Tag: Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Universal Discredit

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, travelled across the country to examine the impact of austerity. He came to Newcastle, visiting a West End foodbank, among other places. He concluded that Universal Credit and other ‘reforms’ are “entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery.” According to his research, 14 million people – a fifth of the population – live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basics essentials. Alston said: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.” 

Universal Credit has been designed to change the relationship between the state and citizens. It is about altering the public’s expectations of the role of government. It is about deepening targeted austerity. It is also about cutting social security and dismantling the welfare state. 

The one-off £10 payment, which was designed to be an extra boost to families over the festive period, has been axed under Universal Credit, which demonstrates very well what kind of “mean spirited” intentions went into the design of system. I rang the Department for Work and Pensions press office to confirm this and it was affirmed that the cut has happened. A spokesperson said: “Universal Credit claimants have never received a one-off December payment, but many disabled people on Universal Credit will be better off on average by £100 month than when they received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

Yesterday, someone I know through social media sent me a copy of a notice they got when they logged onto the Universal Credit system. It said: Image may contain: text

So, if an employer pays his employees early in December due to the Christmas holiday period or pays a Christmas bonus, people may well receive a reduced Universal Credit payment in December or none at all. This is due the fact that the unadaptable system cannot cope with people being paid twice in one assessment period, even though it isn’t an additional payment, it is simply an early payment. 

Judicial reviews

The controversial Universal Credit programme is to undergo another legal challenge at the High Court in London, as evidence mounts further that the new social security system will leave thousands of people already on low incomes significantly worse off. Four women are taking the government to court because of this reason.

This is the second judicial review of Universal Credit. It follows the High Court’s finding in June that the Universal Credit system was unlawfully discriminating against severely disabled people. Those who had qualified for the support component of income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are also eligible for a disability premium.  However, as a result of the abolition of both the severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP) under Universal Credit rules, according to the disability charity, Scope, the cut to the disability income guarantee will see disabled people lose as much as £395 a month

The high court judge ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions unlawfully discriminated against two severely disabled men who both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they moved Local Authority – one of them because of the bedroom tax – and were required to claim Universal Credit. The court found that the implementation of Universal Credit and the absence of any ‘top up’ payments for this vulnerable group as compared to others constitutes discrimination contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since the court case, Esther McVey, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, announced that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto Universal Credit until transitional protection is in place. She also committed to compensating those like the two claimants who have lost out on their disability premium because they had to claim Universal Credit.

Yet despite this, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was “nothing unlawful” with the way the claimants were treated.

The second judicial review comes amid mounting concern over Universal Credit, which academics have described as a “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” system pushing people into debt and rent arrears. 

Last week it emerged that more than half of people denied Universal Credit were found to be entitled to it when their cases were investigated, prompting fresh demands for the national rollout of the new system to be halted. It’s something of an irony, given that Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 with the stated intention of bringing “fairness and simplicity” to Britain’s social security system.

Now, four plaintiffs say the flaw, which relates to the way Universal Credit monthly payments are calculated, disproportionately affects working parents with children and leaves claimants with a “dramatically fluctuating income” and unable to budget from month to month.

In one case uncovered by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) reported by The Guardian, a family’s monthly payment swung from £1,185 to zero, making budgeting impossible. One of the women has said that as well as being irrational, the payment system is also discriminatory as it disproportionately affects single parents, who are predominantly female. Last month, MP Frank Field said the system was driving some women in his constituency into sex work in a bid to avoid absolute poverty.

A single mother says she was forced to turn down a promotion and use a food bank after issues with the assessment period for the new benefit system made it “impossible to budget”.  

She said: “I invested £40,000 in higher education studies so that I could become an occupational therapist and it’s great that I’ve got my degree but I have had to put my career hopes on hold because of Universal Credit.  

“I had to go to a food bank and I took out an advance that I am still paying back. I took two jobs – as a PA and a waitress – which I could do without the education I invested in but which had paydays which don’t clash with my assessment period. I wanted to become free of welfare through my chosen profession but Universal Credit is holding me back from that.” 

Although she had originally wanted a healthcare job, which was relevant to her degree and would move her nearer earnings that would eventually take her out of the social security system altogether, she found that the NHS and other health organisations mostly paid salaries at the end of the working month so she would face the same assessment period trap. 

She left the council and initially took two part time jobs, and she now has one part time job.

