Tag: William Beverage

Social security is a provision paid for by the public to support the public ‘from from the cradle to the grave’ when they fall on hard times

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This post follows on from my previous article, which critically addresses David Gauke’s irrational defence of the punitive use of social security sanctions.

Some logical gaps in government rhetoric

The government claim that more people are in employment. However, the government have ensured via systematic deregulation that the ‘supply-side’ labour market is designed to suit the wants of employers and not the needs of employees. Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of ‘restrictive’ practices, such as the protection of employment.

For example, as part of supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting worker’s ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action.

More recently, the Conservatives have attacked trade unions again, encroaching on work place democracy and civil rights. People claiming social security are being coerced by the state to take any job available, regardless of conditions and pay, or face sanctions.

This also seriously undermines any kind of bargaining for better pay and working conditions. It leaves workers without protection against profit-driven monopsonist employers (large employers that tend to dominate the employment market, such as Capita, G4S, Atos, Amazon, Uber, for example) leading to lower and lower wages. The government’s claims about the merits of increased labour market ‘flexibility’ have nonetheless introduced a considerable degree of precarity, which makes workers feel insecure, and more fearful of losing their jobs. It has also led to lower wage growth and rapidly increasing inequality.

As a consequence of government decision-making, much employment is insecure and wages have been driven down to the point where they are exploitative and no longer cover even the basic livings costs of workers. Wages have stagnatedand are most likely to remain stagnated for the foreseeable future. 

So we now have a politically constructed economic situation where even nurses and teachers are forced to visit food banks because they can’t afford to eat. 

At a time when the government boasts more people than ever are in employment, the numbers of cases of malnutrition and poverty-related illnesses are actually rising

The official UK unemployment rate has been well below the EU average for some years, and the as the government keeps pointing out, the employment rate is almost at a historic high, yet the welfare state is seen as a major concern, with the government claiming it presents people with ‘perverse incentives’, which prevent them from working. That very clearly isn’t true. However, the employment figures disguise the serious problem of under-employment, employment precarity and low wages.  

Furthermore, a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that more than a  fifth of the UK population is now living in poverty amid the worst decline for children and pensioners in decades. Nearly 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than five years ago, during which time there have been continued increases in poverty across both age groups – prompting experts to warn that hard-fought progress towards tackling destitution is ‘in peril’. 

The analysis highlights that 3 factors which had, over previous decades, led to a fall in poverty, are now cause for concern; social security support for many of those on low incomes ensured that people didn’t experience severe hardship and poverty, but it has been falling in real terms, changes to welfare policy have seen the numbers in poverty rising again, affordable social housing is no longer accessible and rents are increasing (particularly in the private sector), and lastly, rising employment is no longer reducing poverty.  

Work very clearly does not pay. 

The UK is regressing. We have a government that is undoing the social gains made following our progressive post-war settlement. 

The economic problems, inequality and poverty that we are witnessing have not arisen because welfare creates ‘disincentives’ to work, nor is there a shortage of  ‘hard workers’ or a sudden growth in the number of ‘shirkers’, or people with faulty characters, as every Conservative government since Margeret Thatcher has claimed. 

There is a shortage of good, secure and adequately salaried jobs. The small rise in the national minimum wage will unfortunately be offset with increasing living costs and the welfare cuts to both in and out of work social security. It’s not, by the way, a ‘national living wage’, as the Tories keep trying to claim. It’s a very modest rise in the minimum wage, which is rather long overdue. 

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‘Making work pay’ is a simply a Conservative euphemism for the dismantling of the welfare state – a civilised and civilising institution that came into existence to ensure that no-one faces starvation, destitution and the ravages of absolute poverty.

Most of our welfare spending goes on pensions, first, then the bulk of the rest goes on supporting people in work who are paid exploitatively low wages.  

Making work pay for employers: the ‘business friendly’ government 

Trade unions are disempowered, because the government hates any form of collective bargaining which is aimed at improving the living and working conditions of ordinary people. They legislated to ensure that any collective action is very difficult. The government also punishes people on low pay with sanctions. As if taking money from people already on the breadline will somehow address the profit seeking executive decisions of employers. That’s cruel beyond belief. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says that the squeeze on living standards now risks storing up problems for the future, with people being caught in a  ‘standstill generation’ – one where people are unable to build the foundations for a decent, secure life. 

