Archive for the 'Equality and Diversity' Category

The Tax Credits system needs fixing: addressing Universal Credit is not enough

Sam Royston, author of Broken benefits, argues that the government must reform the  flawed Tax Credits system before they can even begin to improve Universal Credit.

It is tempting to think that a “devastating picture of administrative chaos, computer errors and political misjudgements” in the social security system must be a reference to Universal Credit over the last few months. It well could be, but this is, in fact from George Osborne back in 2005 emphasising that problems with the Tax Credits system had become so serious he believed that there were serious questions over the future of the responsible Minister.

Many of the problems were to do with the way in which Tax Credits are calculated and paid. Whilst, as we shall see, many of the problems were addressed at the time, cuts to the benefits system mean that they have been rapidly re-emerging in recent years.

Why were Tax Credits such a mess when they were first introduced?

Tax Credits are an annual award – the total amount a claimant is entitled to is calculated for the whole year. However, people, and particularly those living on the lowest incomes, need to receive payments more frequently than once a year. For this reason, they are normally paid on a weekly or four weekly basis, based on an estimated entitlement for the whole of the year.

Since Tax Credits are means-tested, the claimant’s household earnings over the course of the year can affect the overall amount due – predicted annual entitlement is based on what the claimant thinks their income will be for the year.

“At the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.”

The difficulty arises at the end of the year, when the award amount is checked against the household’s actual income for the year. If the household’s income is lower than the estimate, then the award may have been underpaid and is topped up to the actual entitlement. If the household’s income is higher than the estimate, then this can result in the award being classed as overpaid and the government asking for some of the money back.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money – in 2004, at the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.

To reduce the likelihood of overpayments occurring, the Tax Credit system has a built in “buffer zone” (known as the “income disregard”) which means that a household’s income can rise by up to a given amount during a year without affecting their Tax Credit entitlement. In the mid 2000s, as a result of the amount of Tax Credits being overpaid, the government decided to increase the income disregard from £2,500 to £25,000. In effect this meant that if a claimant had been paid Tax Credits for a few months at the start of the year based on their previous year’s earnings of £10,000, and then changed job so that by the end of the year they had earned £35,000, their overall Tax Credit entitlement wouldn’t be affected.

Some overpayments are in fact impossible to avoid without a buffer zone – a household that has a low income for most of the year and then gets a sharp but unforeseeable increase in income may have already had more than their yearly entitlement before the rise in their income.

What’s gone wrong with welfare reform?

Despite this positive effect, following the 2010 election, the coalition government decided to reduce the size of the overpayments buffer zone – first from £25,000 to £10,000, and then to £5,000.

“They are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time.”

Astonishingly, the coalition government also decided to introduce the reverse of a buffer (an anti-buffer?) which disregarded falls in income of up to £2,500 from 2012. This means that when (for example) a worker sees their hours reduced so that they earn £2,500 less than they did the previous year, the earnings figure used to calculate Tax Credits is not immediately adjusted down. Instead they are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time when they are likely to be struggling.

As the income disregard has been reduced, overpayments (again, unsurprisingly) have increased. As large a proportion of Tax Credit claimants face overpayments than during the height of Tax Credit problems in 2005, with one in three claimants facing an overpaid award, and £1.6 billion of overpayments in 2015-16. This includes some exceptionally large overpayments – including around 50,000 families overpaid by more than £5,000.

Tax Credit awards overpaid as a proportion of total awards
2003/04 – 2015/16

awards-overpaid

In 2005 when these problems were first recognised, the then shadow (and later actual) Chancellor of the Exchequer called for the resignation of the Minister responsible. The response of the government was dramatic – not only did the Prime Minister apologise, but the large increase in the size of the income disregard was a direct response.

In 2015, when he himself was faced with a similar scale of problems within the system, the response of the Chancellor was to further reduce the level of the income disregard, back to the 2003-4 level of £2,500. We don’t yet know the impact that this will have on overpayments, but the Chancellor expects to save quarter of a billion pounds from this measure at its peak in 2018-19.

Giving credit where credit’s due

“It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system needs fixing.”