Her solicitor, Carla Clarke of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said: “Universal Credit is promoted as a benefit that ‘incentivises’ work but in practice its rigid assessment period system undercuts that claim. 

“Our clients have been left repeatedly without money for family essentials simply because of the date of their paydays.

“One of them, for example, did her utmost to find a workaround but ultimately had to decline a promotion in a job with good prospects when her then contract came to an end just to escape the trap.

“We say that the DWP’s refusal to alter our clients’ assessment period dates to avoid this problem discriminates against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being irrational and undermining one of the stated purposes of universal credit – to make sure that ‘work always pays’.”

CPAG argues that the DWP refusal to alter Woods’ assessment period dates to avoid the problem discriminated against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being “irrational and undermining.” 

Clarke added “This is a fundamental defect in Universal Credit and an injustice to hard-working parents and their children that must be put right for our clients and everyone else affected”.

Another of the women involved in the court case is paid by her employer on the last working day of each month. However, the Universal Credit assessment periods run from the last day of each month, meaning that if she is paid before the last day of the month she is assessed as having been paid twice that month.

Lawyers from the legal firm supporting  Johnson at LeighDay, say: “This has resulted in her receiving fluctuating Universal Credit payments throughout the year, making it very hard to budget from one month to the next.”

They add: “It has also caused her to be around £500 worse off annually due to the fact that she is entitled to ‘work allowance’ as a parent.

“The work allowance is a disregard of £198 per month of a parent’s monthly earnings so in months where she is treated as having no earned income, she loses the whole benefit of the work allowance. In months where she is treated as having double income, she does not receive any extra work allowance.”

Legal aid for social security appeals is almost entirely gone. People adversely affected by unfair decisions are effectively being denied support in accessing justice. It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a planned and coordinated attack on people’s most basic human and democratic rights. 

Universal Credit increases and extends the risk of domestic abuse

Couples who live together are required to make a single household claim for Universal Credit. Their individual entitlements are calculated—based on household income—and combined into a single payment, paid into one account only. In December 2017, 55,000 couple households, including 40,000 with dependent children, were claiming Universal Credit. Once it is fully rolled out, around 2.9 million couple households will claim it. MPs have warned that Universal Credit increases the risk of allowing domestic abusers to exert financial control over victims. 

A critical report by the Work and Pensions committee in August said the way Universal Credit is paid per household means that perpetrators could too easily take control of the entire budget, leaving vulnerable women and their children dependent on an abusive partner to survive. Frank Field, Labour chair of the committee, said: “This is not the 1950s. Men and women work independently, pay taxes as individuals, and should each have an independent income.

“Not only does Universal Credit’s single household payment bear no relation to the world of work, it is out of step with modern life and turns back the clock on decades of hard-won equality for women.”

He added “The government must acknowledge the increased risk of harm to claimants living with domestic abuse it creates by breaching that basic principle, and take the necessary steps to reduce it.”

Ministers were urged by the committee to consider overhauling the system so payments are automatically split between couples, as victims face “great danger” if they request their own payments under current rules.

The report said: “Universal Credit currently only allows claims to be split between partners in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

“The DWP itself recognises the risk that requesting such an arrangement poses to survivors. The perpetrator will realise the survivor has requested the split when their own payments fall, potentially putting them in great danger.

“In light of this risk, many survivors simply will not request a split.”

The committee also suggested the main carer of children should automatically receive the whole payment, while officials explore ways to develop a split payment scheme. JobCentres must set aside private rooms for vulnerable claimants and appoint a domestic violence specialist to deal with specific claims, the report also said.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We have long been warning that Universal Credit risks making the domestic abuse worse for survivors and putting an additional barrier in the way of them escaping the abuse.

“That’s why we welcome the committee’s report and urge the government to take action to make Universal Credit safe for survivors.

“We know from our work with survivors that abusers will exploit single household payments, yet applying for a split payment can also be dangerous. If the abuser finds out that a survivor has made an application, she may be at further risk.”

Domestic abuse is hugely complex, and the training Work Coaches currently receive leaves them ill-equipped to perform this vital function. Under Universal Credit, claimants living with domestic abuse can face seeing their entire monthly income—including money meant for their children—go into their abusive partner’s account. There is no guarantee that any of the money they need to live or care for their children will reach them. That risks them remaining dependent on their abusive partner and making it much harder for them to leave, should the opportunity present itself.

