Archive for the 'Poverty and Inequality' Category

Roma in a time of paradigm shift and chaos

 

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Andrew Ryder and Marius Taba

A themed section of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice ‘Roma in a Time of Paradigm Shift and Chaos’ is available online and will be officially launched on 19 April 2018 in Budapest.

Here Andrew Ryder and Marius Taba explain how this themed section of the journal explores ideas around Roma communities in times of austerity and change.

“The financial crisis of 2008 created a monumental process of turbulence and dislocation in not only economic structures but also in the fields of politics and culture. Nearly ten years after the financial crisis many of the causal factors and consequences of that crisis have not been solved with Roma among the groups most damagingly affected.

This themed section of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice explores notions such as securitisation and how political elites are using the Roma to frame monocultural and xenophobic visions of society. Such trends are leading to the fragmention of the social contract and framing of the Roma in a moral underclass discourse leading to cuts in welfare, workfare programmes and pushing Roma communities further into precarious economic activities. Growing poverty leads to isolated and ghettoised Roma communities which in tandem with racism creates segregated schools and low participation and attainment. These economic drivers in exclusion and segregation have been accentuated by welfare cuts and economic downsizing prompted by recent austerity drives in the wake of the global financial crisis.

“…the themed section considers how the Roma might fare under bolder, redistributive and interventionist policies by the state and the potential of critical forms of multiculturalism.”

As well as detailing the negative impacts of such societal trends on the Roma, the themed section considers how the Roma might fare under bolder, redistributive and interventionist policies by the state and the potential of critical forms of multiculturalism. The themed section explores a number of different questions, as follows:

How might EU policy be reorientated to raise the inclusion of Roma communities? How might the concept of a Social Europe impact upon EU policy and Roma communities? 

The EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS) was launched in 2011 by the European Commission. The Framework is based on open method coordination and EU member states are expected to devise National Roma Integration Strategies, which address exclusion in the spheres of employment, health, education and accommodation. Critics claim Roma civil society has either been ignored in the formulation of national action plans or has been accorded a tokenistic say in design and delivery. Moreover, targets have been weak or limited. The European Roma Rights Centre in 2016 concluded “Five years on, the EU Framework has hit ’a mid-life crisis’. The NRIS have yet to deliver in terms of concrete change to the lives of millions of Europe’s Romani citizens; the implementation gap is more pronounced than ever; discrimination and segregation remain pervasive and human rights abuses against Roma are all too frequent”.  Critics have argued though that open method coordination, upon which the NRIS is based, supports neoliberal tendencies as its emphasis on dialogue and flexibility deters bolder actions.

What might the implications be if the EU project were to fragment and unravel? 

The European project appears to be in jeopardy with critics questioning its relevance with those on the right of the political spectrum wishing to see a focus on market rather than social matters, and questioning the degree and level of European integration. Recently such sentiments led to the UK electorate opting in a referendum to leave the EU. There are fears that other countries may emulate the UK or that it will bolster those who wish to see the EU reduce its social dimension.

How grounded are new trends in Roma Identity?

Within Roma communities important questions and new directions have emerged in the performance and articulation of identity. Whilst poverty and xenophobia have led to Roma communities accentuating tradition through bonding networks others have taken radical departures as reflected by the growing Roma LGBT and feminist movement.

Is the ’Roma Awakening’, a growing cadre of Roma scholars emerging within the academy who are challenging the positivism of the established academic establishment, some of whom support a European Roma Institute to counter anti Gypsyism, merely a reflection of narrow identity politics and the emergence of a new Roma elite or does it present a fundamental shift in knowledge production and Roma empowerment?

Kuhn (1962) described as a paradigm shift, a situation where the anomalies of an established and dominant paradigm are exposed through critique and seeming inability to meet present challenges. On occasion and in the absence of credible responses, there can appear a crisis of confidence in the now vulnerable paradigm (revolutionary phase); if unable to adapt, the old paradigm is consequently replaced with a new conceptual world view, which for a period of time is sovereign in its assumptions, at least until the cycle repeats itself. The emerging paradigm takes as its starting point the theorisation of ethnic and intersectional oppression.