Over the last couple of days, I have seen a few people of pension age claiming that pensions are ‘not welfare’. That pensions are a ‘right’, and that people who paid in all their lives deserve support. Of course they do. 

However, so do our young people (who live in a much less kind society than the one our generation enjoyed), working people, disabled people and everyone else who faces material hardship. We ALL pay into the welfare state. It was designed to provide ‘from the cradle to the grave’ support for everyone who should need it, as set out in Sir William Beveridge’s report Social Insurance and Allied Services, published on 1 December 1942.

Beveridge’s vision was for an national insurance-based welfare state in which entitlement would be earned largely by the function the citizen undertook, either through work or by assuming caring responsibilities. When Winston Churchill finally turned his attention to domestic politics after the Second World War he conjured up the phrase by which Beveridge’s proposals would be described: he envisaged a compulsory national insurance that would afford coverage ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

Social security originally included maternity grants, child benefit, unemployment and sickness benefits, old-age pensions and a grant to cover the costs of death. 

The underpinning welfare principles of universalism and collectivism 

The national insurance scheme is intuitively fair to most people, it is based on collective ethics, rather than being governed by private market insurance rules. 

‘Welfare’ means Wellbeing/Safety/Health. Beverage was tasked with the responsibility of determining what was needed for Britain to take care of the basic needs of citizens, ensuring no-one lived in poverty, and to create a set of reforms that ensured everyone had a basic standard of living, regardless of their circumstances.

Welfare was originally designed to be universally accessible when people were in need of assistance. No-one deserves support in meeting their basic survival needs more than anyone else. Or rather, every person ought to have the same right to adequately meet the costs necessary for survival – basic costs for fundamental needs such as for food, fuel and shelter, for example.

It’s a measure of how successful the Conservatives’ intentional, purposefully divisive stigmatising campaign has been of those in receipt of social security that some social groups want to now distance themselves from the very term ‘welfare’.

Yet the welfare state was a truly great British achievement, it was a civilised and civilising reform that improved the lives of many, sparing them the abject misery of absolute poverty. The Conservatives don’t pay for welfare provision: we do. Yet to hear their anti-welfare rhetoric and to read their anti-humanist ideology, anyone would think the funding comes from their own pockets, such is their scorn and indignation that people should have, and expect the right, to an adequate standard of living and healthcare.

Yet this is what Cameron had in mind when he said he wanted to end ‘the culture of entitlement’. He was signalling that the Conservatives intend to dismantle welfare,  other public services and provisions. The government portrays our welfare state as a ‘free good’, but WE have already paid for it. As did our parents.

Instead of regarding welfare as ‘unsustainable’ and as the problematic ‘vulnerability’ of some citizens requiring support in a system that invariably creates wealth for a few, and increasing hardship for the many, perhaps it’s time to view the government’s obsession with welfare conditionality, ‘behaviour change’ and punitive sanctions – which have turned a provision aimed at meeting basic material needs into a means of disciplining poor people – and with dismantling our social security, for what this really is: state oppression. 

In the 1940s, a widely shared international consensus specifically linked social welfare to democratic citizenship, upholding universal rights, greater equality and social justice. We share with Europe a common history of social rights, democratic participation and welfare capitalism. In light of the recent global transformations of the economic order, significant changes in the distribution of wealth and power have reshaped the meaning of citizenship and redefined the relationship between the state and citizens in a post-welfare-state era. The lasting and damaging effects of austerity and inequality will inevitably negatively influence democratic inclusion and participation, as well as having a profound impact on people’s material wellbeing. 

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show in their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (2013), that the human costs of dismantling the welfare state may be measured out in increased morbidity and mortality figures, as evidenced in the global recession. The book explores government responses to financial crises through the lens of health outcomes. The authors argue that austerity is never the right prescription as it hinders return to growth and causes immense suffering to citizens’ health and wellbeing. 

In those countries that maintained their welfare system, no such increases occurred. Stuckler and Banjay also point out that those countries which maintained their welfare system recovered quicker from the recession than those that didn’t, indicating that welfare spending is an excellent stimulus to the economy.

