Tag: libertarian paternalism

Demos say the DWP should be axed, I disagree. Here’s why

Image result for DWP

A leading cross-party thinktank has proposed that ministers should consider abolishing the Department for Work and Pensions.

In a provocative paper that marked the start of Demos’ research examining the Department of Work and Pensions, Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind, who has also completed an 18 months secondment to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), illustrates a bureaucracy blighted by “historic dynamics and averse to radical thinking.”

Pollard’s paper identifies three problems with the DWP. First, the department is afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where case handlers perceive employment support as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than a means of enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Where benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick. Sanctioning claimants for misdemeanours such as arriving late to meetings creates a “confrontational dynamic of power asymmetries.” In other words, it strips citizens of their autonomy.

Many neoliberals have also claimed that welfare strips citizens of responsibility, though there has been no convincing evidence of this to date. 

Second, Pollard argues the department is impoverished in ambition. DWP staff are often promoted from frontline roles working in job centres. While such expertise is valuable, he argues that staff often seem “incapable of thinking about radical solutions”, and repeat the mistakes of the past, gravitating towards punitive systems of conditionality and sanctions.

These factors contribute to the DWP’s “injured reputation” among frontline users. Productive engagement between case handlers and claimants is dependent on trust. “There’s such a rift between the DWP and hard to help groups that I don’t know how you could get back to engaging on meaningful terms – there’s too much baggage”, Pollard says.

In the thought-provoking paper, entitled Pathways from Poverty: a case for Institutional reform, Pollard explains why he believes that the DWP is institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to deliver better outcomes for society’s most vulnerable and sets out a radical new vision for the future of welfare provision.

Most of the work of Amber Rudd’s department could be carried out more effectively by other Whitehall ministries, according to Pollard. He calls for the DWP to be stripped of responsibility for these “hard-to-help groups”, with the health department and NHS helping the ill find work, local government taking over Jobcentre Plus, and benefits and pensions delivered by HMRC. The charitable sector could also be given a bigger role. 

Some criticisms

Pollard critically discusses the culture within the DWP, implying that the key problems and devastating social consequences arising from the government’s welfare reform programme are simply a result of staff attitudes and inept administrative procedure within the department. 

The crisis in our social security system is the result of government’s policies, which have embedded traditional prejudices about people experiencing poverty, and that have led to the institutionalisation of discriminatory practices within the DWP. There is no guarantee that moving the functions of the DWP somewhere else will bring about any change in attitudes and practices, or improved outcomes for people relying on social security as a lifeline. 

The DWP has come under constant fire from many campaigners, academics and charities for serious problems with universal credit, and for the catastrophic work capability assessments of those who are unfit to work. Rudd is attempting to repair The department’s reputation by tinkering with the roll-out of universal credit and fighting with the Treasury to end the freeze on working-age benefits. However, these gestures are nowhere near enough to put the major shortcomings of the system right and to mitigate the cuts to support that univesal credit and other benefits entail. 

The report concludes that while the DWP has been able to “help” people with minor difficulties into employment, the outcomes are “much poorer when it comes to supporting people with more complex needs”, such as the ill, disabled, older people, those with drug and alcohol problems, ex-prisoners and those who are homeless.

Pollard proposes that if the removal of these functions from the DWP proves to be a success, a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether”.

He says: “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

The problem is that the reforms are not “well-intentioned”, and the outcomes are not “disappointing”, they are catastrophic. The policies were intentionally punitive, leading to the consequences we see: people experiencing hardship have been punished by as system that was designed originally to support them and mitigate the circumstances of  hardship.

Pollard accuses the DWP of seeing claimants through a “benefits lens”, in which conditions were placed on their payments as a way of forcing them into work. He warns that the department’s reputation among many groups is now so bad that it may prove impossible and expensive to improve. “A bad reputation is far harder to lose than a good one,” he says.

However, the problem is rather much larger than the poor reputation of the DWP. It is the policy framework that determines the set of administrative practices which in turn, shapes the “culture” within the DWP.  It is the distress and harms that are being experienced by people claiming support, most of whom have also paid into the Treasury – that is the most pressing issues here, not reputation ‘damage limitation’ strategies, or an exercise in PR trust building for the government.

Abolishing the DWP, merging it with the Department of Health and involving charities in service delivery, as proposed by Pollard, will send out the clear message that social security is no longer a discrete function or key priority of the state. It also permits the state to withdraw from providing social security.

Responsibility for budgeting for and administering welfare will become diffuse. Placing social security side by side with healthcare is also risky, as it may further stigmatise jobseekers. We have already seen the government consistently stigmatise those who are out of work, implying that unemployment is some kind of psychological disorder. Others, such as Adam Perkins, have even proposed that there is a “genetic welfare trait.” , that runs counter to Conservative notions of “good citizenship”. 

The NHS is also suffering from chronic under-funding. How will it prioritise welfare provision, when it is already struggling to deliver health care, in the face of the increasing rationing of treatments and procedures?

Historically, charities administered welfare. But the provision was patchy and varied from area to area. There were no consistent standards of support for people in hardship. During times of economic recession, charities were often unable to provide people with any support at all, at a time when they needed it most.

Local authorities are now struggling to deliver statutory services because of government cuts. Essential provisions are being rationed as a consequence. There is no guarantee that any additional funding would be ringfenced. We have already seen social services sending vulnerable young people to other areas – sometimes back to their hometown, for example – to shift the burden of cost to another local authority.  The old Poor Law saw parishes moving poor people out of their area, they were pushed from parish to parish, refused ‘relief’ in order, often, to keep local rates bills low.

A recent paper entitled “Dependency, Shame and Belonging” examines the practice of making the poor wear badges from the 16th century through to the compulsory identification of all parish paupers under a 1679 statute, differentiating between those deemed ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. By the late 17th century, magistrates and legislators decided to deter potential badge applicants by making life on the parish as unattractive as possible. Badging became a means of preventing begging and shaming holders, made compulsory in 1697.

The proposal from Demos simply exchanges one form of expensive, intrusive and ineffective bureaucracy with another. How would the Department of health and charities be allocated funds to carry out this publicly funded state function? How would they be held accountable? 

As I touched on earlier, unless the policy framework is also radically changed to one that is supportive, rather than punitive, and to one that isn’t about administering cuts to people’s lifeline support, then the perverse incentives to apply conditionality and sanctions will remain embedded in administration practices. 

A government that does not support a social security programmme – and the anti-welfarism of the Conservatives has been apparent for a long time – is likely to see the shift in responsibillity for delivering social security as a further step in abolishing welfare provision entirely, which has always been their long term aim. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that Demos produced a paper in 2011 advocating reducing the costs of disability benefit by “engaging with the private insurance industry” and proposing that: “reform to encourage individual responsibility and income protection is genuinely of mutual benefit.” The approach laid out in this report builds on the theory and practice of the profoundly antidemocratic ‘libertarian paternalism’ or ‘nudge’ theory. 