Given the economic and political challenges confronting Europe Roma civil society may be facing its greatest ever test.”

The themed section also asks: How effective has Roma civil society been in promoting social justice and how has it fared as a consequence of austerity and contracting funding bases, alongside heavy dependence on a few donors?

Critics have highlighted fears of a ‘Gypsy industry’ where civil society offers narrow, outsider-driven and ill thought-out initiatives. However, a dynamic civil society can play a critical role in empowering communities, and shaping policy and forming the bedrock of effective national and European advocacy campaigns, by ensuring that advocacy is grounded in the needs and aspirations of communities. Despite the weaknesses of Roma civil society it has often provided the training grounds and platforms for the handful of younger progressive Roma lawmakers, activists, thinkers and artists that are now taking the political and cultural stage. Given the economic and political challenges confronting Europe Roma civil society may be facing its greatest ever test.

 

JPSJ_OFC_Feb2016_72.THINBORDERExplore the themed section: ‘Roma in a Time of Paradigm Shift and Chaos’ from the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice:

Introduction: Roma in a time of paradigm shift and chaos
Author: Matache, Margareta

Roma and a Social Europe: the role of redistribution, intervention and emancipatory politics
Authors: Ryder, Andrew Richard; Taba, Marius

Gender, ethnicity and activism: ‘the miracle is when we don’t give up…’
Authors: Daróczi, Anna; Kóczé, Angéla; Jovanovic, Jelena; Cemlyn, Sarah Judith; Vajda, Violeta; Kurtić, Vera; Serban, Alina; Smith, Lisa

Blame and fear: Roma in the UK in a changing Europe
Authors: Richardson, Joanna; Codona, Janie

Policy & Practice: EU policy and Roma integration (2010–14)
Author: Andor, László

The Troubled Families Programme: changing everything, yet changing nothing

 

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ is out now

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem – out today – examines the most recent Troubled Families Programme Outcomes report, which published last week.

 

The Evolution of the Trouble Families Programme

The Troubled Families Programme (TFP), originally tasked with ‘turning around’ the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ in a single term of parliament has evolved into a different type of programme since its inception, albeit one with many enduring features. The expanded criteria for the second phase of the TFP shifted from allegedly criminal, anti-social and ‘workless’ families, to include those experiencing troubles such as domestic violence and health issues.

The ‘next phase’ of the programme, announced in April 2017, sought to bring sharper focus to the work of the TFP by emphasising the need to support ‘workless’ families into employment. The criteria for identifying and prioritising families for the programme changed, the outcomes expected by the programme also shifted, but some core, sometimes unintentional, features of the programme remain, including the labelling of disadvantaged families as ‘troubled’.

 

Disproving the ‘underclass’ theory

The most recent findings, published on 27th March, highlight some continuities with previous ‘troubled families’ publications.

“Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme”

By way of example, we learn from the latest Outcomes report that:

  • Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme (p24);
  • Only one in three ‘troubled families’ are classed as ‘workless’ (p20);
  • Fewer than 2% of ‘troubled families’ had ever been evicted (p21);
  • and just 2.8% of children in ‘troubled families’ had a caution in the 12 months prior to entering the programme.

The findings thus mirror two sets of evaluation data from the first phase of the programme (Final report on the family monitoring data and An interim report showing family monitoring data), and demonstrate that the stigmatising feckless, workshy, ‘neighbours from hell’ imagery associated with ‘troubled families’ courtesy of powerful individuals such as David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Louise Casey, is entirely inappropriate. Essentially, the official evaluation of the TFP is the latest in a long line of research that helps to disprove the longstanding theory of an ‘underclass’.

 

Changing nothing

The impact of the programme also continues to look problematic, considering this was a flagship social policy that was originally intended to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’ and change the way that the government intervened in their lives.

The impact study of the first phase of the programme was ‘unable to find consistent evidence’ that the programme ‘had any significant or systematic impact’ (p20). Since the renewed focus on tackling ‘worklessness’ was announced in April 2017, 104,809 families were worked with on the programme. Of these, just 4,807 families entered ‘continuous employment’ in the last year. In just under three years, not a single ‘troubled family’ in Newham (out of 2858 on the programme) has met the ‘continuous employment’ criteria according to the latest figures. And yet, over a slightly longer period, over 1000 families met this criteria in Liverpool. The difference between such figures (and there are plenty of other inconsistencies) is not explained.

The main finding in the Outcomes report is that a significantly smaller proportion of children were classed as children in need (a 3.9 percentage point difference, a statistically significant difference) after 6-12 months of work under the TFP, than similar families in a matched comparison groups who were not on the programme over a similar period. This improvement is to be welcomed, but given the resources allegedly attached to the TFP, the intensive, transformative approach, and the allegedly failing approach of other services, it hardly represents conclusive evidence that the family intervention model is worth the effort.

 

Deflection

The continuing focus on ‘families’ – either ‘troubled’ or ‘workless’ – and on the family intervention approach continues to deflect attention away from the quantity and quality of jobs on offer, and their suitability or otherwise for carers of young children and/or disabled or vulnerable adults. The potential consequences of poor, or insecure, or sporadic work on disadvantaged families’ lives remained undiscussed. Poor quality, poorly paid, irregular work, often at unsociable hours in the early morning or late at night, accompanied by potential or changes to benefits entitlements, does not always lead to less parental conflict, more support for ‘children in need’, or a greater, more sustainable income. The pejorative term ‘workless’ ignores the amount of domestic and caring work that takes place within ‘troubled families’, many of whom have young children and/or family members with health issues or disabilities.

“The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.”

 

Ideology not evidence

Despite the evidence that suggests a lack of impact in many areas, there also remains claims of the allegedly transformative aims of the TFP. As each phase of the programme has been announced, and as its profile and importance has dropped, there has been an increase in the extent to which the programme claims to be transforming and re-shaping local services. The most recent annual report claims that the programme ‘drives service reform’, ‘drives reduction in social care demand’ and ‘promotes social justice’. Problematic and/or slow progress of many families on the programme suggests that the family intervention approach might not be worth ‘rolling out’ and ‘mainstreaming’. The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.

 

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3 critical steps we need to take to save democracy

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Henry Tam

Henry Tam, author of Time to save democracy: How to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, discusses the decline of democracy and the three critical steps that must be taken in order to save it.

“In the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa, there was a time when democracy seemed to be in the ascendant. But the new millennium has not brought good tidings, more the reverse.

George W. Bush played his part with his ill-conceived wars to make people recoil from any talk of ‘spreading democracy to the world’. On both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Third Way’ attempts to blur the left-right divide managed to consolidate one thing – the indifference of a third or more among those eligible to vote to stay away from the polling booth whenever there’s an election on. And then came Brexit and Trump in 2016 to demonstrate how ready millions of people were prepared to cast their vote irrespective of what the clearest evidence and expert analyses might say, so long as they could vent their frustration and anger at a few easy targets.

“We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government.”

We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government. But when the mere form of electoral selection is mistaken for the substance of an equitable system of control by the people, our political health is in trouble. Any superficial framework for vote-casting can all too easily be exploited by charlatans with wealthy backers. To save democracy from terminal decline, we must take action in three critical areas.

First, democracy has to take roots in a polity with a broad sense of togetherness. Neoliberal individualism and divisive tribalism in their respective ways attack civic solidarity, and blind people from recognising the need to prioritise their common good. But social polarisation is not inevitable. Governments around the world have used engagement techniques, familiarisation activities, and reconciliation processes to bring people with diverse backgrounds together to develop shared understanding and joint objectives. Rejecting both the ‘anti-political correctness’ brigades who celebrate discrimination as their heritage, and the ‘rights-override-all’ warriors who refuse to accept that rights can ever be diminished by wrong-doing[1], the state should stand firm on guaranteeing respect for all who respect their fellow citizens, and stamp out invidious attempts to stigmatise ‘others’. Furthermore, we should not weaken civic cohesion by giving public subsidies to schools that inculcate beliefs in the supremacy of their own faith, but instead strengthen it through teaching democratic consensus-building and the importance of pursuing the public interest.