The truth is that for Conservatives, their perceived problems of the welfare state is not really an issue of its ‘sustainability’ or cost, it is a purely ideological issue. The Conservatives’ most treasured class-based prejudices and beliefs in the not so free Free Market are chronically and morbidly offended by it. 

I guess Beverage didn’t foresee the sixth great ‘evil’ – the overarching anti-collectivism of belligerently imposed neoliberal socioeconomics, which extends ever-widening inequality and increasing poverty of the masses wherever it travels. 

Welfare was designed for everyone in need, regardless of their age. That was the whole point of welfare – to ensure no-one in the UK is starving and destitute. 

As citizens, we need to stand on our hind legs and bypass the intentionally divisive rhetoric. We need to stand together to defend what is OURS: the welfare state was never funded by the government and never was. 

The wefare budget is therefore not the government’s money to cut.


 

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

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

Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications (Source).

 

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Conditionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Minnesota Starvation Experiment volunteers

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

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

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

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

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The Minnesota laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of human needs

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

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

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

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

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

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

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

The experiment highlighted a striking sense of immediacy and fixation that arises when there are barriers to fulfiling basic physical needs – human motivation is frozen to meet survival needs, which take precedence over all other needs. This is observed and reflected in both the researcher’s and the subject’s accounts throughout the study. If a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also clearly expressed in Maslow’s needs hierarchy. 

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


Conclusions: the poverty of reponsibility and the politics of blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame – part 2

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Social security came about precisely because we evolved to recognise a need for a social safety net to protect citizens when they encountered economic difficulties, because we learned last century that we are all potentially vulnerable, and that this isn’t anything to do with a person’s characteristics – ordinary people are not to blame for socio-economic circumstances, or for becoming ill and disabled. Unemployment, accident and illness can happen to anyone.

In 1992, Peter Lilley, the somewhat salacious Tory department of social security secretary said he had “got a little list” of people to stereotype as scroungers. Lilley amused the Conservative Party conference with a plan to “close down the something for nothing society”, delivered in the form of a parody of the Lord High Executioner’slittle listsong from The Mikado  by Gilbert and Sullivan:

“I’ve got a little list / Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out / And who never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s those who make up bogus claims / In half a dozen names / And councillors who draw the dole / To run left-wing campaigns / They never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue / And dads who won’t support the kids / of ladies they have … kissed / And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists / I’ve got them on my list / And there’s none of them be missed / There’s none of them be missed….”

I remember that subsequently, Spitting Image  portrayed Lilley as a commandant at a Nazi concentration camp and commentator Mark Lawson of The Independent said that if Lilley remained as Secretary of State for Social Security, it would be “equivalent to Mary Whitehouse becoming madam of a brothel.”

The social groups who featured on that hate list are some of the poorest and most disempowered in our society: lone parents, mental health service users, refugees and asylum seekers, the unemployed, and young and homeless people. They have few, if any advocates in parliament on the right, and apparently, few votes are to be lost by attacking them.

Such are the Tory prejudiced, divisive and self-serving attacks on welfare and the purposely devalued social groups it supports. This punitive approach to welfare reform generally has the opposite effect to that promised by Tories such as Lilley, creating additional bureaucratic costs and waste, and setting one group against another. This is a deliberate undermining of social cohesion, cooperation and collective responsibility. It isolates many, who by common consent need support. This approach is also designed to deter those people with legitimate entitlement to support, and to justify an unnecessary and inappropriate harassment, stigmatising and denigrating those it should be helping.

Welfare is the provision of a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens. In other words, it was conceived to alleviate absolute poverty and meet basic survival needs. This is based on a model of human developmental psychology focusing on the recognised stages of growth in humans, and is founded on the central idea that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual may be motivated to fulfil any other needs and betterment. As a minimal condition for making choices and being responsible, people must have all of their basic physiological needs met. For example, a homeless person’s job choices might be constrained by the lack of an address for correspondence or even a place to take a shower. Understanding such humanist concepts was central to the development equality policies and human rights.