Other papers from the thinktank peddle the views of antiwelfarist James Purnell, who, for example, proposed charging interest on crisis loans to unemployed people and pensioners made by the Department for Work and Pensions, which were interest-free, at a rate of up to 26.8% per annum. This was met with great hostility and was blocked by the intervention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was Purnell who announced the Work Capability Assessment, triangulating the Conservatives. Purnell advocated Unum’s approach to “claims management”, in a bid to cut costs of disability support. (See Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper for more detailed discussion). 

The Conservative’s ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemesas have some ‘blue Labour’ neoliberals, including Purnell. 

The th empirically unevidenced idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The government have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision, which is the ultimate ideological goal. That is the root of the problem. 

In light of this, the timing of Pollard’s set of proposals is also rather suspect – see The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security.

A DWP spokesperson has responded from the government’s crib sheet of crafted statements: “This report is completely misguided and we have no plans to reduce functionality at a time when unemployment is at its lowest, welfare reforms are rolling out across the country and millions are saving for a private pension for the first time. Jobcentres are a local presence yet benefit from a national framework. DWP supports around 20 million people to get into work and save for their retirement, as well as giving stability to those who cannot work, and will continue to do so as one responsible organisation.”

 


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Cash for Care: nudging doctors to ration healthcare provision

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Today, while everyone is being distracted by the continuing resignations from Theresa May’s disintegrating government, the Conservatives are openly talking among themselves (again) about charging for NHS services. So much for the government’s continued reassurances and promises about UK healthcare continuing to remain ‘free at the point of access.’  

The NHS has never been safe in  Conservatives hands.

Last week I wrote an article about the stealthy creep of rationing of treatments in the NHS, and how gatekeeping has become a watchword within our public services over the past seven years. It’s being driven by the government’s deep affection for neoliberal dogma, the drive for never-ending ‘efficiency savings’ and the Conservatives’ lean, mean austerity machine. Perish the thought that the public may actually need to use the public services that they have funded through their contributions to the Treasury, in good faith. 

One important point I didn’t raise in the article was about how the marketisation of the NHS has given rise to ‘perverse incentives’, which violate the very principles on which the national health service was founded. Neoliberal policies have shifted priorities to developing profitable ‘care markets’ making ‘efficiency’ savings and containing costs, rather than delivering universal health care.

Another shift in emphasis is the “behavioural turn”. It’s politically convenient to claim that people’s behaviours are a major determinant of their health. Some illnesses are undoubtedly related to lifestyle – type two diabetes, for example. But it is difficult to blame individual’s behaviours for type one diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, and these may happen to people who lead very healthy lifestyles, as well as those who don’t. This ‘behavioural turn’ shifts emphasis from the impact of structural conditions – such as rising inequality and poverty – on public health. It also provides a political justification narrative for cuts to healthcare and welfare provision. (See also The NHS is to hire 300 employment coaches to find patients jobs to “keep them out of hospital”. )

Behavioural economists have claimed that ‘nudge’ presents an effective way to ‘change behaviours’ within the NHS and ‘improve outcomes’ at lower cost than traditional policy tools. Back in 2015, the Nudge Unit were looking for “many potentially fruitful areas in which to use behavioural insight to improve health and health-service efficiency, either by retrofitting existing processes or by designing completely new services most effectively.” ‘Fruitful’ as in lucrative for the part-privatised company, but not so lucrative for the NHS.

Behavioural economists are working for the government and public sector to “harness [public] behaviours to shift and reduce patterns of demand in many public services.” The problem is that human needs arising from illness are not quite the same thing as human behaviours and roles, yet the government are increasingly conflating the two. (See discussion on Talcott Parsons and the ‘sick role’ in this article, for example, along with that on ‘work is a health outcome’.)

Public services are associated with fundamental human rights, which in turn are based on notions of fundamental human need. Addressing basic human needs is fundamental to survival.

As Abraham Maslow concluded, motivation for behaviours is is closely related to fulfilling our basic needs, because if they are not met, then people will simply strive to make up the deficit as a priority. This undermines aspiration and human potential. Fulfilment of psychosocial needs will become a motive for behaviour only as long as basic physiological needs ‘below’ it have been satisfied. Health is a fundamental human need. To paraphrase Maslow, we don’t live by bread alone, unless there is no bread.

Public services are an essential part of developed democracies, they ensure all citizens can meet their basic needs, and therefore, the provision promotes wider social and economic wellbeing and progress.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

The Nudge Unit had already run a trial in Nottingham, which provided feedback to doctors of the cost of a commonly used discretionary lab test. This prompt retained clinical freedom, and did not ask doctors to order fewer tests – but the number of
tests fell by a third.

anttibiotic resistance

In 2016 the UK government set a target to half ‘inappropriate’ antibiotic prescribing by 2020. The Nudge Unit set out to “improve prescribing in line with government ambitions”. 

Behavioural economists from the Unit claimed that by informing doctors that they are prescribing more antibiotics relative to 80 per cent of their peers, they are reducing the number of ‘unnecessary’ prescriptions by 3.3 per cent (more than 73,000 prescriptions) – helping to address what the Chief Medical Officer has identified as perhaps the greatest medical threat of our age – antibiotic resistance. 

Between 2014 and 2015, the Behavioural Insights Team sent letters to 800 GP practices, telling them that other practices were recommending the use of antibiotics in fewer cases. (There is no evidence presented to determine if this was actually true, and judging by the template letter, it’s highly unlikely that it was true.)

The nudge method employed is called ‘social norming’, which operate as a kind of community enforcement, as norms are unwritten rules that define ‘appropriate’ behaviours for social groups. We tend to conform to the expectations of others. Changing perceptions of norms alters people’s expectations and behaviour.

Understanding norms provides a key to understanding social influence in general and conformity in particular. The Conservatives have traditionally placed a significant emphasis on social conformity.

There are ‘hotspots’ where more antibiotics are prescribed. However, the fact that these places tend to be some of the most deprived areas of the country strongly hints that there are underlying socioeconomic factors at play that cannot be solved with a nudge or prod. Research indicates that community socioeconomic variables may play a significant role in sepsis-attributable mortality, for example.

Social problems such as poverty and inequalities in health arise because of unequal distributions of wealth and power, therefore these problems require solutions involving  addressing socioeconomic inequality. As it is, the government is unprepared to spend public funds on public services to redistribute resources. 

The behavioural study did not include any consideration of socioeconomic variables on rates or severity of infection, or types of infection. 

The idea that ‘changing the prescribing habits in hospitals’ and GP surgeries will impact on antibiotic resistance is based on an assumption that doctors over prescribe antibiotics in the first place. There is no evidence that this is the case, and it’s very worrying that anyone would think that targeting doctors with behaviourally-based remedies will address antibiotic resistance and assure us, at the same time, that antibiotics are actually prescribed when appropriate, and tailored, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the patient, rather than being prescribed according to arbitrary percentage norms distributed by behavioural economists.