Secondly, the rule of law must be backed by a collective system for distinguishing truth from falsehood. For too long, concessions have been made to the relativist notion that all claims are as valid as each other, thus giving succour to demagogues, extremists, and corporate propagandists to pretend what they say are inherently beyond criticism. And when their version of ‘reality’ is contradicted by objective evidence, they invoke the freedom of speech to keep spreading their lies in the hope that they can fool enough people enough of the time to win power. But no country refrains from setting and enforcing legal limits on irresponsible communication. Even those who declare there must never be any restriction step back when what is communicated involves, for example, words and images that encourage the targeted audience to commit atrocities in the name of some deity, consume what is above the accepted safety level, or promote paedophilia. In addition to applying the law against irresponsible communication consistently and rigorously, especially in relation to those are prone to lie to expand their economic and political influences, schools must be given the duty and corresponding resources to teach to a high standard the skills for objective reasoning, debunking misdirection, and evidential examination.

“…we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making.”

Last but not least, we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making. The unscrupulous among the rich and powerful use their resources to back candidates and policy proposals that favour them at the expense of everyone else. And money matters. For example, between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the US House of Representatives, over 80% of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won[2]. Spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68% of that money coming from just 0.26% of the population[3]. For many people, there is no point getting involved when the rich will ultimately have the last say. In the 2016 US presidential elections, 48% of those who had registered to vote did not actually cast a vote – that’s 95 million people who simply abstained.

Beyond restrictions on campaign donations and spending, other ways should be considered for reining in plutocratic influences. Many more public decisions should be delegated to deliberative forums structured to curtail opinion manipulation. A decent level of public service and basic income should be provided to protect people from being politically marginalised by socio-economic vulnerabilities. There should be better resourced and more transparent investigative agencies to hold both those holding and seeking political office to account for their actions. And to give all those who work in any organisation a real say over their pay differentials, more support should be given to the development of multi-stakeholder cooperatives that are far less likely to tolerate inequitable income gaps.

[1] Otherwise the ‘right to freedom’ would shield every criminal from punishment.

[2] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 11)

[3] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 2)

TTS_DEMOCRACY_FCTime to save democracy, by Henry Tam is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £15.99.

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Why the UCU strikes are bound to be insufficient to ensure equality

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Jan Deckers, Newcastle University

Jan Deckers, contributor to Justice and fairness in the city, talks about the UCU strikes, currently underway.

“Members of UCU, the University and College Union are on strike over a proposed change in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), or pension scheme. The crux of this proposal is a transition from a Defined Benefit to a Defined Contribution scheme, where it will be much less clear what benefits employees will receive when they retire. Whilst employers would reduce their contributions from 18% of salary before tax to just 12%, employees would shoulder greater individual risk due to individual (rather than collective) portfolios being gambled on the stock market.

We are all in this together, right? The fight over pensions essentially pits the hierarchies of higher education institutions against those who are lower on the echelons of power, as the executive heads of UK universities and colleges make up Universities UK, a charity that, amongst other things, negotiates pensions with USS. Whilst not all vice-chancellors and principals are united in the push for changes in said pension scheme, the rift suggests a worrying trend as salaries of senior academics have increasingly been criticised as unfair.

In my work I consider how salaries ought to be allocated within large organisations, and I have provided my own organisation, Newcastle University, as an example. I argue that decisions about what people’s salaries, and therefore also their work pensions (or deferred payments), ought to be are best made by starting from an egalitarian baseline. Any changes from this baseline must be justified by reference to a number of criteria. These include: controllable effort; duties in relation to unpaid work; health care needs; morally significant debts; and historic unfairness.

Let us take each of these factors in turn. It is important to start from an egalitarian baseline where every employee is paid the same amount for each hour worked as, in the absence of countervailing evidence, treating people equally demands that we assume that they work equally hard. In practice, however, people’s commitments vary, which is where controllable effort comes in. Whilst it may be unfair to discriminate against those who may be naturally or culturally predisposed to be less committed, it seems fair to reward those who voluntarily work harder. A pat on the back in the form of a bonus payment can incentivise hard workers to keep up the good work or to work even harder.

Where governments fail, employers should also compensate for employees’ varying duties in relation to morally important unpaid work, for example for the many hours of care work that is predominantly carried out by women. Their health care needs are as important as everyone else’s. This is why employers must more generally vary payments so that those with complex or expensive health care needs that are insufficiently addressed by governments and insurance schemes can afford the health care that they deserve. Payments must also consider morally significant debts, for example, those that some employees may have accumulated to qualify for their jobs. Finally, payments must also take into account historic unfairness. Yes, some who have been overpaid in the past may justifiably be paid less in the future.

“…without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.”

There is no evidence that careful consideration of these criteria has altered decision-making in large organisations, and a dearth of evidence that they have been discussed in the academic literature, in spite of this neglect resulting in significant negative health impacts. My fear, however, is that without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.

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Credit:  Flickr: Nick Efford (CC BY 2.0)

Many of my colleagues know that there is something rotten in the state, but one does not need to become a comrade to know that the occasional handouts, usually around Christmas time, to poorly paid staff are not quite sufficient to trigger significant change for the better. Unless current discussions regarding this pension scheme engage in serious discussion about these criteria, it is my concern that especially those who will be the worst off may come to rely even more on charity, rather than on fairness, from those who wield power over them.

It might be argued that the fair pay and pension scheme that I have sketched here is not fair either as it falls foul of what I call the ‘brain drain’ objection. A charity such as Universities UK might seek to justify a less egalitarian scheme by appealing to some notion of the greater good or the lesser evil. If a more egalitarian scheme was implemented, it might lead to people with big brains leaving higher education, resulting in a loss in economic power and an even greater deficit in the pension scheme than that envisaged by Universities UK, which is based on a rather dire prediction. Whilst the ‘brain drain’ objection must be taken seriously, it is rather ironic that this prediction suggests that there is little confidence in the future of higher education in the UK, at a time when the managers of various institutions have awarded themselves significant pay rises for their efforts to secure this future.

In all this, it must be emphasised that this lack of solidarity has a significant inter-generational component. However, not only younger academic colleagues stand to lose a lot. Now that many students in the UK have to pay tuition fees for which they enter into significant debt, these same students will lose out once again as they face the negative consequences of strike action, for example through class cancellations.

Justice and fairness in the city_for web [FC]

Justice and fairness in the city, edited by Simin Davoudi and Derek Bell was published in 2016 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99. Jan’s chapter from the book is available to read free here.

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The centrality of poverty

By Glen Bramley, co-editor of Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK Vol. 2

Originally published by Poverty and Social Exclusion on December 8th 2017. 

Poverty as measured by material deprivation through lack of economic resources remains absolutely central to understanding the causation and patterning of most aspects of social exclusion and a wide range of social outcomes. This is the strongest message emerging from Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK: Volume 2 – The Dimensions of Disadvantage, the second of the two-volume study based on the PSE-UK 2012 surveys. Attempts to wash ‘poverty’ out of the policy agenda and government target-setting are quite wrong and unsustainable.

This volume, which I edited with Nick Bailey, sets out to explore the different ‘domains’ of social exclusion and the ways that these relate to each other and to the core issue of material poverty. Having examined a wide range of disadvantages, the overall conclusion is that reducing poverty is probably the most effective way to promote key societal outcome targets. This is notably the case for health, as shown in the chapter by Prior and Manley, and wellbeing/happiness, as discussed by Tomlinson and Wilson.

The social harm caused by poverty is examined theoretically as well as through drawing on the PSE’s qualitative evidence in the contribution by Pemberton, Pantazis and Hillyard, who argue that several concepts currently in vogue within social policy discourse – such as resilience and risk – are inadequate in addressing this challenge. Increased risks of severe poverty and destitution, not unconnected to welfare reforms and cuts, are evidenced in the contribution by Bramley, Fitzpatrick and Sosenko, drawing on a combination of PSE and new special survey evidence.