It is tempting to think of the Tax Credits system as a thing of the past, focussing instead on the profound mess which is being made of the introduction of Universal Credit. However, it is important to remember that more than 4 million families (with more than 7 million children), still rely on vital Tax Credits to make ends meet – and will do for the next few years at least.

Nor will these families escape their overpayments when they transfer over to Universal Credit – they will come with them and be automatically deducted from their Universal Credit entitlement.

It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system need fixing. For a Government which wants to improve the fairness and simplicity of the benefits system, removing vital income disregards which prevented families from falling into benefit debt is a move in entirely the wrong direction.

 

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Europe’s largest ghetto: squalor and violence in the shadows of Madrid

Welcome to Valdemingómez. Just 12km from Madrid, political neglect, spatial exclusion and social policy stagnation have created a lawless landscape of drugs and violence. Squalor and hopelessness reduce chances of a way out.

“Julia” nervously emerges from her shabby tent to face another day of survival: she is homeless, wanted by the police, and addicted to heroin and cocaine. She is also five months pregnant.

The harrowing stories of Julia and others like her feature in a new book Dead-end lives: Drugs and violence in the city shadows by Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero – out today.

sleeping

Image: Dead-end lives, page 192: ‘Respite’

Read the foreword by Professor Dick Hobbs below.

“Long before urban ethnography came of age with the Chicago School, Henry Mayhew had trawled London’s streets for narratives of the poor, dispossessed and excluded. For all of their rightly celebrated qualities, the sociologists of the Chicago School seldom provided the kind of vivid detail that is central to Mayhew’s journalism for the Morning Chronicle. He was particularly concerned with men and women for whom transgression was an inevitable consequence of the material conditions in which they found themselves. Seamstresses squeezed by the punitive pressures of piecework turned to prostitution to feed their families, street traders who relied on their own invented language and transgressive leisure pursuits to resist harassment by the new social control agencies, and some of the poor reduced to collecting dog shit from Albertoian pavements before delivering their fetid buckets to the capital’s leather tanneries. For Mayhew, crime/deviance/transgression was a social product, and very much part of the relentless unforgiving meat grinder of life in the city.

However, the Chicagoans’ establishment of urban ethnography as a central and enduring prop of social scientific endeavour did open the door to the city’s dirty secrets, and through this door have passed many thousands of scholars intent on bringing to the fore issues that most urban dwellers seek to scrape from the soles of their shoes. Most, but not all, of Chicago-influenced ethnography was based on an urban template created as an explanatory model of industrialism.

The industrial city was essentially zonal, and when drilling down into these zones, deviant behaviour – predominantly, but not exclusively, youthful delinquency – could be unwrapped, analysed and, crucially, rehabilitated. While later proponents of urban ethnography sometimes withdrew from engagement with rehabilitative policy engagement, its replacement was often a romanticised misfit sociology that valorised both the deviant and the intrepid researcher who would then shamelessly trade on this brief brush with outlaw status for the remainder of an academic career.

The post-industrial city, where the now superfluous poor of the industrial project have been supplanted by previously unfamiliar forces of economic apartheid, offers few of the assured inevitabilities of industrialism. The shape and form of urban existence has changed, and as a consequence, the trajectories of existence in the alcoves where working-class lives are lived are now dominated by population churn, by fragmentation and by a vernacular cosmopolitanism based on informal modes of survival that have little connection with institutions of governance.

landscape

Valdemingómez is one such alcove, and in describing life, death and commerce in this area on the edges of Madrid, we are introduced to a world that is uncomfortably close to Mayhew’s London. Thankfully, Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero are as sensitive to the multiple complex forces that created Valdemingómez as they are to the harrowing conditions of survival of its population, where addiction and the servicing of addiction dominate social life. Cities churn, global populations shift and with capitalism in a state of permanent crisis, the flotsam and jetsam of ‘Europe’s largest ghetto’ compete and co-exist within a range of informal economies, in particular, the drug trade. Briggs and Monge Gamero explore this world of poverty, profit, hope and addiction with enormous skill. For this is the future, the ghetto at the edge of the city, life at the periphery largely abandoned by the state, occasionally subjected to police operations, but not often enough to impact on the illegal economies that are the poisonous lifeblood of Valdemingómez, where ‘the Wild West meets the third world’.