Yet the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation which requires the Scottish Government to introduce split payments by default.

Universal Credit is perpetuating gender inequality – an issue that the Equality and Human Rights Commission have also raised concerns about. If money is paid into an abuser’s account, that compromises a woman’s financial autonomy. Their recent report recommends:

  • offering Universal Credit as single payments to individuals rather than joint payments to avoid exacerbating financial abuse for women experiencing domestic violence
  • reconsidering the ‘spare room subsidy’ regulations which discriminate against survivors of domestic abuse who have safe rooms.

But the government justifies the policy by claiming that few couples manage their finances separately. They argue that paying one benefit into a single bank account means families can make decisions about their household finances without government interference. However, this assessment ignores the realities of women trapped in controlling relationships.

Two child policy – regarding children as a commodity, and some say, eugenics by stealth

This policy restricts support through means-tested family benefits to two children only and affects the child tax credit payable for all third or subsequent children born after April 2017 and all new claims for Universal Credit, whenever they were born. In doing so, the two-child policy breaks the fundamental link between need and the provision of minimum support and implies that some children, by virtue of their birth order, are less deserving of support. It is a very large direct cut to the living standards of the poorest families of up to £2780 per child, per year.

In 2015/16 — the latest year for which data is available — 27 per cent of households with children had more than two children, representing more than 1 in 3 children in poverty (after housing costs). The risk of poverty is already 39 per cent for households (after housing costs) with three or more children compared with 26 per cent for one- and 27 per cent for two-child families. The most recent statistics reveal that during the first year of operation, 59% of the 73,500 families who lost financial support for a third child were in work. Nine per cent of UK claimant households with three or more children were affected.

A number of groups in the population are particularly likely to be hard hit by the policy, including Orthodox Jews, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families, and Roman Catholics. It will also hit large families bereaved by the loss of  a parent, divorced families, and all large families falling upon hard times and needing to claim means-tested support.

Originally there were no intentions to make exceptions to the two-child policy, but the government was forced to make concessions for, among others, third and subsequent children under kinship care and those conceived as a result of rape — which in itself forces highly sensitive disclosure. A number of women’s rights and rape support organisations have raised serious concerns about the third-party evidence model for the rape/coercion exception and the risk that women claiming this exception will be exposed to further trauma and gross breaches of privacy.

The so-called rape clause has been condemned by campaigners, who say it is outrageous that a woman must account for the circumstances of her rape to qualify for support. The SNP MP Alison Thewliss called it “one of the most inhumane and barbaric policies ever to emanate from Whitehall”.

A government spokesperson said: “The policy to provide support in child tax credit and universal credit for a maximum of two children ensures people on benefits have to make the same financial choices as those supporting themselves solely through work.

The rationale for the two-child limit was to reduce the deficit by £1.36 billion per year by 2020/21. But the government also sought to justify it on the basis that they are hoping to ‘change behaviours’ — hoping to ‘encourage parents to reflect carefully on their readiness to support an additional child’. Yet, the savings to be made from the policy are quite modest in the context of the austerity cuts of £27 billion per year since 2010.

The rollout of Universal Credit will increase the number of families affected. All new claims for the benefit after February 2019 will have the child element restricted to two children in a family, even if they were born before the policy was introduced.

The government estimated 640,000 families will lose support as a direct result of the proposed changes. The Children’s Society estimate that the total loss of a child element plus the family element of child tax credit will mean that a family with three children will lose up to £3,325 per year. A family with four children will lose up to £6100. Troublingly, disabled children will also be affected by this measure on top of the major cuts in children’s disability support through Universal Credit.

Jamie Grier, the development director at the welfare advice charity Turn2us, has spoken out about mothers in low income families faced with the agonising choice of terminating wanted pregnancies already, because of their financial circumstances.

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child PovertyAction Group, said: “An estimated one in six UK children will be living in a family affected by the two-child limit once the policy has had its full impact. It’s a pernicious, poverty-producing policy.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has projected that 600,000 more children will live in absolute child poverty by 2020/21 compared with 2015/16 — all of them in families with three or more children. The absolute child poverty rate is to increase over that period from 15.1 per cent to 18.3 per cent. The two-child limit accounts for around a third of this impact. Absolute poverty is when people can’t meet one or more of their basic survival needs.