Concern about poverty and exclusion cannot be separated from concerns about inequality, with particular current concern about the contrasting trends and policies affecting the poorest and the most affluent in the UK, as is illustrated by the examination of wider measures of living standards presented by Patsios, Pomati and Hillyard. The striking trend towards more of poverty overall being among working households, as well as the extent of forms of ‘exclusionary employment’, is the main theme of Bailey’s contribution. This is not the only example of greater ‘precarity’ across wider sections of the community, as there is also a marked shift in this direction in housing as more households live in insecure private renting paying higher rents with little security, while financial stress affects approaching half of the population (Bramley and Besemer).

Wilson, Bailey and Fahmy found that access to resources and support from social networks is less closely related to poverty and clearly for some households support from family, in particular, is often a key factor in coping with poverty – but in poorer communities family and neighbours may themselves be hard-pressed. Fahmy also shows that poverty does also limit the extent of civic and political participation, alongside factors like education and class.

The domain on which exclusion appears least related to material poverty is in fact access to local public and private services. Bramley and Besemer argue that this is ‘good news’, implying that through national and local policies, public spending and regulation, the natural tendency of market systems to reinforce inequality has been neutralised. Other good news stories include the above-mentioned examples of domains of exclusion which are not dominantly driven by poverty, improvements in some aspects of living standards and declines in some forms of exclusion (e.g. financial services), and gradual increases in reported happiness. There has also been a dramatic fall in the incidence of poverty among the retirement age population over the last two decades.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence to support concerns about trends towards more marketisation and financialisation of aspects of life, lessening social cohesion and engagement, and promoting disillusion with the system. This is probably not unconnected with the unprecedented falls in living standards experienced by wide sections of the population in the later 2000s and early 2010s, in part due to cost of living factors like higher fuel costs (causing a marked rise in fuel poverty) as well as the increasing precarity of some people’s working lives and housing situations. On a majority of domains of social exclusion, the surveys showed that scores had worsened between 1999 and 2012, while people’s judgements about what things were necessities became more restrictive, reversing a long-term trend towards a more generous set of expectations.

The authors also note a growing ‘behavioural agenda’ around poverty, but are highly critical about some misuses of this perspective in relation to public understanding, policy agendas and targets. For example, family breakdown, educational failure and serious personal debt may in some cases cause or confound poverty, but very often they are also clearly consequences of poverty. Addictions can be a compounding factor in the poverty and exclusion of some adults, but these only account for a tiny proportion of the total number of adults in poverty.

Britain has moved forward and then backwards in terms of the adoption of national targets for the tackling of poverty, particularly child poverty, with poverty ‘airbrushed’ out of the national strategy for social mobility. Yet in this respect the devolved administrations, particularly in Scotland, have chosen to follow a different path, reinstating child and other poverty targets in legislation and developing an action programme to achieve these. Recent research-based initiatives by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation under the banner Solve UK Poverty have set out an ambitious and diverse policy agenda which it is argued would significantly reduce poverty in the medium to longer term. Yet in the shorter term the immediate prospect in forecasts by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies are for a substantial rise in poverty, due in substantial measure to the further imposition of welfare reforms, cuts and the freezing of many benefits.

Overall, we believe the multi-dimensional perspective of ‘poverty and social exclusion’ has been shown to be justified and successfully implemented through the PSE Survey. In this volume we offer a new picture of the main distinct dimensions of poverty and exclusion, while arguing that it is important to pay attention to these distinct aspects to get a full picture of disadvantage in contemporary UK. For taking this research forward into the future we anticipate building on the kind of survey exemplified by PSE by seeing more use made of longitudinal/panel surveys and of linkage between surveys and administrative data to give stronger insights and evidence on causal processes and trajectories of poverty.

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The extent of poverty

By Gill Main, co-editor, with Esther Dermott, of the first volume of Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK and University Academic Fellow at the University of Leeds.

Originally published by Poverty and Social Exclusion on November 29th 2017. 