The trials did not include sufficient data regarding clinical detail or diagnostic uncertainty that might justify antibiotic prescribing in individual cases.

One of the nudge unit team’s key aims is to design policies which reduce costs. They say: “The solution to the problem of AMR is not just to produce new and better drugs – that takes time, and a great deal of money. We must also reduce our use of antibiotics when they are not needed. Sadly, it seems that they are used unnecessarily twenty percent of the time in the UK”.

The various Nudge Unit reports on behavioural strategies that target doctors don’t mention any follow-up research to ensure that the reduction in antibiotic prescriptions did not correlate with an increase in the severity of infections or poor outcomes for patients. In fact one report highlighted that those who were admitted to hospital because their condition deteriorated were excluded from the trial, as they no longer met the inclusion criteria. That effectively means that any adverse consequences for patients who were not given antibiotic treatment was not reported. And that matters.

The authors say “We as the authors debated at length as to whether we should emphasise the fact that 80% of the prescriptions are being used in necessary cases.” 

There is no indication of how ‘necessary cases’ are determined, and more to the point, who determines what is a ‘necessary case’ for antibiotic treatment. Furthermore, the report uses some troubling language, for example, doctors prescribing antibiotics ‘above average’ were referred to more than once as the “worst offenders.” However, as I’ve already touched on, patients needs may well vary depending on a range of variables, such as the socioeconomic conditions of their community, and of course, complex individual comorbidities, which may not be mentioned in full when doctors write up the account for the prescription.

Sepsis, which may arise from any kind of infection is notoriously difficult to diagnose. It is insidious and can advance very rapidly.  It’s even more difficult to determine when a patient has other conditions. For example, sepsis can arise when someone has flu. That happened to me, when I had developed pneumonia without realising that I had. It’s standard practice for paramedics to administer a broad spectrum antibiotic and intravenous fluids to treat suspected sepsis and septic shock. This can often save lives. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and antibiotic treatment for survival.

Once the causative agent for the infection is found, the IV antibiotics may then be tailored to treat it. The wait without any treatment until a firm diagnosis is potentially life-threatening. But the biochemical tests, such as CRP, and X-rays take time. 

Treatment guidelines call for the administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics within the first hour following suspicion of septic shock. Prompt antimicrobial therapy is important, as risk of dying increases by approximately 10% for every hour of delay in receiving antibiotics. This time constraint does not allow the culture, identification, and testing for antibiotic sensitivity of the specific microorganism responsible for the infection. Therefore, combination antimicrobial therapy, which covers a wide range of potential causative organisms, is tied to better ‘outcomes’. 

In the trial, behavioural economists referred to medical notes, and if there is no diagnosis, the necessity of the prescription is then questioned. Knowledge of complex medical histories may also influence doctors’ decisions, and this may not have been mentioned on medical record. A cough and breathlessness is a common symptom influenza. However, a patient with a condition that compromises their immunity, or someone who needs immune suppressants, for example, is rather more at risk of developing bacterial pneumonia than others, and someone with COPD or asthma is also at increased risk.  

If a person dies because treatment was not given promptly in high suspicion cases of severe infection and sepsis, who is to be held accountable, especially in a political context where treatments are being rationed and prescriptions are being increasingly policed?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that massive doses of antibiotics are added to livestock feed as a preventative measure and to promote growth before the animals are slaughtered and enter the food chain. Using antibiotics during the production of meat has been heavily criticised by physicians and scientists, as well as animal activists. The pharmaceutical industry is making billions annually from antibiotics fed to livestock, which highlights the perverse incentives of the profit motive and potentially catastrophic impact on humans. It is estimated that between 70 – 80 percent of the total of antibiotics used around the world are used within the animal farming and food industry. No-one is nudging the culprits. 

The potential threat to human health resulting from inappropriate, profit seeking antibiotic use in food animals is significant, as pathogenic-resistant organisms propagated in these livestock are poised to enter the food supply and could be widely disseminated in food products.

Antibiotics used on farms can spill over into the surrounding environment, for instance through water run-off and slurry, according to a report from the UN’s environment body, last year, with the potential to create resistance to the drugs across a wide area.

In 2013, researchers showed that people who simply lived near pig farms or crop fields fertilized with pig manure are 30% more likely to become infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Cash for care – rationing referrals to hospital consultants and diagnostic testing

It was announced in April this year that General Practitioners (GPs) across England will be able to “better manage” hospital referrals with a “digital traffic light system” developed by the Downing Street policy wonks. This nudge is designed to target the ‘referral behaviours’ of GPs.

GPs are being offered cash payments as an ‘incentive’ to not refer patients to hospitals – including cancer patients – according to an investigation by Pulse, a website for GPs. 

Furthermore, a leaked letter sent by NHS to England to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and seen by Pulse magazine last year, asks that all family doctors in England to seek approval from a medical panel for all non-urgent hospital referrals.  

A “clinical peer review of all referrals from general practice by September 2017”, will be required, the letter said. 

To ‘incentivise’ the scheme, the letter said that there will be “significant additional funding” for commissioners that establish peer-led policing schemes. It added that it could reduce hospital referral rates by up to by 30 per cent. NHS England said that they want to introduce the “peer review scheme” whereby GPs check the referrals of one another to ensure they are ‘appropriate’. However, experts warn this increasingly Kafkaesque layer of bureaucracy could lead to more problems and possible conflict with patients’ safety and standard of care. 

In a trial of the nudge scheme, four NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have been using “profit share” initiatives to ration care, to help them ‘operate within their budgets’. Clinical Commissioning Groups hold the budget for the NHS locally and decide which services are provided for patients. 

Through this scheme, GPs are told they will receive up to half of the money that is saved by fewer patients going to hospitals for tests and treatments.

So to clarify, surgeries are being offered financial ‘incentives’ for not sending patients to hospital to save money, that is then reinvested in part to implement further rationing of healthcare. The move has been widely condemned as a “dereliction of duty” by the community of medical experts and professionals. Referrals to consultants often involve important diagnostic procedures, therefore there is often no way of knowing for sure in advance of the referral whether or not it is “warranted”.

The NHS has had ‘referral management centres’ in place for many years.  However, last year they were at the epicentre of a scandal when it was revealed that the use of these centres has increased 10-fold over recent years. Furthermore, the centres are privately run and extremely expensive to employ, diverting funds that could simply be spent on patient care.

Moreover, those who were reviewing the referrals were also found to have varying levels of clinical knowledge, and so were not always able to correctly identify which referrals were ‘necessary’. They were also extremely inefficient as patients were forced to wait a long time for appointments. 

The Pulse investigation into referral incentive schemes being run by NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across England found some regions offering GPs as much as 50 per cent of any savings they can make. The “profit-share” arrangements mean practices stand to benefit financially by not sending patients for treatment or to see a specialist.