The authors do not valorise deviance, but do describe and explain a world where destructive social and personal practices are the norm. Indeed, the descriptive passages, which constitute this book’s strength, are among the most vivid and insightful to be found in contemporary ethnography. Highlighted are the impacts of often ignored causal factors such as the withdrawal of the state, and the consequences not only for the addicted and their families, but also for the poor bloody infantry of police and drug agencies that seek to make an impact on this blighted domain. The limits of intervention, particularly during an era of austerity, along with the predatory culture of many of Valdemingómez’s residents, are emphasised by harrowing description and interviews.

This is a deeply upsetting book about an alcove of the global economy where death and degradation are embedded into every pore. Enhanced by photography, this excellent and innovative ethnography stands as a powerful and unnerving document of contemporary and probable future urban life.

paloma-resting
Image: Valdemingómez, where people like Paloma sleep in dirt and sell sex for a couple of euros for drugs.

Yet, as with Henry Mayhew’s seminal work, written in a long distant era of exploitation, deprivation and squalor, it is the heart-rending stories of the poor that leave the most indelible impact on the reader. The utter impossibility of their plight is genuinely disturbing, and the term ‘social exclusion’ has seldom been more appropriate, its causation more complex, or its reality more distressing.

Professor Dick Hobbs, Emeritus Professor at the University of
Essex, and Professor of Sociology at the University of
Western Sydney, Australia

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Is the new impact agenda the excuse you’ve been waiting for to use your research to make a difference?

Sharon Wright and Peter Dwyer, researching the impacts of Universal Credit since 2013 as part of the collaborative ESRC Welfare Conditionality project, reflect on their recent experience of contributing to the Universal Credit debate, to argue that impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.

Dr. Sharon Wright

Prof. Peter Dwyer

The news that research impact will account for a quarter of a unit’s score for the REF2021 research excellence rankings has piqued the interest of cash-hungry University leaders across the country.

With the most significant and far reaching impacts bringing in around £324k, pressure is building for academics to strike into uncharted knowledge-exchange territory to secure elusive high-earning 4* impact case studies.

But if the thought of money as a motivator leaves you cold – and the more familiar competing pressures of teaching, administration and research offer space for little else – is there an alternative way of looking at the new drive for impact?

“Impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.”

In October 2017, Universal Credit (UC) hit the headlines with public outrage at claimants unable to afford to eat and at risk of losing their homes because of the built-in delay of 6 weeks for the first payment.

One of the greatest injustices is that Universal Credit was sold to the electorate as a reform aimed at simplifying the system and making work pay, and as such, it was originally welcomed widely. However, design flaws are being exposed as contributing to rising foodbank use, homelessness and destitution.

House of Commons

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, has been resistant to calls for urgent action to restore UC in line with its original policy aims. On 18th October 2017, a unanimous group of opposition MPs won the landmark House of Commons vote, 299 to zero, to ‘pause and fix’ the Universal Credit roll-out.

Decisive to the vote and the ongoing debate, were SNP MP Neil Gray’s authoritative parliamentary speeches, which used cutting edge research evidence, including our article on ‘Ubiquitous Conditionality’, alongside the experiences of his constituents to substantiate compelling arguments for reform:

“The Government should review the cuts to the work allowances, which are acting as a disincentive to work and making work pay less; review the cuts to housing benefit, which are driving up rent arrears […]; and review the cuts to employment support, which are denying help to those who need it most, and they should fully review and then scrap the disgusting sanctioning policy, which could have cost the life of my constituent, Mr Moran, and has cost the lives of others. That was the subject of an excellent paper by Sharon Wright of Glasgow University and Peter Dwyer of the University of York in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.” Read the full transcript of the debate here. 

How did we achieve this impact? Sharon met with Neil Gray on a panel discussing ‘Rethinking Poverty’ at the SNP Conference in Glasgow. Following this, she watched a clip of Neil’s first Universal Credit speech and let him know that our research published in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (including the article that was featured in a free collection at the time) backed up several of the points he had made. Via Twitter and email, Sharon sent Neil a link to our recent blog and responded to a follow-up query with additional research evidence. Neil then used the evidence in his subsequent speeches and said:

“Academic and well researched evidence on the impact of
Universal Credit is crucial for persuading government to
change its mind and fix the system as it is being rolled out.

Neil Gray

Sharon’s research and input has been invaluable for me in
setting out the case that I have in the House of Commons.
The government can try to dismiss or ignore political debate,
but personal testimony and independent academia is harder
to ignore.

I hope Sharon and others will continue to look at issues like
the social security ‘reforms’ so that government policy can
be effectively challenged and hopefully overturned, to help
people who desperately need that support.”

As an impact activity, the process was quick, easy and direct. The result was Neil’s exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.

“…exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.”

The focus throughout was straight-forwardly on the issues that matter. For us as academics, the current importance placed on impact activities offers legitimacy to carve out the necessary time to do exactly what we have always wanted to do – proactively engage with policy makers, in a policy field where robust evidence has gone against the grain of dominant political preferences, to use research to make a difference.

 

Universal Credit, ubiquitous conditionality and its implications for social citizenship from The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, is FREE to read on Ingenta until 31 December 2017.

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Image: UK Parliament, ‘House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen’s Speech‘ Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

#MeToo and the underlying contradictions of patriarchy

jgbv_cover2_dw-1-smallBy Emma Williamson, Co-Editor of the Journal of Gender-Based Violence

Recent weeks have seen a deluge of allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, with the media scrambling to print stories from A-List celebrities: allegations, what they knew (or didn’t), or whether Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour is the tip of a toxic iceberg.

The original story discloses allegations stretching back three decades. What is clear from the subsequent coverage is that people knew: his company, his family, his colleagues and the media. In fact, the New York Times itself, has been accused of suppressing an article written by one of its own journalists, Sharon Waxman, in 2004.

weinstein

The account above is not new. If you replace Harvey Weinstein with Bill Cosby or Jimmy Savile (had he been identified before his death), the sense of entitlement and power is exactly the same. It is also the same in those everyday cases where neither the victim nor perpetrator is famous, and which the media rarely report. What unites all of these perpetrators/abusers is that, as Herman (1992) states, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain”. [Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992].

Following the allegations, there has been critique and soul searching from a range of sources. Donna Karan was roundly lambasted for suggesting that women in the movie industry who act in a certain way are probably ‘asking for it’.

“You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” 

We have also seen more subtle forms of victim blaming-shaming. The Daily Mail’s double page spread of female stars being snapped with Weinstein failed to recognise the power he had in the industry, and that it was that power to make or break an individual’s career which protected him.

Following the increasing number of allegations, Alyssa Milano initiated a #MeToo campaign. Her intention was for women who had experienced abuse to show solidarity with those who had come forward, and to show just how widespread such abuse is. The Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow applauded the movement. “The democratization of the spread of information can finally move faster than a powerful media mogul’s attempts to bury it,” she said by email.

It is important to recognise that #MeToo was originally a campaign launched by Tarana Burke, a Black American Women, in response to a lack of services for this group of victims of abuse. Identifying oneself in this way was intended to offer direct support to others in their network when statutory and other support was non-existent . This was framed as ‘empowerment through empathy’.

“It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

The current #MeToo campaign arose from a desire for victims to show solidarity with those who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t feel able to come forward. The debates about this campaign however, illustrate the debates about misogyny itself. Some accuse the campaign of targeting women as responsible for naming the abuse.

Making the point that for many victims this in itself is harmful and distressing. Others, like Heather Jo Flores have stated that men need to do more .

“It shouldn’t fall to the victims, again, to have to keep speaking out. I’m not saying anybody should stop speaking out, just that I wish more people would start listening, because we are f*cking exhausted…… Until men speak out against men who abuse, this will never stop. How about y’all post “I ignored it and I won’t anymore” instead? Because #hearyou doesn’t cut it. Just hearing us doesn’t cut it. Taking action, speaking out, and showing zero tolerance for abuse is the only way through. Silence enables. Be the change.”

And here we come to the underlying contradictions of patriarchy. Perpetrators seek our silence by manipulation, threat, harm. Yet even when we break our silence, we still make them invisible by turning the focus yet again on the victims. Perhaps the most important thing we can remember, when the new scandal breaks, which it inevitably will, is captured by that sense of exhaustion Flores talks about.

“Men, it’s not our job to keep reminding you. Remind each other, and stop abusing. It’s as simple as that.”

 

jgbv_cover2_dw-1-smallDr Emma Williamson is a Reader in Gender-Based Violence at the University of Bristol and a Co-Editor of the Journal of Gender-Based Violence. The first issue of the Journal is now available online, and the editorial is free to read.

You may also be interested in the special issue of Families Relationships and Societies on Violence Against Women and Children in Diverse Contexts.

 

 

Image: Image credit: “Harvey Weinstein, Chairman, The Weinstein Company” is copyright (c) 2015 Thomas Hawk and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

10 ways we can reverse inequality in Britain

Professor Roger Brown Book launch Liverpool Hope 16.4.13

Roger Brown

Roger Brown, author of The inequality crisis, explains how economic inequality in Britain and other advanced Western countries has got so bad, and highlights the measures we need to undertake that will start to reverse this devastating trend.

“Almost every day now the media carries stories about inequality and its effects.

In the past few weeks, the Department for Health has confirmed that the health gap between rich and poor in England is growing.

Reports by Lloyds Bank and the Social Market Foundation have drawn attention to our disparities in wealth, with a tenth of adults owning half of the country’s wealth while 15% own nothing or have negative wealth.

Respected independent ‘thinktanks’ like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation have repeated their warnings that, at a time when wages generally are only growing slowly, the combination of tax cuts and cuts in welfare benefits means that income inequality will increase further over the next few years.

“Economic inequality has increased in nearly every advanced Western country…”

This is not just an English or British issue. In March, International Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers estimated that the US economy had lost a year of consumption growth because of increased income polarisation. And of course inequality was a major factor in the Brexit vote and in the election of President Trump.

My interest in the subject was first aroused by my work on the introduction of markets into higher education. I found that the associated increase in competition through mechanisms like tuition fees had exacerbated the inequalities between universities and the constituencies they serve, without any significant compensating benefits. This led me to wonder if there might be parallels in the economy and society more generally.

What I established was that economic inequality has increased in nearly every advanced Western country over the past thirty or so years, and that this has led to a huge range of costs and detriments. Moreover, these costs and detriments are not only social. As the IMF research confirms, increased economic inequality has an economic cost as well. Above all, growing inequality is disabling democratic politics as the concentration of economic power is increasingly reflected in a concentration of political power (as can be seen most clearly in the US).

“Growing inequality is disabling democratic politics…”

But whilst nearly everyone agrees that – to paraphrase Dunning’s famous 1780 Parliamentary motion, economic inequality has increased, is increasing, and ought to be reduced – there is no agreement on how this should be done.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought:

One – the ‘market’ view – is that increased inequality is the inevitable outcome of underlying structural developments such as globalisation, skill-biased technological change, and financialisation (the growing economic role of such processes as banking and securities trading) over which individual countries and governments have little control. These changes are leading to what have been termed ‘winner-take-all’ markets where those at the top gain rewards out of all proportion to their contribution to society.

The alternative, ‘institutional’, theory is that it is due to the political choices made in individual countries, and especially the neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, tax reductions, welfare cutbacks and deflation pursued in most Western countries since the mid- to late-70s, but particularly associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

I believe that it is the combination of these underlying structural developments with those neoliberal policies that has driven the post-80s rise in inequality, with the US and Britain well above the other wealthy Western countries in the extent to which inequality has grown there over that period.

So the key to reversing, halting or slowing inequality lies in the first place in reversing these neoliberal policies, but without losing the benefits of properly regulated market competition in sectors where it is appropriate.

The following is a short list of measures that would start to reverse inequality in Britain:

  1. Require the potential impact on inequality to be a major test of every other policy or programme introduced by the Government.
  2. Show that we are serious about tax avoidance by reversing the long-term decline in the number of professional HMRC officials.
  3. Progressively adjust the balance between direct and indirect taxation (VAT), increasing the former and reducing the latter.
  4. Increase the income tax rates for higher earners (say, above £60,000).
  5. Introduce some form of wealth tax.
  6. Begin the rehabilitation of the trade unions by repealing most of the 2016 Trade Union Act.
  7. Reverse the cuts in welfare benefits made by the Coalition and Cameron Governments.
  8. Introduce measures that really will force companies to take account of interests wider than those of top management.
  9. Begin to end segregation in education by removing the charitable status of the private schools.
  10. Focus macroeconomic policy on demand and wage growth rather than inflation and corporate profits.

The Labour election manifesto has some proposals on these lines, but no political party has yet really got its mind round the full range of measures that are needed to combat inequality.

Until they do, inequality will continue to increase.

 

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Why upward social mobility means some people move downwards

Originally published by The Conversation on 17th July 2017. 

Geoff Payne

A damning report into social mobility has concluded that successive UK governments have failed to tackle the issue for the past 20 years. But the analysis by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) also fails on this front. Very little of its review of the past two decades is actually about social mobility.

This is not really a surprise. Ever since it was set up in 2012, the SMC has concerned itself with social inequality in general, rather than the life chances of escaping from one’s family background – the essence of being mobile. Social mobility usually means people from low-income families leaving that background behind. The more that happens, the “better” we are at social mobility.

According to the SMC’s chair, Alan Milburn:

“Higher social mobility can be a rallying point to prove that modern capitalist economies like our own are capable of creating better, fairer and more inclusive societies.”

In this view, mobility is of symbolic importance rather than being a central issue in its own right. Of course, there is nothing wrong in working for “better, fairer and more inclusive societies”. And the SMC has done a valuable job in documenting how government policies have failed to tackle social inequality. But the central question of whether mobility rates have risen or not remains unanswered in the SMC’s reports.

This latest one, Time for Change, starts by presenting the changing economic environment since 1997. It discusses GDP, employment rates, earnings, public expenditure and housing. Although the report does not spell it out, this is actually a useful reminder that the conditions in which mobility takes place are constantly evolving.

To measure the flow between people’s family origins and their adult destinations (and their changing shares of advantage and disadvantage), we need to take into account the changing proportions of those origins and destinations. As the report says:

“Two decades ago there were more manual than professional jobs. Now the reverse is true […] Today nearly 5m people are in self-employment, over 1.5m people are on short-term contracts and approaching a million people are on zero-hours contracts.”

Social mobility is measured in terms of social class (or income percentiles if you are an economist). And because occupations are used to place people into social classes, the kinds of employment available are a central factor in understanding mobility.

If we take one kind, let’s say senior managers and professionals, the fact that there are now more of these types of jobs available creates new opportunities for recruitment to their ranks. In 1997, about 16% of male employment and 5% of female employment was in this type of job, compared with 20% and 12% now.

But this “occupational transition” does not mean more people are automatically upwardly mobile from working-class origins. Some of the new opportunities are taken up by the offspring of already advantaged families.

Added to this is the expansion of the middle classes, which means there are more middle-class families seeking to place their children in these kind of jobs. But even if the middle classes are doing relatively well in taking a big share of the new destination opportunities, there is still widespread “mobility anxiety”. In other words, the mobility competition has hotted up.

What goes up…

Unless the number of professional destinations continues to increase, there can be no room at the top for all the children of the middle classes – let alone upward mobility from working-class children. And if the expansion of professional destinations remains low, more middle-class children will have to be displaced – to become downwardly mobile.

Political discussions about rates of social mobility tend to ignore this embarrassing element of the topic. But it cannot be avoided. Achieving higher upward social mobility means it must be balanced by more downward mobility too. If we are really concerned about social mobility, this brute fact should trump the SMC report’s focus on general social inequalities (vitally important though they are).

The chapter titles in Time for Change – “early years”, “schools”, and “young people” – give the game away. They deal with unfairness and exclusions which may well be related to mobility. But even the remaining chapter, “working lives”, deals mainly with poor pay and low skills, rather than mobility itself.

Nowhere are we reminded that a series of studies has consistently shown that more than three-quarters of today’s adults are in a different social class to their parents. True, not enough of these movements were in an upward direction. But they cannot all be. And it is hard to see how current government policies will generate more future upward mobility than in the previous 20 years.

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What effect do sanctions & conditionality have on disabled people?

Guest editor Ben Baumberg Geiger introduces the new Journal of Poverty and Social Justice special issue, focusing on disability and conditional social security benefits.

 

Ben Baumberg Geiger

“There are times that policy runs ahead of academic knowledge.

Indeed, this is often the case, for policies must first be introduced before social scientists can study them – and if policy makers were restricted to policies that had been tried and tested, then policy innovation would be impossible.

Yet such innovation can come with considerable risks, as new policies can be introduced and widely imitated, only for social scientists – after some delay – to show that such policies are difficult to implement, can fail to achieve some of their aims, and may even have unforeseen and harmful consequences.

In a new special issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, we focus on one area where this might be happening: conditionality for sick and disabled social security claimants. While, historically, disabled benefit claimants were largely exempt from seeking work, high-income countries from Australia to Norway have increasingly required disabled claimants to take steps towards finding work, under the threat of financial penalties.

“…high-income countries from Australia to Norway have increasingly required disabled claimants to take steps towards finding work, under the threat of financial penalties.”

The conventional wisdom repeated by bodies such as the OECD is that this is a necessary step towards reducing high benefit claim rates, and, moreover, helps improve the finances, health, and social inclusion of disabled people themselves.

However, there are several challenges to this story. By any principle of justice, claimants cannot reasonably be required to perform actions that they are incapable of doing, but it is difficult for benefits agencies to know exactly what someone can or can’t do. If they get this wrong, conditionality for disabled people can create injustices, and inflict considerable stress on disabled people. Moreover, conditionality may move disabled people further away from work, by both undermining their relationship with their employment support caseworker, and making them less willing to take risks in performing tasks that they are not sure they are capable of doing.

 

Two conflicting stories – but what does the evidence say?

Until now, there has been very little published research trying to establish which of these accounts is correct. This is the aim of the special issue, which includes four research papers looking at experiences from around the world. In the UK, Aaron Reeves looks at on the impacts of conditionality for disabled people claiming unemployment benefit. In Denmark and Sweden, Sara Hultqvist & Iben Nørup look at the different forms of conditionality implemented for young disability benefit claimants. In Germany, Patrizia Aurich-Beerheide & Martin Brussig look at the (failed) implementation of conditionality for disabled people in Germany. And my own paper (see below) brings together these papers with a wider review of evidence and practice, to come to some initial conclusions about what we know so far.

“It is crucial for the wellbeing of disabled people around the world that deeper knowledge and more informed policy go hand-in-hand.”

The special issue also includes four further, slightly more unusual papers about the UK, perhaps the country where these issues have become most hotly contested. Indeed, conditionality for disabled people has been the subject of an award-winning film (I, Daniel Blake) and an award-winning play (Wish List), both of which are reviewed in the special issue (by Alison Wilde and Kim Allen respectively). Jed Meers covers a recent Supreme Court judgement about the ‘bedroom tax’ in the Supreme Court. And we felt it was important to convey the lived experience of conditionality, so a team from the Welfare Conditionality project describe two real-life stories of people who took part in their research.

So at the end of this, what do we know? In my (open access) review paper, I summarise the evidence into four ‘stylized facts’:

1. Requirements for disability benefit claimants are common, but sanctioning is rare (particularly outside of the UK and Australia).

2. Assessment and support are critical in making conditionality work on the ground, and can be combined into ‘passive’, ‘supportive’, ‘demanding’ or ‘compliance-based’ systems.

3. The limited but robust existing evidence suggests that sanctioning may have zero or even negative impacts on work-related outcomes for disabled people.

4. Individual case studies in ‘compliance-based’ systems suggest that sanctioning in the absence of other support can lead to destitution, and that conditionality can harm mental health.

While we need to know more, it is already clear that we cannot assume that conditionality for disabled benefit claimants is easy to implement, nor that it will have purely positive consequences. Policy may have run ahead, but research is now starting to catch up. It is crucial for the wellbeing of disabled people around the world that deeper knowledge and more informed policy go hand-in-hand from this point.

This is an edited version of the (free) introduction to the special issue, and is simultaneously being posted on the Policy Press blog and my own Rethinking Incapacity blog. The full special issue can be accessed here.

 

You can read the Disability and Conditional Social Security Benefits’ special issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice here. 

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