The welfare state expands on these concepts to include services such as universal healthcare. In most developed countries welfare is provided by the government. Benefits are based on a compulsory supra-governmental insurance contribution system, the National Insurance system in the UK was established in 1911.

The Beveridge Report in 1942, essentially recommended a national, compulsory, flat rate insurance scheme which would combine health care, unemployment and retirement benefits. After its victory in the United Kingdom general election, 1945 the Labour Party pledged to eradicate the five Giant Evils, and undertook policy measures to provide universal support for the people of the United Kingdom “from the cradle to the grave.”

Social Security policy resulted in the development of what was considered to be a state responsibility towards its citizens, and a citizen responsibility towards each other. Welfare is a social protection that is necessary. There was also an embedded doctrine of fostering equity in the policy.

In addition to the central services of education, health, unemployment and sickness allowances, the welfare state also involved increasing redistributive taxation, increasing regulation of industry, food, and housing, better safety regulations, weights and measures controls. The principle of health care “free at the point of use” became a pivotal idea of the welfare state, which later Conservative governments, who were critical of this, were unable to reverse. Prescription charges were introduced by the Conservative Government in 1952.

The Welfare State period lasted from around 1945 until the Thatcher government began to privatise public institutions in the 1980s, although some features remain today, including compulsory National Insurance contributions, and the provision of old age pensions. It was Conservative governments that introduced constraints to eligibility for benefits via means testing.

The Labour Party won a clear victory in 1945 based on their programme of building provision for citizens with the Welfare State. However, since the 1980s the Conservative government had begun to reduce provisions in England: for example, free eye tests for all were stopped and prescription charges for drugs have constantly risen since they were first introduced by the Conservatives in 1951.

During the Thatcher era, the English High Tory journalist T. E. Utley, wrote that the welfare state was “an arrangement under which we all largely cease to be responsible for our own behaviour and in return become responsible for everyone else’s.” However, even people who erroneously believe that the present welfare system is corrosive to individual responsibility accept the urgency of preventing hunger and destitution. Yet the Tories have persisted with their pre-Victorian rhetoric of the “undeserving, idle poor.”

There is a moral as well as a logical absurdity in this Conservative claim, tied up with notions of citizenship. It’s a continual contradiction of principle within Conservative ideology that small state logic applies to the most vulnerable, who are left to the worst ravages of “market forces” without state protection, but such laissez faire principles don’t extend to the wealthy. Conservatives systematically fail to correct market failures in the interests of the public, but they do intervene to protect the interests of the minority of wealthy citizens. Similarly, replacing state run public services with profit incentivised private providers is an intervention. These partisan interferences distort the “market mechanism,” contrary to Tory claims.

As Ed Miliband noted, when Cameron declared We are raising more money for the rich:

“David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.’

‘But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.”

So “market forces” are adjusted and fixed to benefit the wealthy and penalise the poor.

The sociologist T.H. Marshall wrote in 1965, “it is generally agreed that… the overall responsibility for the welfare of the citizens must remain with the state.” Marshall’s own concept of “social citizenship” – which put forward a new model of citizenship based on economic and social (as well as political) rights – was characteristic of this collective approach to social welfare after 1945. There was a clear and optimistic sense of rebuilding a better Britain.

It’s worth noting that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights recognises socio-economic human rights, such as the right to educationright to housingright to adequate standard of livingright to health and the right to science and culture. Economic, social and cultural rights are recognised and protected in several international and regional human rights instruments. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the primary international legal source of economic, social and cultural rights. All member states have a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights of the public and are expected to take “progressive action” towards their fulfilment. The current government have made it clear that they hold such rights in high contempt, and in terms of socio-economic policy, they are driven by an extremely regressive rather than progressive ideology.

The social citizenship model remained unchallenged until the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader (1975) and then Prime Minister (1979). Thatcherism promised low taxes, less state intervention, and lower levels of public spending, Thatcher introduced cuts in spending on housing and stricter eligibility rules for benefits. This was the Conservative beginning of the end of collective provision.

The Tories have steadily eroded our provision for the poorest and the most vulnerable citizens – our collective safety net, and their rhetoric is about erasing our evolved, civilised collective approach from our social memory. We are being steadily de-civilised, our historical, collective learning and social history is being re-written, and the Tories would have us turn into a society of dog eat dog psychopaths if they get their way.