Hospitals are paid for operations and other activity, so by sending patients to cheaper services run by GP practices – such as diabetes and pulmonary clinics – or by keeping them out of hospital altogether, practices can increase the size of savings. GPs are not paid per procedure. Rather, they receive a single payment when each patient is registered with them. 

Currently, when doctors are referring patients for appointments with hospital consultants, the nudge – in the form of a “Capacity Alert System” – operates by displaying a red light next to hospitals with lengthy waiting times, and a green light next to those with more availability, on the system. 

The system underwent two trials in north-east and south-west London over the winter. During these pilots the number of referrals made to overburdened hospitals was reduced by 40%, while those made to hospitals with ‘spare capacity’ rose by 14%, according to NHS England. There was no comment made regarding the impacts of the scheme on patients’ health.

GP leaders have also said it is “insulting” to suggest doctors are sending patients to hospital arbitrarily, and raise significant conflicts of interest.

“Cash incentives based on how many referrals GPs make have no place in the NHS, and frankly, it is insulting to suggest otherwise,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.

Of course, it’s important to take measures to ensure that GP referrals are appropriate and high-quality, but payments to reduce referrals would fly in the face of this, and erode the trust our patients have in us to do what is best for them and their health.” 

The NHS has been squeezed for increasingly drastic ‘efficiency savings’ in the past eight years. It’s absurd, however, that a huge amount of money is being spent on restricting access to healthcare, rather than on simply adequately funding healthcare provision.

Dr Peter Swinyard, chair of the Family Doctor Association, said the profit-share schemes were “bizarre”, adding: “From a patient perspective, it means GPs are paid to not look after them.

“It’s a serious dereliction of duty, influenced by CCGs trying to balance their books.”

Meanwhile, NHS Barnsley CCG has identified a £1.4m funding pot to pay its practices if they achieve a reduction in referrals to specialties, including cardiology, pancreatic surgery, and trauma and orthopaedics.

The CCG said the 10 per cent target was “ambitious but achievable”.

Last year it was discovered that the NHS has to spend £1.5 billion in legal costs when patients don’t get what the standard of care expected and pay for from their healthcare providers. In 2015/16, there was a 27% increase in the number of claims and a 72% increase in legal cost, which amounted to £1.5 billion.  With the amount of money that the NHS is spending on legal costs for medical blunders, the NHS could have paid for the training of more than 6,000 doctors. Or eased the rationing of essential healthcare provision.

The purpose of the NHS has been grotesquely distorted: it was never intended to be a bureaucratic gatekeeping exercise that rations healthcare. The purpose of all public services is to provide a public service, not ration provision. Such is the irrationality of the government’s ‘market place’ and ‘profit over human need’ narrative. 

Dr Eric Watts, a consultant haematologist for the NHS, says that the British government couldn’t care less about the fall of the NHS. He said, “This is a triumph of secrecy and implacable lack of care about the NHS by a Government determined to watch it fail then fall.” 

One CCG told Pulse“Ensuring treatment is based on the best clinical evidence and improving historical variation in access is essential for us locally.

“Financially, it is an effective use of local resources which will improve patient experience and outcomes and increase investment in primary care in line with the Five Year Forward View commitments.” Those ‘commitments’ are the increasing implementation of cuts to healthcare provision and funding.

Cuts to care may well improve financial ‘management’ but it cannot be claimed that healthcare rationing “improves health outcomes” for patients. That flies in the face of rationality.

NHS England also said last year that funding will be available for CCGs to start “peer review schemes”, where GPs police each other – checking that their colleagues are referring ‘appropriately’, but it is not clear what it thinks about direct payments linked to cutting referrals.

The “Cash for Cuts” investigation, by GP publication Pulse, asked all 207 CCGs in England about their processes for cutting referrals. Of the 180 who responded, 24 per cent had some kind of incentive scheme aimed at lowering the numbers of referrals. 

This included payments for getting GPs to “peer review” each other’s referrals or other strategies. 

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association (BMA) has  also criticised the nudge scheme. He says “It’s a blunt instrument which is not sensitive to the needs of the patient and is delaying patient care. 

“It has become totally mechanistic. It’s either administrative or not necessary for the patient. It’s completely unacceptable. Performance seems to be related to blocking referrals rather than patient care.”

The CCGs have defended the schemes, saying that at the time they were pushed through, the NHS was struggling through the worst winter ever in its history and had not been able to hit target waiting times since 2015. The CCGs have said that the scheme is only to help reducing ‘unnecessary referrals’ and therefore improve outcomes for ‘genuine patients’, and not to reduce numbers overall. Who decides which patients are ‘genuine’, and on what criteria? 

Dr Dean Eggitt, who is the British Medical Association’s GP representative for Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, also disagrees with the scheme. 

“The scheme is unsafe and needs to be reviewed urgently,” he said. 

The BMA’s GP committee have said that it had raised concerns nationally where CCGs have set an “arbitrary target” for reducing referrals. 

Before Christmas, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced that he wanted hospitals to find another £300m in savings on basic items like surgical gloves and bandages, and a long-awaited pay rise for nurses is contingent on staff boosting “productivity”.  

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Patients must never have their access to necessary care restricted  – we would expect local clinical commissioning groups and NHS England to intervene immediately if this were the case.” 

I’ve asked NHS England whether it would be reviewing cases where GPs stand to profit financially for not referring patients, along with others, but I have had no response at time of this publication. 

The NHS was founded on the principle of free and open access to healthcare provision for everyone. The nudge schemes I’ve outlined have introduced ‘perverse incentives’ that prompt GPs to ration health care. I have argued elsewhere on many occasions that nudge and the discipline of behavioural economics more generally is technocratic prop for a failing  political and socioeconomic system of organisation – neoliberalism. Rather than review the failures of increasing privatisation and ‘competition’, the government chose to deny them, applying increasingly irrational ‘solutions’ to the logical gaps in their ‘marketplace’ dogma. 

Yet it is blindingly clear that citizens needs and their human rights are being increasingly sidestepped by the absolute prioritisation of the private profit incentive. 

Nudge isn’t about ‘economics theory and practice adapting to human decision making’, as is widely claimed. It isn’t about remedying ‘cognitive biases’. It isn’t about people making ‘flawed decisions’.

It’s about holding citizens responsible for the problems created by a flawed socioeconomic model. It’s about a limited view of human behaviours and potential, because it frames the poorest citizens in an increasingly unequal society as ‘failed entrepreneurs’. Those members of the public who need to access public services are increasingly being portrayed as an economic ‘burden’. As such, nudge places limitations on and replaces genuine problem-solving approaches to public policy.

Nudge is about authoritarian governments using a technocratic prop to adapt human perceptions, behaviours and expectations, aligning them to accommodate inevitable  catastrophic social outcomes. These outcomes are symptomatic of the failings and lack of rational insights of wealthy and powerful neoliberal ideologues, who are determined to dismantle our public services. Without the consent of the majority of citizens. 