The UK-wide Poverty and Social Exclusion survey (PSE-UK) in 2012 revealed startling levels of deprivation. Eighteen million people are unable to afford adequate housing; fourteen million can’t afford essential household goods; and nearly half the population have some form of financial insecurity.

When compiling Poverty and Exclusion in the UK: the nature and extent of the problem, the first of the two-volume study based on this research, Esther Dermott and I were interested in what lay behind these top-level figures. How are different groups within the UK population affected? How do people experience poverty?

Drawing on the large-scale, representative data of this PSE-UK survey, leading experts in the field provide detailed insights into how poverty affects younger and older people; men and women; people from different ethnic backgrounds; children and parents; people with disabilities; and people in different geographical locations.

It is a stark picture: poverty, defined as those whose lack of resources and low-income forces them to live below a publicly agreed minimum standard, is affecting over one in five people – and over one in four children. Vulnerable groups are suffering disproportionately. These findings are deeply concerning; especially in light policy changes since 2012 which have already – and will continue to – push more and more vulnerable people into ever deeper poverty.

The PSE-UK approach – by combining deprivation (lacking necessities) with low-income – allows us to examine poverty in fine detail and throws light on the many ways in which poverty affects people’s lives, often obscured by less nuanced measures. In addition, the large sample of the survey – combined with the decision to interview all individual adult members of a household rather than a single household representative – has enabled us to identify new patterns in vulnerability to poverty among different groups.

Christina Pantazis and Saffron Karlsen, for example, present a detailed breakdown of the ways in which people from a wide range of ethnic background might experience poverty. Esther Dermott and Christina Pantazis show that men and women experience different types of vulnerability to poverty at different life stages. Pauline Heslop and Eric Emerson demonstrate that ‘disability’ cannot be treated as a homogenous characteristic, and people with different kinds of disability experience poverty in different ways. Gill Main and Jonathan Bradshaw disaggregate data on poverty within families with children, finding that while children are at the highest risk of poverty of all age groups, parents are likely to sacrifice their own needs to provide for children, making them even more vulnerable to lacking the necessities of life.

The book also highlights areas where more development is desperately needed: a theme running through many chapters is how to include the experiences and perspectives of diverse and heterogeneous groups while maintaining a comparable measure of poverty. Arguments are made for considering the unique situations of young people (Eldin Fahmy), people with disabilities (Pauline Heslop and Eric Emerson), and older people (Demi Patsios). As approaches to poverty measurement develop over time more groups have been represented in surveys – but there is still work to be done, for example in the inclusion of children’s own perspectives, rather than a reliance solely on parental reports on children’s experiences (Gill Main and Jonathan Bradshaw). A fuller representation of the needs, experiences and reports of these groups would further enhance our understanding of poverty and how it impacts the lives of those unlucky enough to experience it.

The UK PSE survey 2012 was conducted, and this book compiled, amidst an assault on the welfare state – in the guise of austerity politics – which have decimated the support available for those living on a low income. While we can only provide a snapshot of a single point in time, policy changes strongly suggest that if the survey were conducted today, findings would be even more stark. This poses serious concerns and questions about the effects of continued reductions in state support for people vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion.

People across the social groups examined in the volume are, among many other deprivations, going hungry, lacking adequate clothing, and living in low-quality housing which may impact their health in the present and in the future. Unsurprisingly, many of the chapters highlight the impact on well-being, both physical and mental, resulting from this. Shame is a common feeling among those without adequate resources – which is exacerbated by policy and media representations of the ‘undeserving’ poor and itself exacerbates a reluctance among people in poverty to seek the meagre and ever-decreasing state help that is available to them through the social security system.

We conclude the book with key messages for academics, policy makers, practitioners, and the media. A national reassessment of how poverty is represented, discussed, and addressed is overdue. We believe that the data and analysis presented in the volume offer valuable insight into the issues of poverty and social exclusion in the UK, and hope that the book will make a contribution to changing attitudes and, ultimately, to developing policy and practice more likely to effectively reduce and eliminate poverty in the UK.

 

Poverty and social exclusion in the UK edited by Esther Dermott and Gill Main is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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.

 

Broken benefits by Sam Royston is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £12.00.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


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