The policy is extremely likely to contravene human rights treaties to which the UK is a signatory, including those relating to women’s reproductive rights and protection from religious and gender-based discrimination contrary to Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

It would also discriminate against groups with a conscientious objection to contraception and abortion, or for whom large families are a central tenet of faith, in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, it fails to give primary consideration to the best interest of the child in contravention of Article 3(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised a specific concern about the effect of cuts to social security on the standard of living enjoyed by families with two or more children in the Concluding Observations of its recent review of the UK’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The policy is going to be challenged in the courts on discrimination grounds and may well reach the Supreme Court and European Court of Justice. 

Context and policy intent

Universal credit is the controversal reform of the social security system, rolling together six so-called “legacy” benefits (including unemployment benefit, employment and tax credits and housing benefit) into one benefit paid monthly to claimants, to “make work pay.”

However, at a time of stagnant wages and ever-increasing living costs, the government slogan ‘making work pay’ is certainly not about a national wage increase. It’s rather more about neoliberal supply-side ideology.  Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of what are deemed ‘restrictive practices’, and labour market rigidities, such as the protection of employment and workers’ rights. For example, as part of  neoliberal supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting workers’ ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action. More recently the Conservatives have again made substantial legislative changes that undermine the role of trade unions.

Deregulation and privatisation of state industry and services are also components of supply-side economics. Supply-side measures have a negative effect on the distribution of income. For example, lower taxes rates for the wealthiest, lower wages for workers, reduced union power, and privatisation have all contributed to a widening of the gap between rich and poor citizens. Universal Credit facilitates a supply-side labour market, it coerces people into accepting low paid, insecure work. Any work.

People claiming Universal Credit do not get a say in the kind of work they take on. If people don’t comply with Universal Credit conditionality they are generally sanctioned. This entails a loss of welfare support for between four weeks and up to a maximum of three years for refusing to take a job or prescribed community work. 

Some economists argue that a lack of bargaining power because union membership has been in long term decline – is leading to fewer widespread agreements on earnings increases, which has served to  keep wages stagnant. A lack of employee confidence and certainty following the recession and fears, then, over job losses has also led to fewer demands for rises.

Given that collective bargaining has been politically undermined, it is particularly outrageous that the government has introduced sanctions for those on low pay and in work, for a failure to single handedly negotiate better pay or an increase in working  hours with their employer. 

Perhaps we should ask “making work pay” for whom?

It’s interesting that the government have outlined what Universal Credit means for employers, indicating the intent behind the policy is not about mitigating poverty. It’s about employers “having access to a more flexible and responsive workforce, which can help your business with the challenges of filling vacancies.

“Universal Credit payments automatically adjust each month based on the real time PAYE information you report to HMRC, so it’s important that you report this information accurately and on time.”

The ‘business friendly’ government says “Universal Credit increases the financial incentive of work and provides employers like you with a more flexible workforce.”

So while employers are promised a workforce that will accept more, in terms of conditions, rates of pay and job security, the same workforce is being set up to fail when trying to negotiate more pay and longer hours by the government’s ‘business friendly’ deregulation. And failure can mean facing having their Universal Credit cut via sanctions.

It does go on to say on the site that “Jobcentre Plus work coaches will encourage claimants to discuss with their employers how they can increase their chances of earning more. This could be by improving their skills which may help them to take on more responsibilities. You may find your employees asking for more hours or for help with building their skills. You can play a role in this – helping your business become more productive.”

So, employers “can” but workers “must”, despite the substantial imbalance of power, made worse by the fact that workers are being coerced into “flexibility”. That invariably means lowering their expectations of employers and of the conditions of their employment.

The publicly stated aim of Universal Credit, for which there was orginally general support across the political divide, was to simplify the welfare system, making it more “efficient” and easy to access at a single claim point. Despite these claims, many have complained that Universal Credit is bafflingly complex, unreliable and difficult to manage, particularly if you are without internet access, and that Universal Credit staff are often poorly trained. The combination of these problems is leaving people in precarious and very vulnerable circumstances.

For families and lone parents in particular, there are barriers to taking short term low paid work, as continuity of income and availability of childcare are key priorities for parents.

The Conservatives have also claimed that the new benefit will provide incentives for people to work rather than stay on benefits. Perhaps it’s worth noting that only 34% of people claiming state welfare are of working age, the majority – 66% – are people of pension age.