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The NHS was never safe in his hands. The company he keeps has made sure of that.

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The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called loss aversion.

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than libertarian paternalism, since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this 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,” 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 that page: 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 duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people. 

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning, which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income, originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people.”

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes therefore cannot be located within individuals.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

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

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

Basic Income Guarantee gains popularity across the political spectrum

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Basic income (which is sometimes called “citizen’s income” or “universal income”) is the idea that absolute poverty can be alleviated by providing every member of a society with an unconditional subsistence income. Supporters of basic income argue that it would alleviate absolute poverty and would also motivate people to work because they would always better off, as work-related income would be additional to their subsistence income. 

Earlier this year I wrote  about the Labour Party’s consideration of the universal basic income as a part of its new policy, during their talk at the London School of Economics. John McDonnell said: “It’s an idea we want to look at. Child benefit was a form of basic income so it’s not something that I would rule out.”

At the very least, this indicates the idea of universal provision has regained some credence in the face of a longstanding and seemingly unchallengeable political norm of increasing means-testing and welfare conditionality, established by the Thatcher adminstration, and radically extended by the current government.

Although basic income is a feature in many proposed models of market socialism, and has been particularly popular with the Green Party, support for basic income has also been expressed by several people associated with right-wing political views. While adherents of such views generally favour minimization or abolition of the public provision of welfare services, some have cited basic income as a viable strategy to reduce the amount of bureaucratic administration that is prevalent in many contemporary welfare systems. Others have contended that it could also act as a form of compensation for fiat currency inflation

Though the details vary, the basic income model has been advocated by  Right-wing thinkers such as Charles Murray, Milton Friedman and the Adam Smith Institute, amongst others. Libertarians who object to income redistribution in principle usually concede that a Negative Income Tax is the least controversial form of welfare, because it is administratively simple and “perverts incentives” less than most welfare schemes. It is particularly appealing to many liberals and libertarians because it is unpaternalistic – it’s highly compatible with laissez faire and neoliberal economic models. However, the current government are libertarian paternalists, blending a small state ideology with a psychocratic approach to governing, using behavioural change techniques (Nudge) to fulfil ideologically-driven policy outcomes.

Last year, the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), which has given advice to the Green Party and often cited by the Greens, has modelled the party’s scheme and discovered a major design flaw. It was revealed that that 35.15% of households would lose money, with many of the biggest losers among the poorest households. At the time, Malcolm Torry, director of the CIT, which is a small charitable research body, said: “I am not sure the Green party has yet taken on our new research or the need to retain a means-tested element. We have only just published the new work.”

The criticisms of the scheme, as well as doubts about costings, led the Greens to make a temporary tactical retreat on the issue, with the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, saying detailed costings for the policy would not be available in the manifesto last March. The Greens had proposed a citizen’s income of around £72 to every adult in Britain regardless of wealth and existing income, which would cost the Treasury around £280bn.

One longstanding criticism of basic income is that it would provide  payments to citizens that are already very wealthy, perpetuating social inequality, and wasting resources. Another is that it does not take into account the long-term impacts and provide adequate support for those who cannot work, such as those who are ill and disabled. Such detail matters very much, and we must not allow basic income to be used as an excuse for dismantling essential welfare support for social groups that need long-term aid to survive.

The CIT added that if the policy was applied without a means-tested component, then poorer households would end up receiving far less in state benefits than they would under the existing system. 

However, one of the strongest arguments for basic income is that people would no longer be compelled to work in order to meet their basic needs. This means that employers would find it difficult to exploit workers, and would be pushed to offer decent wages, good terms and employment conditions in order to attract workers. People would have greater freedom to pursue meaningful, suitable and appropriate employment rather than having to take any job to avoid poverty and destitution. De-commodifying labor by decoupling work from income liberates people from the “tyranny of wage slavery” and leaves a space for innovation, creativitity and rebalances power relationships between wealthy, profit-motivated employers and employees.

It seems that the idea of basic income is gaining support. Reform Scotland, an independent non-party think tank, also propose in their recent report – The Basic Income Guaranteethat  the current work-related benefits system is replaced with a new Basic Income Guarantee (BIG).

However, despite claims that the think tank is independent of political parties, Reform Scotland is a public policy institute which works to promote increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the libertarian paternalist notions and Conservative principles of limited government and personal responsibility. Reform Scotland is funded by donations from private individuals, charitable trusts and corporate organisations.

The calculations used in the report imply that a Basic Income Guarantee would cost more initially to implement, but the think tank argue that there are strong arguments (which are couched in Conservative terms) to suggest that it would lead to “changed behaviour” and “a bigger workforce.” The think tank proposes that there remains a “disincentive” to work (the so-called “welfare trap”) which is caused by the high level of marginal taxes faced by those moving into work or increasing their hours. In their report, Reform Scotland say: “Our conclusion is that the benefits system should protect the unemployed and under-employed but at the same time must reduce – and ideally remove – any disincentives to take work, particularly part-time work. The manifest failing of the present system is the cash penalty many face when they take a job.”

Reform Scotland is proposing a Basic Income Guarantee which is paid to all working-age adults and children, whether in or out of work. All earnings would be taxed, but the basic income would never be withdrawn, meaning that “work would always pay.”

The think tank argues that radical reform of the current welfare system is required and that a Basic Income Guarantee is the best way forward. This would give every working-age person a basic income from the state of £5,200 per year, and every child £2,600.  The income would be a right of citizenship and would be the same regardless of income or gender. It would be non-means tested and would not increase or decrease as someone’s income changes, thereby removing the need for the associated bureaucracy.

The Basic Income Guarantee would replace a number of means-tested work related benefits, as well as child benefit, and would be a new way of providing a social safety net.

Welfare spending on working-age people has decreased since 2010, and the report highlights a context of the rising costs of pensions, and of £207.6 billion spent on welfare in 2014/15, £114 billion was in relation to pensioners. Of this, about £93 billion is made up by the state pension and pensioner credit. The Reform Scotland proposals therefore relate to the remaining  £93.6 billion, spent on working-age adults and children.

The report, written by former Scottish Green Party Head of Media, James Mackenzie, and former Scottish Liberal Democrat Policy Convener, Siobhan Mathers, in conjunction with Geoff Mawdsley and Alison Payne of Reform Scotland, seeks to promote informed debate of this idea by examining what the level of the basic income might be and how much implementing it would cost.

Reform Scotland’s report also calls for a single department to be responsible for welfare payments, ending the current split between HMRC and the DWP.

Commenting on the report, author James Mackenzie, former Scottish Green Party Head of Media, said: Basic income is one of those ideas that should appeal right across the political spectrum. When I was unemployed I remember having to think hard about whether to accept part time or short-term work because of the impact on my income. We should be making it easier for people to work who can and who want to, not penalising them. Basic income does just that, as well as helping those who have caring responsibilities, or who want to volunteer or study. 

