Archive for the 'Economics and Society' Category



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

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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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.

What’s next for poverty?

Barry Knight 3

Barry Knight

Barry Knight, author of Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society?, explains why we need to change the way we frame ‘poverty’ in order to make progress.

“Progress on poverty has stalled, in fact the proportion of people living in poverty in the UK has remained the same since 2005. This applies both to absolute and to relative poverty.

Poverty campaigners know that they need a new language if they are to make progress. Justin Watson from Oxfam has suggested that charities are getting it wrong:

“There is growing consensus that the narratives used by the third sector, however well-meaning and ‘right’, have been rejected. Take ‘poverty’ for example, a term that is politically divisive, laced with stigma and highly contested to the point of still having to persuade people it exists at all in the UK.”

Reports on poverty may raise awareness but, as Olivia Bailey, Research Director of the Fabian Society points out, “talking about a problem doesn’t generate enthusiasm for a solution”. Leading journalist Simon Jenkins has recently written that endless research into Britain’s growing gap between rich and poor is a waste of time. We need to set aside partisan politics and act.

Yet, solutions are hard to come by. The traditional remedies of the post-war settlement – work and welfare – are no longer sufficient. Social security payments leave many people struggling to make ends meet, while economic development produces low paid jobs.

So, how do we end poverty when the traditional means of doing so no longer work?

Technocratic policy fixes treat symptoms, rather than address the complex processes that produce poverty in the first place. Moreover, such an approach wastes effort in repairing an old system that seems incapable of eradicating poverty. We can no longer rely on public and private sectors to guarantee people’s well-being and there is little sign that anything in present arrangements will make our society better.

“This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.”

We need to reframe our approach. Rather than addressing what we don’t want – poverty – we need to develop what we do want – a society without poverty. This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.

To do this, we need to draw on a sociological tradition originally deriving from the work of C. Wright Mills, and modernised by John Paul Lederach, in which we use our moral imagination to develop the society we want. Research by the Webb Memorial Trust shows that the society people want differs markedly from the society we have. Rather than opting for a society based on current political categories, they want a society where social factors come first, where relationships are given priority, and the economy supports people in their lives, rather than the persistent drive for ‘growth’.

The model of how we develop a good society needs to change. This can no longer come from the elites as something done to us. Rather, it involves us doing it for ourselves. ‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage’, wrote Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Nowhere is this truer than the ending of poverty, a process that now can and must involve the poor being their own agents of change.

“The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power.”

The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power. Young people understand this and that is why working with them to help them take power must be the first goal of social policy.

Rethinking poverty [FC]The pdf of Rethinking poverty by Barry Knight is available to download free via OAPEN. The paperback is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £7.99.

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Why we need social entrepreneurs

Chris Durkin, co-author of Social entrepreneurship; A skills approach, reflects on his experience of redundancy and how the uncertainty it brings is representative of life in the ‘gig economy’. He highlights the urgent need to teach new skills, creativity and resilience and how social entrepreneurs can show us the way.

Christopher Durkin

I have been very lucky throughout my working life and only recently experienced the indignity of being made redundant. What was apparent was that redundancy has a formality, which goes through various stages – notification, ‘consultation’ and final notice – a process that involves you in attending various meetings, both as a group and as an individual.

What sticks out for me on a personal level was that throughout the process there was a high level of uncertainty, a complete loss of confidence and a feeling of anger, loss and failure; feelings that are both natural and individual.

Continue reading ‘Why we need social entrepreneurs’

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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