The government say “It is intended that by introducing a single in-work and out-of-work benefit, previous barriers to employment such as taking up temporary employment or fewer hours are removed, therefore making it easier for claimants to take up any work and changing claimant perceptions of work and welfare, and their employment behaviours, at an individual and household level.”

The Conservatives go on to claim that employment levels are at a record high, because Universal Credit is “working”. Some 80% of men are in work, the joint highest employment rate since 1991. And over 70% of women are in work, the highest employment rate since records began in 1971. But that increase is down, partly, to state pension age changes which mean fewer women are retiring between the ages of 60 and 65. 

However, as I have indicated, the structure of the employment market also matters. Zero hours contracts and hyper-flexible employment might be welcomed by some for the options they offer, but they work against collective bargaining agreements on earnings, keeping wages low. And low wages, not lack of incentives, are the reason why people need welfare support. The trade union wage gap, the difference in earnings of union members compared with non-members, is 16.9% in the public sector and 7.1% in the private sector (which employs well over 80% of people). There cannot be any genuine economic ‘bounce back’ until the UK’s decade-long stagnation in wages ends.

Universal Credit was supposedly intended as a payment to help people with living costs. It’s for those on a low income or out of work. As of February this year, the number of people on Universal Credit was 770 thousand. Of these people 300 thousand were in employment. The intention embedded in the design of Universal Credit to force up to a million low-paid workers to seek more hours or move to higher-paid jobs, under threat of financial sanctions (in-work conditionality), is another ticking bomb.

It is being introduced in stages across the country.  People claiming Universal Credit receive a single monthly household payment, paid into a bank account in the same way as a monthly salary; support with housing costs will usually go direct to the person claiming as part of their monthly payment. 

People will usually make a claim for Universal Credit online, during which initial claim verification will take place. This entails people providing evidence of their identity. However, there have been some problems highighted with the government’s verification framework. 

MP for Liverpool Walton, Dan Carden, called on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to postpone the roll-out of Universal Credit in his constituency until after Christmas and highlighted an issue with people having to pay out for a driving licence as one of many administrative problems with the new system.

In a letter to the secretary of state, Amber Rudd MP, Carden said: “We have families experiencing poverty on an unprecedented scale and now facing further avoidable hardship in the run up to Christmas. 

“I have now been informed that job centres across Liverpool are advancing payments to my constituents to obtain provisional driving licences for the purposes of identification and then deducting the cost from their benefits.

“Constituents are also having to pay for postal orders, passport photographs and postage, just to obtain provisional licences.”

He explained that the DVLA says there is a five-week wait for provisional licences, and highlighted the delays before the first payments are made when someone is transferred on to Universal Credit.

The controversial benefit is being rolled out in many parts of Liverpool this week. Carden added: “Continuing with this roll-out will leave many of the most vulnerable families in Liverpool Walton destitute by Christmas and I am therefore asking you to intervene as a matter of urgency.”

Rudd’s response was to say Carden was ‘scaremongering’, and she denied that ID was needed to claim Universal Credit. However, it seems she failed to bother checking her own government’s web site for advice and evidence. The site which outlines how to claim Universal Credit  completely contradicts Rudd’s claims, it says on the government’s site:

Amber rudd lies 1

Amber rudd lies 2

When people apply for Universal Credit they are asked to verify their identity online via the GOV.Verify service. 

To do so, you need either;

  • A valid UK driving license
  • A valid UK passport.

On the government document it says “Universal Credit cannot be paid to a claimant whose identity has not been verified. Failure to provide identity documentation means that there is no valid claim.”

Of course this creates significant problems for those without the required documents. Their Universal Credit claim cannot go ‘live’ without conforming to the ID verification framework. People generally can’t get an advance because their claim isn’t live. Once they’ve received their new ID document, (takes around 6-8 weeks usually), it’s then a further 5 weeks (at least) until their first Universal Credit payment. That’s a very long time to go without support that is intended to meet people’s most basic living needs: food, fuel and shelter. 

According to the government web site, you can only apply for an advance on your first payment if you have already verified your identity. It says:

You can apply for an advance payment in your online account or through your Jobcentre Plus work coach.

You’ll need to:

  • explain why you need an advance
  • verify your identity (you do this online when you submit your Universal Credit claim or at your first Jobcentre Plus interview)
  • provide bank account details for the advance (talk to your work coach if you cannot open an account.)

The claim date is the date that a claimant completes this process and submits their claim. After making a claim, an initial interview will take place with the claimant, where the eligibility for Universal Credit will be confirmed and the claimant will accept a Claimant Commitment. Failure to comply with the Commitment without ‘good reason’ will result in a sanction. What constitutes a ‘good reason’ unfortunately varies from area to area and even among advisors in the same building. One of the many criticisms of welfare sanctions is how arbitrary they are. Universal Credit is a far stricter regime than the previous ones, and indications are that people are being sanctioned more frequently.

The Universal Credit project was passed through legislation in 2011 under the patronage of its loudest champion, former secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith. The plan was to roll it out across the UK by 2017. However, a series of management failures, expensive IT blunders and design faults mean it has fallen at least five years behind schedule.

Under the current schedule it will be fully implemented to include about 7 million claimants by 2022-23, when it is estimated that it will account for around £63bn of spending. A substantial proportion of that is due to administration blunders. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office said “The benefits that it set out to achieve through Universal Credit, such as increased employment and lower administration costs, are unlikely to be achieved.”

The administrative cost of every Universal Credit claim is an eye-watering £699 per case against an ultimate target of just £173, others in the field are calling to stop this utter shambles now and reconsider all options. 

The Department is seriously criticised for “a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants”. Forget normal Whitehall tact, here are eight years of unrelenting failure, ploughing on despite alarms as costs rose to £2bn. One of the most urgent needs is to restore the £23bn that George Osborne cut from the budget, which is due to cause a record 37% of children in poverty by 2022, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. That’s likely to be a conservative estimate.

Despite a few minor changes, such as shortening the waiting period by a week, huge underlying problems remain with Universal Credit. Multibillion-pound cuts to work allowances imposed by the former chancellor have left it hollowed out. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, Universal Credit will leave about 2.5 million low-income working households more than £1,000 a year worse off. Reversing those cuts requires a political decision, not more tinkering around the edges and technical fixes.

Universal Credit is paid monthly, in arrears, so people have to wait one calendar month from the date they submitted their application before their first UC payment is made. This is called the assessment period. People then have to wait up to seven days for the payment to reach your bank account. That is of course providing everything goes right. 

So far, the ‘customer’ experience of Universal Credit for too many people (and other stakeholders, such as landlords) has been utterly dismal. Critics argue that Treasury cuts to the benefit mean it is now far less likely to incentivise people to move into work, or to work more hours – what the Conservatives call ‘in-work progression’. As a result of cuts, Universal Credit is significantly less generous than originally intended, leaving many claimants worse off when they move on to it than they were while claiming legacy benefits. Added to that are design flaws and administrative glitches that put poorer claimants especially at heightened risk of hunger, debt and rent arrears, ill-health and homelessness. 

Their report is intended to help the Council and partners to further develop the approach to supporting those affected by current and future welfare reforms. 

It builds on Sheffield Hallam University research published in March 2016 which suggested that welfare reforms have cost the city’s economy the equivalent of £157M per year, set to rise to £292M per year by 2020. Liverpool City Council has had a 58% cut in central government funding since 2010 and has to find another £90M in savings by 2020, is having to use around £7M of those reduced funds to help with rent top ups and crisis payments.

Liverpool Food People are part of a food insecurity sub group that reports into The Mayoral Action Group on Fairness and Tackling Poverty – food has been identified as one of the basic needs – and a recommendation within the report is that action to address food poverty and fuel poverty is coordinated across the city and that research is carried out on the level of food insecurity (both moderate and severe) across the city. 

New research conducted for Gateshead council concludes that Universal credit has become a serious threat to public health after the study revealed that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected peoples’ mental health that some considered suicide.

The researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among vulnerable citizens claiming Universal Credit, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation, all of which was exacerbated by hunger and destitution.

The Gateshead study comes as the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, prepares to publish a report of the impact of Conservative austerity in the UK. Alston has been collecting evidence and testimonies on the effects of the welfare reforms, council funding cuts, and Universal Credit during a two-week visit of the UK. 

This research is highly likely to raise fresh calls for the system’s rollout to be halted, or at the very least, paused to attempt to fix the fundamental design flaws and ensure adequate protections are in place for the most vulnerable people claiming it.

Approximately 750,000 chronically ill and disabled claimants are expected to transfer on to Universal Credit from 2019. Yet earlier this year, the first legal challenge against Universal Credit found that the government unlawfully discriminated against two men with severe disabilities who were required to claim the new benefit after moving into new local authority areas. Both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they moved to a different Local Authority and were required to claim Universal Credit instead of Employment and Support Allowance.

The study findings are yet another indication of how unfit for purpose Universal Credit is. Six of the participants in the study reported that claiming Universal Credit had made them so depressed that they considered taking their own lives. The lead researcher, Mandy Cheetham, said the participant interviews were so distressing she undertook a suicide prevention course midway through the study.

The report says: “Universal Credit is not only failing to achieve its stated aim of moving people into employment, it is punishing people to such an extent that the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, their families and of [support] staff is being undermined.”

One participant told the researchers: “When you feel like ‘I can’t feed myself, I can’t pay my electric bill, I can’t pay my rent,’ well, all you can feel is the world collapsing around you. It does a lot of damage, physically and mentally … there were points where I did think about ending my life.”

An armed forces veteran said that helplessness and despair over Universal Credit had triggered insomnia and depression, for which he was taking medication. “Universal Credit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really did sort of drag me to a low position where I don’t want to be sort of thrown into again.”

Unsurprisingly, the report concludes that Universal Credit is actively creating poverty and destitution, and says it is not fit for purpose for many people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. It calls for a radical overhaul of the system before the next phase of its rollout next year.

Alice Wiseman, the director of public health at Gateshead council, which commissioned the study, said: “I consider Universal Credit, in the context of wider austerity, as a threat to the public’s health.” She said many of her public health colleagues around the country shared her concerns.

Wiseman said that Universal Credit is “seriously undermining” efforts to prevent ill-health in one of the UK’s most deprived areas.

She added “This is not political, this is about the lives of vulnerable people in Gateshead. They are a group that should be protected but they haven’t been.”

The qualitative study focused on those claimants with disabilities, mental illness and long-term health conditions, as well as homeless people, veterans and care leavers.

The respondents found that compared to the legacy benefits, Universal Credit is less accessible, remote, inflexible, demeaning and intrusive. It was less sensitive to claimants’ health and personal circumstances, the researchers said. This heightened peoples’ anxiety, sense of shame, guilt, and feelings of loss of dignity and control.

The Universal Credit system itself was described by those claiming it as dysfunctional and prone to administrative error. People experienced the system as “hostile, punitive and difficult to navigate,” and struggled to cope with payment delays that left them in debt, unable to eat regularly, and reliant on food banks.

The government claimed that people making a new claim are expected to wait five weeks for a first payment. That’s a long time to wait with no money for basic living requirements. However, the average wait for participants on the study was seven and a half weeks, with some waiting as long as three months. Researchers were told of respondents who were so desperate and broke they turned to begging or shoplifting.

Wiseman made a point that many campaigners have made, and said that alongside the human costs, Universal Credit was placing extra burdens on NHS and social care, as well as charities such as food banks. It also affected the wellbeing of advice staff, who reported high stress levels and burnout from dealing with the fallout on those claiming the benefit.

Guy Pilkington, a GP in Newcastle said that the benefits system had always been tough, but under Universal Credit, those claiming faced a higher risk of destitution.

“For me the biggest [change] is the ease with which claimants can fall into a Victorian-style system that allows you to starve. That’s really shocking, and that’s new,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “This survey of 33 claimants doesn’t match the broader experience of more than 9,000 people receiving Universal Credit in Gateshead, who are taking advantage of its flexibility and personalised support to find work.”

“We have just announced a £4.5bn package of support so people can earn £1,000 more before their credit payment begins to be reduced, and we are providing an additional two weeks’ payments for people being moved from the old system.”

That will still leave people with nothing to live on or to cover their rent for at least three weeks. The study focused on those less likely to be able to work – people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. The DWP failed to recognise that this group have different needs and experiences than the broader population, which leave them much more likely to become vulnerable when they cannot meet their needs.

Vulnerable people are suffering great harm and some are dying because of this government’s policies. It is not appropriate to attempt to compare those peoples’ experiences with some larger group who have not died or have not yet experienced those harms. Where is the empirical evidence of these claims, anyway? Where is the DWP’s study report?

Callousness and indifference to the suffering and needs of disadvantaged citizens – disadvantaged because of discriminatory policies – has become so normalised to this government that they no longer see or care how utterly repugnant and dangerous it is.

The DWP are not ‘providing’ anything. Social security is a publicly funded safety net, paid for by the public FOR the public. It’s a reasonable expectation that citizens, most of who have worked and contributed towards welfare provision, should be able to access a system of support when they experience difficulties – that is what social security was designed to provide, so that no one in the UK need to face absolute poverty. It’s supposed to be there so that everyone can meet their basic survival needs.

What people in their time of need find instead is a system that has been redesigned to administer punishments, shame and psychological abuse. What kind of government kicks people hard when they are already down?

Universal Credit was considered the antidote for the Conservative’s ‘welfare dependency’ myth, yet there has never been any empirical evidence to support their 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. He never found any evidence despite trying very hard. Most people move in and out of work, because jobs have become increasingly precarious over the last few years. 

In fact over recent years, an 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.  Gabriel Kreindler, Benjamin Olken and colleagues 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 dependency’ diverts us from political class discrimination via policies, increasing inequality, and it serves to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens, normalising the inequality and prejudice embedded in neoliberal ideology 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.’ Outrageously, the behavioural change required by the state is that the public do not use publicly funded welfare services.

Stepping back from this, it becomes clear that the policy driver is ‘small state’, antiwelfarist neoliberal ideology. This is being propped up by pseudoscientific behavioural economic rationalisations. 

There is mounting evidence, according to local authority researchers in Liverpool, for example, that shows the actual effect is the reverse of what was claimed was intended; Universal Credit is harming the very people it was designed to support. It is forcing households into debt, causing severe poverty including to those in work, leaving too many people, including children, facing food insecurity, destitution and eviction. Liverpool council’s welfare reform cumulative impact analysis last year shows that the groups most adversely affected by the Government’s raft of ‘welfare reforms’ are the long-term sick and disabled, families with children, women, young adults and the 40-59 age group who live in social housing. 

Many working households are suffering a shortfall in Housing Benefit, Housing Allowance and a reduction and removal of many other benefits, all set against the backdrop of ever increasing living costs. Poverty disincentives people. 

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 citizen compliance.

Government Statistics tell us that more people get sanctioned under Universal Credit than under the existing legacy benefits system.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare payments 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 unfairpunitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, even causing death.

However, if people are already needing to claim financial assistance which was designed to meet only very basic needs, such as provision for food, fuel and shelter, then imposing further financial penalities will simply reduce those people to a struggle for basic survival, which will inevitably demotivate them and stifle their potential.

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,’ or as ‘scaremongering’ 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 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.

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 continual 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.

maslow's hierarchy of needs

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

Food banks have reported that demand for charity food goes up significantly when Universal Credit is introduced into the local area.

The Trussell Trust has expressed concern that, given the links between Universal Credit, financial hardship, and foodbank use, the next stage of the roll out could lead to further increased financial need and more demand for foodbanks. Their report uses referral data from Trussell Trust foodbank vouchers to examine the impact of Universal Credit on foodbank use. Their key findings were:

  1. On average, 12 months after rollout, foodbanks see at least a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas with Universal Credit for 3 months or less. This increase cannot be attributed to randomness and exists even after accounting for seasonal and other variations. 
  2. Benefit transitions, most likely due to people moving onto Universal Credit, are increasingly accounting for more referrals and are likely driving up need in areas of full Universal Credit rollout. Waiting for the first payment is a key cause, while for many, simply the act of moving over to a new system is causing serious hardship.

The Trussell Trust says that poor administration, the long wait for the first payment, and repayments for loans and debts are driving some people into severe financial need. This is particularly acute for families with dependent children and disabled people.

Ministers still claim that evidence from early official trials shows people claiming Universal Credit were more likely to get a job. However, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) has said there remains insufficient evidence for this claim. Other researchers have found that the low benefit amounts coupled with rigid conditionality and sanctions profoundly disincentivise people to find work or progress in work. Evidence supports the latter proposition. 

But the government simply responds by labelling researchers and campaigners as ‘scaremongers’ and continues to deny the well-evidenced and documented experiences of citizens which demonstrate that Universal Credit is harmful, creating distress and entrenching inequality and absolute poverty.

 


 

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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.

Minnes
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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