There’s a resurgence of interest in the idea around the world, especially in Europe, with proposals being considered in Switzerland, Holland, France and elsewhere. The principle is the same everywhere, but policy makers need to know more about the practicalities. Now, for the first time, we are providing some detailed information about how it could work in Scotland, either after independence or after the devolution of the necessary powers.”

Co-author Siobhan Mathers, Reform Scotland advisory board member and former Scottish Liberal Democrat Policy Convener said: “There is a great opportunity for Scotland to design a welfare system that best suits its needs in the 21st Century. We could leave behind the unnecessary complexity of the UK system and provide a fair Basic Income Guarantee for all. This would make any transitions in and out of work more manageable and provide a clear, fair safety net for all.”

We have seen an unprecedented increase in a dark, unaccountable bureacracy this past five years, with private companies such as Atos, Maximus, and the likes of A4E and other private welfare-for-work providers marking the increased conditionality of welfare support – for both out of work support, and soon, for support paid to those in low paid and part-time work.

Conservative inclination has been towards substantially raising the (increasingly privatised and for profit) administrative costs of welfare, whilst at the same time radically reducing the lifeline benefits for people needing support for meeting basic needs.

Conservatives may well raise the “something for nothing” objection to basic income, which is founded on the absurd idea that the only way people may contribute to society is through paid labor.

Yet non-remunerated activities such as bringing up children, caring for elderly or sick and disabled relatives, supporting vulnerable neighbours, community work, volunteering for charities or investing time and effort in other voluntary endeavours such as contributions to the arts, sharing knowledge, education, writing, are all clearly valuable contributions to society. But these skills and activities have been steadily devalued, whilst providing an increasingly disposable (“flexible”) labor force is seen by the Conservatives as somehow fulfilling the best of our potential.

Reform Scotland has previously argued, when putting forward its Devolution Plus proposals, that there is plenty of logic behind bringing together the policy areas associated with alleviating poverty that are currently devolved, such as social inclusion and housing, with benefit provision, which remains reserved. This would help to provide a more coherent approach to tackling poverty and inequality.

The debate on this issue will, no doubt, continue in the years to come.

 

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Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

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National Audit Office (NAO) is currently undertaking a study of benefit sanctions, in order to:

“… examine whether the Department for Work and Pensions is achieving value for money from its administration of benefit sanctions. This includes how benefit sanctions fit with the intended aims and outcomes of DWP’s wider working age employment policy, whether sanctions are being implemented in line with policy and whether use of sanctions is leading to the intended outcomes for claimants.”

I wrote two days ago about the Department for Work and Pensions document about the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) they are currently conducting regarding in-work “progression.” The document was a submission 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 Department for Work and Pensions claim that the Trial 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 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 is 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 serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct.

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 to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

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 a detrimental and 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, causing death.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The reconceptualision of poverty makes it much more difficult to define and very difficult to 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, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent. This turns democracy completely on its head. Policies are meant to meet public needs, rather than being used simply as tools of government to have the public meet ideologically-determined government outcomes.

This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It 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.

It’s clear that the government intends to continue embedding sanctions in policies which were meant to provide a minimal income for people needing support. This is policy based entirely on ideology and traditional Conservative prejudice, aimed at punishing sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers, inflicting conditions of hardship, distress and absolute poverty on those social groups. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.

It’s important that we gather and present as much evidence as possible about the detrimental impact of welfare sanctions. The NAO study will run until the Autumn, so that gives us some time to have our say about our own experiences.

It is easy to make a submission to the study. Just go to the contact page and select welfare and benefits as the topic, and write “FAO Colin Ross” or “Max Tse” in the subject field. Alternatively,  you can email Colin Ross, the audit manager, directly at Colin.ROSS@nao.gsi.gov.uk

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. If we can’t meet our basic physiological needs, it isn’t likely that we will be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs.

Related

We would like to hear your stories about how the cuts have affected you and your service. We want the wider public and politicians to understand the real life costs of public sector cuts. It can be hard to speak up alone, so we are collating everyone’s stories – together we have more power and a louder voice. We all have stories of frustration, fear and anger, so please use this as a way to tell the world about how the cuts have impacted on you and/or the people you work with. We are interested in stories from everyone who works in, uses, or needs Psychology services:

Psychologists Against Austerity campaign – call for evidence

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

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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The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

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The Department for Work and Pensions has 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.” 

So please share widely.

The Department for Work and Pensions claim that the Trial 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 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 serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct. It’s also very worrying that this intervention is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) have issued a code of ethics in psychology that provides guidelines for the conduct of research. Some of the more important and pertinent ethical considerations are as follows:

Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information relating to:

• A statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.

• Purpose of the research.

• Procedures involved in the research.

All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.

• Subjects’ right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.

Protection of Participants

Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants.

Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. Withdrawing lifeline support that is calculated to meet the costs of only minimum requirements for basic survival – food, fuel and shelter – as a punishment for non-compliance WILL INVARIABLY cause distress, harm and loss of dignity for the subjects that are coerced into participating in this Trial. Participants should be able to leave a study at any time if they feel uncomfortable.

The Economic and Social Research Council has recently issued a new research ethics framework, and the website has lots of useful guidance that is also worth referring to.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting behavioural research interventions.

Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

Unfortunately there is nothing to prevent a government from deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. It is not appropriate to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example.

Some background

I wrote last year about the Work and Pensions Committee’s in-work progression in Universal Credit inquiry. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) intends to establish an “in-work service”, designed to encourage individual Universal Credit claimants on very low earnings to increase their income. Benefit payments may be stopped if claimants fail to take action as required by the DWP. The DWP is conducting a range of pilots to test different approaches but there is very little detail about these. The new regime might eventually apply to around one million people.

We really must challenge the Conservative’s use of words such as “encourage” and “support” and generally deceptive language use in the context of what are, after all, extremely punitive, coercive  policies.

I wrote a statement at the time regarding my own submission to the inquiry, prompted by Frank Field’s spectacularly misguided and conservative statement. Here are a few of the issues and concerns I raised: 

Field refered to the Conservative “welfare dependency” myth, yet there has never been any empirical evidence to support the claims of the existence of a “culture of dependency” and that’s despite the dogged research conducted by Keith Joseph some years ago, when he made similar claims.

In fact, a recent international study of social safety nets from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists categorically 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 programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programmes discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependencydiverts us from political discrimation via policies, increasing inequality, and it serves to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens, normalising prejudice and resetting social norm defaults that then permit the state to target protected social groups for further punitive and “cost-cutting” interventions to “incentivise” them towards “behavioural change.”

Furthermore, Welfare-to-Work programmes do not “help” people to find jobs, because they don’t address exploitative employers, structural problems, such as access to opportunity and resources and labour market constraints. Work programmes are not just a failure here in the UK, but also in other countries, where the programmes have run extensively over at least 15 years, such as Australia.

Welfare-to-work programes are intimately connected with the sanctioning regime, aimed at punishing people claiming welfare support. 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.

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 characterisations and the ascribed responsiblisation of social problems such as poverty, using quack psychology and pseudoscience. However, it is socioeconomic conditions which lead to deprivation of opportunities, and that outcome is undoubtedly a direct consequence of inadequate and discriminatory political decision-making and policy.

It’s worth bearing in mind that 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. 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 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.

In-work conditionality enforces 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 significant 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.

The government intends to continue formulating policies which will punish sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.

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Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work

Maslow

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

A summary

The Conservative-led welfare “reforms” had the stated aim of ensuring that benefit claimants – who have been stigmatised and inaccurately redefined as economic free-riders are entitled to a minimum income provided that they uphold responsibilities, which entail being pushed into any available work. Conditionality for social security has been around as long as the welfare state. Eligibility criteria have always been an intrinsic part of the benefits 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 welfare 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 rigid 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 compliance.  In short, welfare has become a hostile environment, designed specifically to deter claims for support.

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 to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

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 a detrimental and 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, causing death.

I’ve always felt that it is self evident – common sense – that if people are already claiming financial assistance which was designed to meet only very basic needs, such as provision for food, fuel and shelter, then imposing further financial penalities would simply reduce those people to a struggle for basic survival, which will inevitably demotivate them and stifle their potential.

However, the current government demand an empirical rigour from those presenting 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 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 research and inquiry.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The partisan reconceptualision of poverty makes it much harder to define and very difficult to 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, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent.

This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It 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.

I want to discuss two further considerations to add to the 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 states.

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 nudge” and libertarian paternalism) which is itself ideologically premised.

I also explored in depth how sanctions and workfare arose from and were justified by nudge theory, which is now institutionalised and deeply embedded in Conservative policy-making. Sanctions entail the manipulation of a specific theoretical cognitive bias called loss aversion.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely 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.

I reviewed research and explored existing empirical evidence regarding the negative impacts of food poverty on physical health, motivation and mental health. In particular, I focussed on the Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment and linked the study findings with Abraham Maslow’s central idea about cognitive priority, which is embedded in the iconic hierarchy of needs pyramid. Maslow’s central proposition is verified by empirical evidence from the Minnesota Experiment.

The Minnesota Experiment explored the physical impacts of hunger in depth, but also studied the effects on attitude, cognitive and social functioning and the behaviour patterns of those who have experienced semistarvation. The experiment highlighted a marked loss of ambition, self-discipline, motivation and willpower amongst the subjects once food deprivation commenced. There was a marked flattening of affect, and in the absence of other emotions, Doctor Ancel Keys observed the resignation and submission that hunger 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.

The experiment highlighted very clearly that there’s 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.

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 work. Abraham Maslow’s humanist account of motivation also highlights the same connection between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats.

Ancel Keys published a 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 has 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.

I also explored the link between deprivation and an increased 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.)

There is no evidence that keeping benefits at below subsistence level or imposing punitive sanctions “incentivises” people to work and 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.

Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in developing countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” purposefully diverts us from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and disperses public sympathies towards the poorest citizens.

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.

Minnes

 The Minnesota semistarvation experiment

This is a summary of a much longer, detailed piece of research and review work about welfare sanctions. You can see the original here

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 and hypoglycaemia: 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

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

 

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

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

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

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

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

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

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

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

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Independent article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

behavchange.jpg

Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

cogs

“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

Normalising state punishment 

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual pathologies 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. These state interventions are justified by the construction and mediation of stigma, which is directed at already marginalised social groups that the policies target. The groups, which include sick and disabled people, people who are unemployed, are painted with a Malthusian brush, as a  “burden on the state” and a drain on what are politically portrayed and publicly seen as scarce resources in an era of austerity. Political processes of scapegoating, stigmatisation and outgrouping have been amplified by a largely complicit UK corporate media. 

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative and new political and economic responses. Behavioural economics theories, which “nudge” is a part of, for example, are aimed at “changing the behaviours” of citizens perceived to “make the wrong choices” – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly “broken society” and to restore a country that “lives within its means”, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on “economic competitiveness” in a “global race.”  

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter: it has been politically reduced and is explained as a private, internal characteristic of disadvantaged individuals, rather than it being an inevitable feature of a socioeconomic form of organisation founded on competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it, making disadvantage the private and sole responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach to changing citizen’s behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes. 

Institutions structure political struggles, they provide models, schemas and scripts for citizen’s behaviours. Bureaucratic norms within the welfare state have become increasingly about moral rectification. Debate about addressing structural inequality and poverty has been transformed into political rhetoric about behavioural incentives to change what are deemed to be poor people’s biased attitudes, cognitive deficits and faulty actions. Apparently, wealthy people don’t have these flaws. 

Welfare dependency is now a synonym for poverty, with its perceived dimensions of moral/psychological dependency accepted as a character “trait” or a “personality disorder.”  The sociopolitical relations of subordination, exploitation and economic organisation that were hidden within the discourse of “dependency” have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. 

Context

Narratives about social security in the UK that emphasise a deepening of neoliberalisation became particularly virulent in the context of the global economic crash, which raised threats to the New Right neoliberal hegemony.

In August 2008, James Purnell, then Work and Pensions secretary, ordered a review of welfare to cut costs. The review explored how behavioural economics (nudge) may be used to “motivate” those claiming  welfare support and to establish what the “right conditions” are for the long-term unemployed or to deal with those thought to be “abusing the system.”

The review also addressed issues such as how people’s aversion to loss could be used to reduce the claimant count, which included consideration of the loss of high regard in the community; respect for legitimate authority; reciprocity – including a sense of obligation to give something back – and finally, “social proof” (using normative setting) – responding to the behaviour of others, such as their successful search for work.

Following some targeted survey work carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions, it was claimed that more than half of claimants say they are more likely to look for work because of the threat of sanctions. It was also suggested that attaching more stringent conditions to welfare could draw on the then latest British interest in nudge economics, and the “hidden art of persuasion.” This took place in a context of other European countries and the US exploring similar radical welfare reforms. (See also: Experiments on Unemployment Benefit Sanctions and Job Search Behaviour, 2004).

However, the direct evidence on the impact of sanctions largely concerns how it affected the compliance; rule-following job seeking behaviour and employment rates of those who have actually experienced or been formally warned of a sanction. However, how “employment rates” are actually measured poses a problem, as, in the UK, an outcome of employment is assumed if someone’s claim is closed.

Several US studies have used high quality designs to analyse differences in post-welfare outcomes and found that, on average, those who are sanctioned out of the welfare system are less likely to enter employment than those who leave for other reasons. Sanctioned welfare leavers are more likely to experience severe hardship and some become disconnected from income and other support systems.

Purnell resigned in 2009, as Gordon Brown refused to implement his neoliberal welfare proposals. The Nudge Unit was established and formally instituted as part of the Cabinet in 2010, under Cameron’s coalition government.

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Nudge Unit – the Behavioural Insights Team – particularly its insidious and malevolent influence on the range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are now being imposed on the poorest citizens. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (See: Employing BELIEF:Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

The Conservatives have claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and harsh conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” and “incentivising” people to find work, highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of structural constraints; labor market conditions, exclusion from acceptable living standards because of cuts to income and rising living costs, bad political decision-making and subsequent policy-shaped socioeconomic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed more than one manipulated semantic shift, words like “fair” , “support” , “reform” , “responsibility”, “opportunities” and “help” , for example, have become embedded in a narrative of superficial  Glittering Generalities – part of a lexicon of persuasion and precarious psychosemantics that simply prop up Tory ideology  – an idiom of belief – in an endlessly erroneous, irrational and self-referential way.

The problem is that the power of a system of such implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is entirely due to the circularity  and self-perpetuating nature of such systems, as Iain Duncan Smith, who stands firmly within this idiom, consistently demonstrates only too well. After being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority (ONS) for his claim that his policies have “forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work” in 2013, he was informed politely that this wasn’t empirically evidenced – his claim could not be proven with his statistics. His response was: “I have a belief that I am right […] you cannot disprove what I said.” His “theory” tells him what he may observe.

There is a gulf between the rhetoric and empirical evidence on benefit sanctions. The evidence base is both small and limited in its scope, and it does not accommodate the differing approaches to preventing poverty and promoting opportunity that arise in international policy design. Increased welfare conditionality and sanctions are too narrowly based on a rhetoric of moral(ising) philosophy, and takes a highly selective approach evidence.

Iain Duncan Smith is the expert Tory pop-psychologist, fluent in psychobabble words like “incentivise” and “behavioural change” and whilst he demands rigorous research standards from academics and his critics, he doesn’t ever uphold those same standards himself.

If you “just know” you’re right, then does it matter if you regularly make up the evidence to support your mighty powers of New Right and very neoliberal intuitions?  It ought to, and it would if Conservative policy was genuinely based on meeting public needs, evidence and objective measures of effectiveness, rather than being based on prejudice and political expediency.

Words like “fair” and “help” now signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative discourse. Nudge permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The Conservatives have orchestrated semantic shifts which reflect neoliberal values and reference a distinctive New Right ideological repertoire, from which is constructed basic pseudo-scientific justification narratives, asserting that people claiming welfare do so, as I said previously, because of “faulty” personal characteristics and various types of cognitive incompetence and laziness. In short, the government have pathologised and stigmatised unemployment, redefining it as a psychological disorder.

The government have also problematised welfare, based on the absurd New Right idea that financial support when people really need it somehow creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support, justice and opportunities: social insurance and security

The government have adopted a strongly disciplinarian approach to structural problems such as poverty, using narratives that are strikingly reminiscent of the attitudes and values that shaped the extremely punitive and ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law amendment act.

The post-war welfare state is founded on the idea that government plays a key role in ensuring the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and both political and social responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for health and wellbeing.

Restricting choices to “choice”

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution.

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

Last year I wrote about the connection between the Nudge Unit’s pseudoscientific obsession with manipulating people’s decision-making by utilising various cognitive bias theories – in this case, particularly, the behavioural economic theory of loss aversion and the increased use and severity of benefit sanctions. Though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or about persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time. Nudge is at the very heart of the New  Right’s neo-behaviourist turn, which entails the application of operant conditioning to individualise and privatise social problems such as inequality and poverty. 

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about loss aversion, on page 7.

And this 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,” 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 that page: 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 duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as disabled people.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical behaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and compliant to the needs of  the “choice architects” and policy-makers. Nudge in this context is nothing more than a prop for austerity, neoliberalism and social conservatism.

It is all-pervasive, nudge permeates political rhetoric and discursive practices. Words like “help” and “support” disguise coercive and punitive state actions. Bland language is used to normalise inequality and discriminatory political practices. The word “incentivise,” for example, is used a lot by the Conservatives, but to wealthy people, it means financial privileges in the form of tax cuts and privatised wealth, and to poor people, it means having lifeline income taken away by the state. 

Deploying behavioural modification techniques (and without the public’s consent) marginalises political discussion, stifles public debate, sidesteps democratic dialogue, problem-solving, criticism and challenges and forecloses the possibility of social justice considerations.

Furthermore, an individual’s autonomy, which is also the basis of his or her dignity, as a person, is worthy of protection and should not be interfered with by any kind of behavioural modification, “nudge” or otherwise. Nor should removing people’s lifeline income designed to meet only basic survival needs ever be withdrawn as a state “correction” and punishment.

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

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

In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the  transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of the impacts of such policies .

The theory tells you what you may observe

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 and secure employment.

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% 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.

Studies have shown that being “treated” by at least one “stick” (punitive measure) significantly reduces an individual’s earnings after periods of unemployment; on the other hand, participating in a supportive programme affects earnings positively.

 Treatment and policy regime effects of Carrots and Sticks, in % of average earnings

 Effects are expressed in percent of average monthly earnings within 3.5 years after unemployment (3547 CHF = 3290 EUR = 3575 USD in sample). Treatment effects: effects of being exposed to at least one carrot (job search assistance, training) or stick (sanction, workfare programme).

Source: Arni, P, Lalive, R, and G J van den Berg (2015) “Treatment versus regime effects of Carrots and Sticks”, IZA Discussion Paper 9457.

It’s remarkably difficult to reconcile state imposed responsibilities that illiberally target only one social group, with democracy and universal human rights, which are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy.

We ought to question the claim that the manipulation of public decision-making to cut costs to the state is in our “best interests.” Who is nudging the nudgers, and  clearly they have their own whopping great “cognitive biases.”

Behavioural modification techniques are particularly prone to abuse because they are very effective – all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists – and such techniques represent, because of the range of subtle to threatening methods in which they exercise control and can elicit compliance, a political tool that is difficult to observe, challenge and control.

It’s also worth noting that the application of nudge is entirely experimental and nonconsenusal. For the record, when a government in a so called first world liberal democracy – that are generally expected to recognise and address public needs – decides to act upon citizens to change their behaviours to meet partisan, ideologically directed outcomes, we tend to call that authoritarianism, not nudge.

If it wasn’t for this government’s “behaviourist turn” and psychosemantic approach to the inequality and poverty that their policies tend to extend, the Department for Work and Pensions would have been renamed “The Department for Punitive State Correction and Neoliberal Behaviour Modification Experiments.” 

Nudge. It’s become another clever little euphemism. 
gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1From the Ministry of euphemism and semantic thrifts, 1984th edition

I wrote much of this as part of a considerably longer piece, but felt that this particular point and the evidence regarding the intensification of sanctions was lost in the weight of other important issues raised in the original article: The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can help by making a donation and help me continue to research and write free, 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”

behavchange

“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.

 

web-earnings-graphic

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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