and that nutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.

In the last months of the experiment, the volunteers were fed back to health. Different groups were presented with different foods and calorie allowances. But it was months, even years – long after the men had returned home – before they had all fully recovered. Keys published his full report about the experiment in 1950. It was a substantial two-volume work titled The Biology of Human Starvation. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive scientific examination of the physical and psychological effects of hunger.

Keys emphasised the dramatic effect that semistarvation had on motivation, mental attitude and personality, and he concluded that democracy and nation building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.

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Further study of the impact of food deprivation and starvation on
psychological and cognitive deterioration – The Psychological Effects of Starvation in the Holocaust

Cognitive function deficits and demotivation associated with food deprivation: Blood glucose influences memory and attention in young adults

Nutritional deficiencies and detrimental consequences for mental health: Nutrition and mental health

A comprehensive study of the detrimental impacts of food insecurity on the development, behaviour, mental health and wellbeing, learning, educational attainment, citizenship and physical health of children in America: Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation

The effects of breakfast on cognitive performance, academic performance and in-class behaviour in adolescents

Comprehensive computerized assessment of cognitive sequelae of a complete 12-16 hour fast

The Minnesota food deprivation experiment also established a link between food insecurity and deprivation and later unhealthful eating practice, eating disorders and obesity – Journal of the American Dietetic Association

2. Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of human needs

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone – when there is no bread.”

Maslow was humanist psychologist. He proposed his classical theory of motivation and the hierarchical nature of human needs in 1943. His critical insights have been translated into an iconic pyramid diagram, which depicts the full spectrum of needs, ranging from physical to psychosocial. Maslow believed that people possess a set of simple motivation systems that are unrelated to the punishments and rewards that behaviourists proposed, or the complexities of unconscious desires proposed by the psychoanalysts.

Maslow said basically that the imperative to fulfil basic needs will become stronger the longer the duration that they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food, the more hungry and preoccupied with food they will become.

So, a person must satisfy lower level basic biological needs before progressing on to meet higher level personal growth needs. A pressing need would have to be satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need. If a person has not managed to meet their basic physical needs, it’s highly unlikely that they will be motivated to fulfil higher level psychosocial ones.

Maslow recognised that although every human is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy of needs to fulfil their potential, progress is often disrupted by a failure to meet lower level needs. Life experiences, including the loss of a job, loss of a home, poverty, illness, for example, may cause an individual to become trapped at the lower needs levels of the hierarchy.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

Some theorists have claimed that whilst Maslow’s hierarchy makes sense – it’s founded on an intuitive truth – it lacks scientific support. However, Maslow’s theory has certainly been verified by the findings of the Minnesota Experiment and other studies of the effects of food deprivation. Abraham Maslow’s humanist account of motivation also highlights the same connection between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats.

The experiment highlighted a striking sense of immediacy and fixation that arises when there are barriers to fulfiling basic physical needs – human motivation is frozen to meet survival needs, which take precedence over all other needs. This is observed and reflected in both the researcher’s and the subject’s accounts throughout the study. 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 clearly expressed in Maslow’s needs hierarchy. 

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 seek employment.


Conclusions: the poverty of reponsibility and the politics of blame

American Conservative academic, Lawrence Mead, argued in 2010 that the government needed to “enforce values that have broken down” such as the “work ethic”, with an expensive, intrusive bureaucracy that “helped and hassled” people back to work. Mead was a Conservative political “scientist” who said that poverty was largely due to a breakdown of public authority. Poverty reflected disorder more than denials of opportunity. He felt that the poor were “too free,” rather than not free enough.

He believed that benefits should be “mean and conditional,” forcing recipients to take any available jobs. Calling himself a “new paternalist”, his proposal is that people must be taught to blame themselves for their hardships and accept that they deserve them. He believed that workfare should be an onerous threat, so that people opt out of the social security system altogether. (See: Guardian, June 16, 2010). Mead provided the theoretical basis for the American welfare reforms of the 1990s, which required adult recipients of welfare to work as a condition of aid.

The consequences of the US reforms have been dire for many families, both in and out of work, many are now facing destitution as a consequence of the US welfare safety net being cut away. Mead also considerably influenced the UK Conservative-led welfare reforms.

The extremely conditional welfare approach that Mead advocated rests on the assumption that the problems it seeks to address are fundamentally behavioural in nature (rather than structural) and are therefore amenable to remedy through paternalist punishment, or, to borrow from the libertarian paternalist bland lexicon, through manipulation of  “cognitive biases“, in this case, one specifically known as loss aversion.

A paper, written in 2010 – Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work contained outlines of the pseudopsychological justification  for increasing the use of sanctions. The “research” was sponsored by Steve Moore, Business Development Director of esg , a key welfare to work consortium, which was  established by two Tory donors with close ties to ministers. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the “Nudge” Unit) provided a tenuous theoretical framework and a psychobabbled rationale for increasing and extending the use of benefit sanctions, transforming welfare provision into a system of directed political prejudice, discrimination and punishment.

The following year, in June, the government announced that it would toughen the sanctions regime, making it much more difficult for claimants to temporarily sign off benefits to avoid being forced into unpaid work. Perhaps the woefully under-recognised and under-acknowledged cognitive bias called “vested interests escaped the attention of libertarian paternalists, when esg were awarded two extremely lucrative government contracts with Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions in 2011, totalling £73million.

So, the paper provides a justification narrative for welfare sanctions and mandatory work fare, and it also preempts an opportunity for work fare providers to make lots of profit and to subsidise private businesses with free labor at the expense of the UK’s poorest citizens and taxpayers. Yet the government’s own research also showed that the scheme does not help unemployed people to find paid employment once they have finished the four weeks of mandatory work “experience”. It also has no positive effect in helping people “off benefits” and into employment in the long term.

The libertarian paternalist justification narrative is basically a pseudoscientific attempt to pathologise and homogenise the psychology of unemployed people, justifying the need for a very lucrative “remedy,” which is costing the poorest citizens their autonomy, health and wellbeing. It’s also costing the public purse far more than it would to simply provide social security for people needing support in meeting their basic needs.

Furthermore, as I have previously pointed out, it flies in the face of established empirical evidence.

From the document in 2010, on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it.” This of course assumes that being without a job is because of nothing more complex than opting for a “lifestyle choice.” 

And page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on page 46: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives subsequently “simplified” sanctions by extending their use to previously protected groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents, increasing their severity and increasing the frequency of their use from 2012.

Of course there is a problem in assuming that punishing people will make them behave more “rationally,” and that is aside from the ethical dilemmas presented with neoliberal paternalists and businesses deciding what is “rational” and in other people’s “best interests.”

Deprivation substantially increases the risk of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance addiction. Poverty can act as both a causal factor (e.g. stress resulting from poverty triggering depression) and a consequence of mental illness (e.g. schizophrenic symptoms leading to decreased socioeconomic status and prospects).

Poverty is a significant risk factor in a wide range of psychological illnesses. Researchers recently reviewed evidence for the effects of socioeconomic status on three categories: schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Whilst not a comprehensive list of conditions associated with poverty, the issues raised in these three areas can be generalised, and have clear relevance for policy-makers.

The researchers concluded: “Fundamentally, poverty is an economic issue, not a psychological one. Understanding the psychological processes associated with poverty can improve the efficacy of economically focused reform, but is not a panacea. The proposals suggested here would supplement a focused economic strategy aimed at reducing poverty.” (Source: A review of psychological research into the causes and consequences of poverty, Ben Fell, Miles Hewstone, 2015.)

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The recent partisan reconceptualision of poverty makes it much more difficult to define and measure. Such a conceptual change disconnects poverty from more than a century of detailed empirical and theoretical research, and we are witnessing an increasingly experimental approach to policy-making, as opposed to an evidence-based one, aimed solely at changing the behaviour of individuals, (to meet the demands of policy-makers) without their consent.

At least the Treasury is benefiting from the new conditionality and sanctions regime. Earlier this year, the Work and Pensions select committee heard independent estimates (committee member Debbie Abrahams MP said the DWP will not give or does not have figures) that since late 2012 sanctions had resulted in at least £275m being withheld from benefit claimants (the comparable figure for 2010 was £50m).

Many people in work are still living in poverty and reliant on in-work benefits, which undermines the libertarian paternalist case for increasing benefit conditionality somewhat, although those in low-paid work are still likely to be less poor than those reliant on out-of-work benefits. The Conservative “making work pay” slogan is a cryptographic reference to the punitive paternalist 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility.

But part of the government’s Universal Credit legislation is founded on the idea that working people in receipt of in-work benefits may face punitive benefits sanctions if they are deemed not to be trying hard enough to find higher paid work. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining. In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they hate it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else.

Workplace disagreements about wages and conditions are now typically resolved neither by collective bargaining nor litigation but are left to management prerogative. Conservative aspirations are clear. They want cheap labor and low cost workers, unable to withdraw their labor, unprotected by either trade unions or employment rights and threatened with destitution via benefit sanction cuts if they refuse to accept low paid, low standard work. This is thought to “increase economic competiveness.” Similarly, desperation and the “deterrent” effect of the 1834 Poor Law amendment served to drive down wages. In the Conservative’s view, trade unions distort the free labor market, which runs counter to New Right and neoliberal dogma.

Since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards.

 

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There has been a powerful shift back from progressive notions of collective social justice and equality to increasingly absurd, unfair and enforced individual responsibilities without concomitant rights, the underpinning Conservative view is that that socioeconomic inequality resulting from the free market is necessary and not something that the state need or should do anything about. Inequality in the UK is now greater than in any other European Union country, including the US. Yet the subsequent growing poverty and uncertainties of the labor market are irrationally held to be the responsibility of the individual.

In fact the state is forcefully redistributing the risks and burdens of job-market instability from the state to unemployed individuals. The “problem” of an entirely politically-defined  “welfare dependency” is presented with a “solution” in terms of a one-way transition into low-waged, poor quality work, which does not alleviate poverty.

Any analysis of the British economy over the past 40 years shows how the decline of union power since the early 1980s has coincided with the fall in the proportion of GDP that goes to wages, and the rise of private business profits. Boardroom pay has sky-rocketed whilst wages have been held down, as chief executives and directors no longer fear the effect of their pay rises on their staff. It’s a neoliberal myth that if firms are profitable, they are more likely to employ more workers, or that falling profitability is likely to reduce the demand for labor. One problem is that the government and employers have come to see the workforce as a disposable cost rather than an asset.

Wage repression has nothing whatsoever to do with workers, and threatening to punish low paid workers for their employer’s profit motive and the vagaries of an unregulated (liberalised) labor market by removing the in-work benefits that ensure exploited workers don’t face destitution is not only absurd, it is extremely cruel. The steady erosion of the post-war welfare state, and the increasing use of punitive approaches has served to further facilitate private sector wage repression. Ninetheenth century notions of punitive deterrence have replaced civilised notions of citizen rights and entitlement, once again penalising people for the manifested symptoms but sidestepping the root causes of poverty.

Libertarian paternalist nudges may only work by stigmatising particular behaviours. The new “behavioural science” reflects an ideological and cultural rejuvenation of the Conservative’s ancient moral and prejudiced critique of the poor, polished by nothing more than pseudoscientific attempts at erecting a stage of credibility, using a kind of linguistic alchemy, based on purposefully manufactured semantic shifts and bland, meaningless acronyms.

What was once summarily dismissed from Victorian moralists such as Samuel Smiles, and Herbert Spencer, who is best known for the expression, and sociopolitical application of the social Darwinist phrase survival of the fittest, is now being recodified into the bland terminology and inane managementspeak acronyms emanating from the behavioural economics “insights” team – the Nudge Unit at the heart of the Cabinet Office.

This was the race to the bottom situation for many people in Victorian England, where conditions in the workhouses became appalling because conditions for unskilled workers were also appalling. It established a kind of market competition situation of the conditions of poverty, where “making work pay” invariably means never-ending reductions in the standard of living for unemployed people and those in low paid work. Benefit sanctions amount to cutting unemployment benefits, reducing choices by forcing people into any available low paid employment and have exactly the same effect: they drive down wages and devalue labour.

Narratives are representations of connected events and characters that have an identifiable structure, and contain implicit or explicit messages about social norms, and the topic being addressed as such may impact attitudes and behaviour. One way to shift perceptons and “change behaviours”, according to the new economolgists, is through intensive social norms media campaigns. Media narratives are being nudged, too.

From MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy,  David Halpern et al (2010):

“Framing is crucial when attempting to engage the public with behaviour change.”

“There are ways in which governments can boost their authority, and minimise psychological reactance in the public.”

Sometimes campaigns can increase perceptions of undesirable behaviour.”

Research shows that public ideas about poverty and unemployment depend heavily on how the issues are framed. When news media presentations frame poverty, for example, in terms of general outcome, people tend to believe that society collectively shares the responsibility for poverty. When poverty is framed as particular instances of individual poor people, responsibility is assigned to those individuals. In 1986, The General Social Survey documented how various descriptions of poor families influence the amount of assistance that people think they ought to have. Political framing is a powerful tool of social control. It agendarises issues (according to a dominant and Conservative economic, moral and social system that values thrift and moderation in all things, but mostly for the poorest people) and establishes the operational parameters of public debate.

The most controversial government policies are, to a large extent, reliant on dominant media narratives and images for garnering public endorsement. Prevailing patterns have emerged that systematically and intentionally stigmatise and scapegoat unemployed citizens, framing inequality and poverty as “causally linked” with degrees of personal responsibility, which is then used as a means of securing public acceptance for “rolling back the state.” News media define political issues for much of the public, and set simplistic access levels, often reducing  complex issues to basic dichotomies – and establishing default settings, to borrow from the lexicon of libertarian paternalists. Default settings allow policy-makers to shift the goalposts, and align public attitudes and behaviours with new policy objectives and outcomes. And ideology.

For example, one established default setting, is that hard work, regardless of how appropriate or rewarding, is the only means of escaping poverty. A variety of methods have been used to establish this, although the new paternalists tend to rely heavily on notions of political authority to manipulate social norms, the mainstream media has played a significant role in extending and propping up definitions of an ingroup of “hardworking families,” whilst othering, pathologising and outgrouping categories of persons previously considered exempt from employment, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

The perpetual circulation of media images and discourse relating to characters pre-figured as welfare dependents, and accounts of the notion of a spiralling culture of dependency this past five years closely correspond with New Right narratives.

The marked shift from the principle of welfare provision on the basis of need to one that revisits ninteenth century notions of “deservingness” as a key moral criterion for the allocation of societal goods, with deservingness defined primarily in relation to preparedness to make societal contribution via paid work is likely to widen inequality. In fact behaviour theory approaches to policy simply prop up old Conservative prejudices about the nature of poverty, and provide pseudoscientific justification narratives for austerity, neoliberal and Conservative ideology. As such, nudge is revealed for what it is: an insidious form of behaviourism, social engineering, and the targeted and class-contingent restriction of citizen autonomy.

There are many examples on record of sanctions being applied unfairly, and of the devastating impact that sanctions are having on people who need to claim social security. Dr David Webster of Glasgow University has argued that benefit claimants are being subjected to an “amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system,” and that “the number of financial penalties (sanctions) imposed on benefit claimants by the Department of Work and Pensions now exceeds the number of fines imposed by the courts.

Furthermore, decisions on the “guilt” of noncompliance” are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully. Professor Michael Adler has raised concern that benefit sanctions are incompatable with the rule of law.

There is no doubt that sanctions are regressive, taking income that is designed to meet basic needs from families and individuals who are already very resource-constrained, is particularly draconian. But even by the proclaimed standards of the Department of Work and Pensions sanctions are being applied unfairly, it’s a policy that has been based on discretionary arbitrary judgments, and the injustice and adverse consequences of welfare sanctions make their continued use untenable. As well as having clearly detrimental material and biological impacts, sanctions have unsurprisingly been associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes, increased stress and reduced emotional wellbeing recently, once again. (Dorsett, 2008; Goodwin, 2008; Griggs and Evans, 2010).

There has been a wealth of evidence that refutes the Conservative claim that benefit sanctions “incentivise” people and “help” them into employment. There is a distinction between compliance with welfare conditionality rules, off-flow  measurement and employment. Furthermore, there is no evidence that applying behaviourist principles to the treatment of people claiming social security, any subsequent behaviour change and positive employment outcomes are in any way correlated.

Sanctions don’t work, and the politics of punishment has no place in a so-called civilised society

The Conservative government have taken what can, at best, be described as an ambivalent attitude to evidence gathering and presentation to support their claims to date. There is no evidence that welfare sanctions improve employment outcomes. There is no evidence that sanctions “change behaviours.” 

There is, in any case, a substantial difference between people conforming with welfare conditionality and rules, and gaining appropriate employment. And a further distinction between compliance and conversion. One difficulty is that since 2011, Job Centre Plus’s (JCP) primary key performance indicator has been off-flow from benefit at the 13th, 26th, 39th and 52nd weeks of claims. Previously JCP’s performance had been measured against a range of performance indicators, including off-flows from benefit into employment.

Indeed, when asked for evidence by the Work and Pensions Committee, one minister, in her determination to defend the Conservative sanction regime, regrettably provided misleading information on the destinations of JSA, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance claimants from 2011, that pre-dated the new sanctions regime introduced in 2012, in an attempt to challenge the findings of the University of Oxford/LSHTM study on the effects of sanctions on getting JSA claimants off-flow. (Fewer than 20 per cent of this group of people who were no longer in receipt of JSA were recorded as finding employment.) Source: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review – Work and Pensions.

National Assistance Scales were originally based on specialist calculation of the cost of a “basket of essential goods” necessary to sustain life that were devised by Seebohm Rowntree for Sir William Beveridge when he founded the Welfare State in the 1940s. Rowntree fixed his primary poverty threshold, in his pioneering study of poverty in York (1901), as the income required to purchase only physical necessities. The scales were devised to determine levels of support for unemployed people, sick and disabled people, and those who had retired or were widowed.

Rowntree’s research helped to advance our understanding of poverty. For example, he discovered that it was caused by structural factors –  resulting from unemployment and low wages, in 1899 – and not behavioural factors. Rowntree and Laver cited full employment policies, rises in real wages and the expansion of social welfare programmes as the key factors behind the significant fall in poverty by the 1950s. They could also demonstrate that, while 60% of poverty in 1936 was caused by low wages or unemployment, the corresponding figure by 1950 was only 1 per cent. But we have witnessed a regression since Thatcher’s New Right era, and continue to do so because of an incoherent Conservative anti-welfare ideology, scapegoating narratives and neoliberal approaches to dismantling the post-war settlement.

Yet Rowntree’s basic approach to defining and addressing poverty remains unchallenged, both in terms of its empirical basis and in terms of positive social outcomes. There is categorically no doubt that human beings have to meet physical needs, having access to fundamental necessities such as food, fuel, clothing and shelter, for survival.

There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation is profoundly psychologically harmful as much as it is physiologically damaging. If people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will either have the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to find work and meet conditionality requirements.

There is a clear relationship between human needs, human rights, and social justice. Needs are an important concept that guide empowerment based practices and the concept is intrinsic to social justice. Furthermore, the meeting of physiological and safety needs of citizens ought to be the very foundation of economic justice as well as the development of a democratic society.

An elitist, technocratic government that believes citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Especially a government that has decided in the face of a history of contradictory evidence, that the “faulty behaviour” and decision-making of  individuals is the cause of social problems, such as inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Sanctioning  people who need financial support to meet their basic needs is cruel and can never work to “incentivise” people to “change their behaviours.” One reason is that poverty is not caused by the behaviour of poor people. Another is that sanctions work to demotivate and damage people, creating further perverse barriers to choices and opportunities, as well as stifling human potential.

Earlier this year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee heard evidence of a social security system that is built upon fear and intimidation. The Committee heard how sanctions can devastate claimant health and wellbeing. They impoverish already poor people and drive them to food banks. They can leave claimants even further away from work. Jobcentres routinely harrass vulnerable jobseekers, “tripping them up” so they can stop their benefits and hit management-imposed sanctions targets (or as the Department for Work and Pensions would have it, “expectations”).

Conservative claims about welfare sanctions are incommensurable with reality, evidence, academic frameworks and commonly accepted wisdom. It’s inconceivable that this government have failed to comprehend that imposing punishment in the form of financial sanctions on people who already have very limited resources for meeting their basic survival needs is not only irrational, it is absurdly and spectacularly cruel.

Sanctions are callous, dysfunctional and regressive, founded entirely on traditional Conservative prejudices about poor people and ideological assumptions. It is absolutely unacceptable that a government treats some people, including some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens, in such horrifically cruel and dispensible way, in what was once a civilised first-world liberal democracy.

 
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Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies.

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I wrote an article in March about the government plans to make the receipt of social security benefits for those with mental illnesses conditional on undergoing “state therapy.” I raised concern about ethical issues – such as consent, the inappropriateness of using behaviour modification as a form of “therapy,” and I criticised the proposed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme on methodological and theoretical grounds, as well as considering wider social implications.

The 2015 budget included plans to provide online CBT to 40,000 claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme, as well as putting therapists in more than 350 job centres.

Since I wrote, over 400 psychotherapists, counsellors and mental health practitioners have written an open letter, published by the Guardian, about the broader, profoundly disturbing psychological and quality-of-life implications of the coalition government’s austerity cuts and policies. However, the letter was particularly critical of the government’s benefits sanctions scheme, which has been condemned by many of us – human rights advocates across the state – as brutal, unjust, ill-conceived, ineffective and inhumane.

In particular, the letter stated that the government’s proposed policy of linking social security benefits to the receipt of “state therapy” is utterly unacceptable. The measure, casually coined “get to work therapy,” was discussed by Chancellor for the Exchequer George Osborne during his last budget.

The letter’s supporters included psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach. She called the Conservative proposals “beyond shocking.” Echoing the concerns I raised earlier this year, she said:

“It undermines the fundamental principles of one’s right to physical and mental care – that you have to be able to consent and that the people you go to have to be highly trained and have your best interests and aren’t meeting targets.”

The letter’s signatories, all of whom are experts in the field of mental health, have said such a measure is counter-productive, “anti-therapeutic,” damaging and professionally unethical. The “intimidatory disciplinary regime” facing benefits claimants would be made even worse by further unacceptable proposals outlined in the budget.

Among the groups represented by the signatories were Psychologists Against Austerity, Britain’s Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, the Journal of Public Mental Health, and a range of academic institutions including Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, the University of London, the University of Amsterdam, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Brighton, Disabled People Against the Cuts and others.

More generally, the wider reality of a society thrown completely off-balance by the emotional toxicity of social conservatism combined with economic neoliberalism (which I have argued is manifestly authoritarian) is affecting Britain in profound and complex ways, the distressing effects of which are often most visible in therapist’s consulting rooms.

This letter sounds the starting-bell for a broadly based campaign of organisations and professionals against the damage that neoliberalism is doing to the nation’s mental health.

The letter said that for now, we call on all the parties in this election to make it clear that they will urgently review such regressive, anti-therapeutic practices, and appropriately refashion their commitment to mental health if and when they enter government.

Andrew Samuels, an Essex University professor, and immediate past chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, said he believed there was “a bit of a public school ethos” behind the work-capability regime introduced under the conservative-liberal democrat coalition and new conservative plans.

Characterising the government attitude as “Pull yourself together man, for heaven’s sake,” Samuels added: “It is wholly inappropriate. It symbolises a society that has lost all moral compass.”

Absolutely. Public schools are notorious for a culture of bullying. However, it’s one thing to be treated as a privileged and insulated public school boy by a peer from an elite background to “character building” rhetoric, but quite another to adopt that same bullying approach towards the ill and most vulnerable citizens. All to justify an ideological drive to “shrink the state” and remove support from the poorest.

All of this said, public schools are regarded by many as institutions that inflict a particularly British form of child abuse and social control. I also think it has to be said that soul trauma and pain don’t respect social status.

Samuels insisted the open letter was not “pro-Labour” but was aimed at getting a review of measures taken and proposed over the past five years.

He said: “If Labour decides afterwards all this is in order, it will go on. But I don’t think it will.”

The Labour Party does value professional opinion and rational discourse. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are not widely recognised as a party that welcomes democratic, open debate, transparency and accountability. The Tories simply exclude critical professionals and representative organisations that may challenge and disagree from the discourse.

A spokesperson for Labour said mental health “is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age.”

“It’s essential that we give mental health the priority it deserves if we are to thrive as a nation and ensure the NHS remains sustainable for the future,” he said.

The Labour Party have pressured the government to “write parity of esteem between physical and mental health into law,” and in the response, Labour have stated that the party is committed to implementing this policy if elected in May.

The spokesman pledged the Labour will bring an end to the “scandal of the neglect of child mental health,” indicating a welcomed return to a comprehensive preventative approach. He said: “It is simply not right that when three-quarters of adult mental illnesses begin in childhood, children’s mental health services get just six per cent of the mental health budget.”

Richard House of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the letter’s main organiser, said there had been a mounting groundswell of concern: “When one hears story after story of dramatic negative health impacts, psychological and physical, after people are subjected to these back-to-work practices, the time has surely come for an ‘emotional audit’ of the impact of what, to many, appear to be heartless, un-thought-through policies that are merely penalising and punishing the already disadvantaged still further.”

Yes, the time has come for a change of government. On May 7, we must ensure that the regressive, oppressive regime of the past five years is replaced by a progressive, inclusive and democratic alternative.

Related

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

The just world fallacy

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

Rising ESA sanctions: punishing the vulnerable for being vulnerable

Suicides reach a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”

Mental Health Services in crisis because of Coalition cuts to funding

The Psychology of Austerity

A group of mental health professionals have come together under the banner of Psychologists Against Austerity (PAA) to highlight the psychological impact of austerity.

Now, with only a few weeks to go before the general election, PAA have started a campaign calling for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the psychological damage austerity has wreaked across the UK.

You can read more and sign our petition here: 38degrees/psychological costs of austerity inquiry.


 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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Cameron believes that saving ‘the tax payer’ money is more important than saving lives.

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The following is from a very revealing transcript of David Cameron’s interview with Andrew Marr earlier today.

Cameron implied that dying is somehow an appropriate punishment for failing to attend an interview at the Jobcentre, in order to save “the tax payer” money. Cameron thinks that taxing the wealthy is “immoral,”  but evidently, formulating policies that cause the death of vulnerable citizens is acceptable. Cameron made it plain that he has no intention of carrying out a policy review, or of investigating the growing number of deaths correlated with the conservative party’s welfare cuts.

He showed a complete lack of remorse and basic compassion for David Clapson (and his family,) who died as a direct consequence of the cruel sanction regime that Cameron introduced as part of benefit conditionality,  which is now an integral part of the wider welfare “reforms.”

 THE ANDREW MARR SHOW, BBC 19.4.15 (Full transcript here.)
David Cameron before the news:

AM: Well you also talked to Evan Davis about the twenty two billion pounds of welfare cuts you’ve made so far as if that was easy. Do you accept that has hurt a lot of poor and vulnerable people?

DC: Well it has involved difficult decisions. But of course as we’ve done that we’ve been getting two million people into work, nine hundred thousand people…

AM: Difficult decisions for you; a lot of real pain and suffering for people out there.

DC: Well, we have protected for instance the pension, we’ve protected benefits for the lowest paid, we’ve always made sure that we’ve increased spending on disability benefits rather than reduced it. But crucially the nine hundred thousand people we’ve got off welfare and into work that has actually saved money but it’s also been good for ourcountry and crucially good for them:a job is the best route out of poverty that there is.

AM: What about the million people depending on food banks?

DC: Well obviously I want a country where people don’t depend on food banks, we did something.

AM: But why are more people depending on food banks?

DC: One of the things we did was that Labour, because they didn’t like the PR of this, they didn’t advertise or promote the existence of food banks through job centres. We changed that because we thought that was, that was basically sort of selfish and shortminded…

1390648_548165358586330_1740107407_nAM: And according to the Trussell Trust who run these banks that accounts for just three percent of people using food banks at the moment so it’s not a significant thing. But can I take you to an individual case, James [he meant David] Clapson. Clapson who was a former soldier worked very hard for a long time then was on benefits, failed to turn up to two job centre interviews, [it was just one interview that David missed,] had his benefits removed for a month, he was diabetic, his insulin couldn’t be refrigerated and he died two weeks later.

Now that is the kind of case that is coming up again and again and again and shows that the welfare cuts have been agonisingly painful for real people out there.

DM: Well we have hardship funds and councils have hardship funds for exactly those sorts of tragic cases but if you’re asking me…

AM: It didn’t work.

DC: If you are asking me is it right that people who are asked to turn up for interviews or asked to fill in a CV or asked to apply for a job should have to do those things before getting benefits then yes it’s right that we do have that system in place but we always, as I put it on the steps of…

AM: But the system has been very very aggressive, another case of a man who had learning difficulties and filled in his form by hand rather than by computer and was refused benefits, there is lots of these cases as you won’t have a review, you should have a review of the system surely?

DC: I look at all of those individual cases and all of those cases can be addressed by the hardship funds and by the flexibilities that are there in the system but we have sanctions for a reason, people watching this programme…

AM: You don’t get the hardship fund for two weeks.

DC: Hold on a second

AM: Alright.

DC: People watching this programme who pay their taxes, who work very hard, they don’t pay their taxes so people can sign on and show no effort at getting a job, as I put it on the steps of Downing Street those who can should; those who can’t we always help – that is the principle that should always underline a compassionate benefits system.

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We do not have a compassionate welfare system: we have a re-designed system that is draconian because of the “reforms” – it’s more about taking money from people than supporting them. It’s about punishing people into work. That is precisely why people like David Clapson are dying. No support was given to David, and many others like him.

Cameron’s rhetoric isn’t remotely coherent or compassionate, let alone honest.

Let’s not forget that it was Cameron’s government that has ruthlessly stigmatised, dehumanised and scapegoated unemployed and disabled people, in order to justify punishing them by removing their support and handing out the subsequent “savings” to millionaires, who gained £107,000 each per year, whilst those who paid for it – and we are also tax payers, Mr Cameron – are suffering and dying, and the establishment look on with contemptible, pathological, greedy, grasping, self-serving indifference.

Related

11046274_80388630968089cam cThanks to Robert Livingstone for the excellent memes.

As predicted, Mandatory Review has effectively destroyed independent Tribunals

IDS_nSection 102 and Schedule 11 of the Welfare Reform Act, (Clause 99) is the (State) power to require revision before appeal. People who wish to challenge a benefit decision will no longer be allowed to lodge an appeal immediately. Instead, the government introduced mandatory revision or review stage, during which a different Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decision maker will reconsider the original decision and the evidence and, if necessary, send for more information.

Many of us have campaigned since 2012 to raise awareness of Clause 99. During the Consultation period, I wrote a set of responses to the government’s proposals, which many people used as a template for their own responses.  I remember that we ALL RAISED THE SAME CONCERNS.

In summary, the main concerns were that basic rate Employment Support Allowance was to be withdrawn during the mandatory review period, leaving sick and disabled people with no money to live on, whilst the DWP reconsidered their own “fit for work decisions” that were wrong.

I know that our consultation responses were ignored by the government. The changes were introduced anyway, despite our grave concerns. Since October 2013 people have to apply for mandatory review separately before they can lodge an appeal. We were also very worried that no time limit was established for the DWP to undertake and complete the mandatory review. Our concerns were fully justified, as it’s emerged that people are waiting 7-10 weeks for the mandatory review decision. Meanwhile, these people cannot appeal. And have no money to live on.

An added concern is that this system as it stands demands such a lot from people who may be very vulnerable, seriously ill and/or have mental health problems. Their difficulties are exacerbated by cuts in legal aid for welfare rights advice and cuts in local authority grants. There is a significant contraction of the availability of help for those who need it the most from advice agencies.

A Benefit Sanctions Briefing was released on 18 February 2015 by the Department of Work and Pensions, comprising of an update of sanctions statistics up to the end of September 2014, and for the first time it also included the outcomes of Mandatory Reviews (or sometimes called “reconsiderations.”)

Dr David Webster, Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University, said: “The Mandatory Reconsideration system (MR), introduced on 28 October 2013, has fundamentally changed the whole appeal process, introducing additional steps and a new Jobcentre Plus structure. MR has cut the proportion of Job Seekers Allowance sanctions which are challenged by claimants from about one third (33%) to about 20-25%. Employment Support Allowance sanction challenges have returned to below their pre-MR level, at about 45%.

The independent element in the system offered by Tribunals has been effectively destroyed, completely in the case of Employment Support Allowance and almost completely for Job Seekers Allowance, where only 0.14% of sanction decisions are now being taken to a Tribunal.

MR has had no overall impact on the proportion of Job Seekers Allowance sanctions overturned, which remains at about 13%. But the proportion of Employment Support Allowance sanctions overturned has fallen from about 35% to about 20%.

The most disturbing possibility is that Employment Support Allowance claimants’ medical conditions are rendering them unable to cope effectively with the phone calls made to them by DWP officials at home during the MR process.”

He also said: “Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) Reconsiderations and Appeals: The revised DWP statistics show much lower claimant success rates at both internal DWP reconsideration and Tribunal appeal. However, success rates for the few who appeal to a Tribunal have risen and successful Tribunal appeals are at an all-time high. For a claimant prepared to go all the way in the appeal process, the probability of overturning a sanction is now 51%.

Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants have higher success rates than JSA claimants at reconsideration and appeal.

In 2013 their reconsideration success rate was 56.1% and their appeal success rate was 26.1%. A higher proportion of ESA claimants than JSA claimants ask for reconsideration. This proportion has been rising rapidly, from below 10% up to March 2011, to over 40% during 2013.

The proportion appealing to Tribunals is lower, only about 1%. In 2013 there were 8,428 reconsiderations or appeals where the claimant was successful in overturning an ESA sanction.

The big surge in ESA sanctions during 2013 was due to penalties for failure to participate in work-related activity. By December 2013 this reason accounted for 87% of ESA sanctions, the other 13% being for failure to attend a work-related interview.

This is in contrast to the experience under the Labour government, when the only reason for sanction was failure to attend an interview [without good reason], and there were no sanctions in relation to work-related activity.

Dr David Webster has submitted evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into benefit sanctions.

Many of the key issues with the mandatory review can be seen summarised herehere and here. Sheila Gilmore and Dame Anne Begg have covered these extensively during the ongoing Work and Pensions Committee ESA inquiry, as well as during the course of the many separately tabled debates.

Clause 99 – Mandatory Review – was undoubtedly introduced to make appealing wrong decisions that we are fit for work almost impossible. Sick and disabled people are effectively being silenced by this Government, and the evidence of a brutal, dehumanising, undignified and grossly unfair system of “assessment” is being hidden.

It also hides the crass unfairness and terrible consequences of Tory draconianism – the using of behavioural modification techniques in the form of benefit sanctions that have now been integrated into welfare “conditionality” criteria, and imposed on people who are already struggling materially, some of who are sick and disabled.

Most of those people claiming benefts do so through no fault of their own. To punish people by removing all of their income – and thus their only means of meeting basic survival needs – so arbitrarily, is obscene in a so-called civilised society.

The only way for a tiny group of people to become obscenely rich is for huge masses of others to be kept chronically poor. The tories have spent five years lying to us about who “deserves” what, but the bottom line is this: almost every tory policy has intentionally resulted in money being taken from the poorest or money being handed to the [already] wealthiest and most powerful. (See: Follow the Money: Tory Ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor and ‘We are raising more money for the rich’ revisited: some thoughts.)

Related

Clause 99, Catch 22 – The ESA Mandatory Second Revision and Appeals

Clause 99, Catch 22 – State sadism and silencing disabled people

Clause 99, Catch 22 and Penning is telling lies

The New New Poor Law

Sanctions misery for tens of thousands of families this Christmas

Pregnant and sanctioned just in time for christmas… Sanctioned and frozen to death….The latest news from Ashton Under Lyne Jobcentre.

Rachel Reeves promises to remove benefit sanction targets with a Labour Government

Government under fire for massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions from Commons Select Commitee

Benefit sanctions are not fair and are not helping people into work

Rising ESA sanctions: punishing the vulnerable for being vulnerable

430835_148211001996623_1337599952_n (1)Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the memes.