The Tories have a cynical view of human nature, and presume people will always act out of self-interest, and whilst they may well avoid disappointment, Conservatives will never understand people by assuming that is all that motivates them. History has demonstrated that when human beings are given the chance to meet their fundamental needs and express themselves fully, they are, by nature, interested in the well-being of society and all its members.

I don’t believe that we have limited ability in terms of human endeavour to achieve positive change. Conservatives see the traditional order as enduring and sacred: a trust to be passed from generation to generation. They see the hierarchy that they always engineer as the result of “natural merit.” To be a Tory is to believe this “natural order” of things.

Survival of the wealthiest

Yet Conservative ideology directs an openly hierarchical society and promotes social inequalities, both materially and in terms of social esteem. Tories believe that a “good” society is one where people would simply accept their place. And that is wherever the Tories place them – “The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate.”

There are strong links between the right wing idea of “competitive individualism,” laissez faire capitalism, Social Darwinism, eugenics, nationalism and fascism/authoritarianism. Social Darwinists generally argue that the “strong” should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease.

Most of these views emphasise competition between individuals in a laissez-faire capitalism context; but similar concepts have motivated ideas of eugenics, racism, imperialism fascism, Nazism and struggle between national or racial groups. Eugenics is state interference in the engineering of the “survival of the fittest (wealthiest)”. That is happening here in the UK, with Tory policies like the welfare “reforms”, which are extremely punitive towards sick and disabled citizens in particular – all too often denying them the means of meeting basic survival needs. The Tories think that wealth is a measure of virtue, and that poor people deserve poverty.

Welfare isn’t simply a matter of societal rights but also a matter of life and death. People are dying, and are being made homeless, we are seeing a massive increase in food poverty, malnutrition and people are committing suicide because they are so desperate. Yet the Tories continue to present the victim-blame script. It’s a script that is used almost always to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal power structures.

And it’s a script that plays off a weakness of our Western worldview, our inclination to assign negative moral value to those who suffer – what psychologists call thejust world fallacy .”

It is often said that you can judge a society on how it treats its weaker members, and in that respect the current government have failed so many. What kind of society is it that allows over a million young people to struggle on the dole, stifling their potential and their creativity, instead of spending the money on helping them to find meaningful work – and then blames them?

What kind of society allows a government to re-brand unemployment and poverty as personal failure, when we know that this government’s policies have caused unemployment to rise, just like every other Tory government. Thatcher at least admitted she had intentionally created high unemployment to keep inflation low, however, that “strategy” failed and we had high inflation and high unemployment. Conservative governments always create a large, disposable army of labour, which they like to keep as desperate as possible to drive down wages, working conditions and to stultify collective bargaining.

Raising unemployment is an extremely effective way of reducing the strength of the working classes, and what is being engineered in Marxist terms is a crisis of capitalism which creates a reserve army of labour and has allowed Tory donors – the capitalist class – to make very high profits.

What kind of society allows sick and disabled people to be harassed – where they are called in for crude, tick-box tests to prove that they are “really” ill or disabled, one where that “assessment” is designed purposefully to remove their lifeline benefits, one where most are found “fit for work” with many dying a few weeks or months later? And when people succeed in appealing wrongful decisions, they are almost immediately sent for a reassessment?

This is happening here in the UK. The Tory welfare “reforms” are extremely punitive towards people who can’t find work and sick and disabled citizens, all too often denying them the means to meet basic survival needs. We urgently need to overturn this by forcefully challenging the Tory myths that poison any attempts at progressive change. Human suffering, loss of dignity and death may have many facets, but all of them are equally unforgiving, and when imposed by humans on fellow humans, all are equally unforgivable. 

Some Tory benefit myths addressed:

Mythbuster: Tall tales about welfare reform – Red pepper
Voters ‘brainwashed by Tory welfare myths’, shows new poll – The Independent
Welfare Myth Number One – Benefits Are Expensive – Dr Simon Duffy
Who really benefits from welfare – Dr Simon Duffy
Where the cuts are targeted – Dr Simon Duffy
The myth of the “welfare scrounger” – The New Statesman

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone