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Siblings with and without disabilities think differently to each other about the comparison of their young adult experiences – and why it matters

This blog piece is based on the following article: Meltzer, A. (2017) Comparative life experiences: Young adult siblings with and without disabilities’ different understandings of their respective life experiences during young adulthood. Families, Relationships and Societies, early view.

Originally published by Sibling Leadership Network on 1st December 2017. 

 

It’s a familiar feeling. You are a sibling of a person with a disability in your late teens or early 20s. You are busy constructing your life around you – doing new things, making new relationships, learning to drive, moving out of home, finishing school, starting work. Your world is expanding. And yet there is something uncomfortable lingering in your mind. Maybe it is a feeling of guilt, maybe it is a feeling of inequity, maybe it is a feeling of being awkwardly advantaged. Whatever it is, it is a feeling that is there when you look over at the experience of your brother or sister with a disability and see that these life changes that you are making come with more hurdles when your brother or sister tries to do the same things – or perhaps they are things that you believe your brother or sister may never do at all. You value your own life and experiences, but that feeling is always there somewhere. It’s hard to think about and even harder to talk about, especially with your brother or sister themselves – because it feels unkind to point out the discrepancy between you to them – so you bury the feeling and forge ahead, valuing your own experiences, but carrying that sense of disquiet always with you too.

… But what if it did not have to be this way?

What if your brother or sister thought about the situation differently to you?

What if, by never asking them about it, you missed your opportunity to discover that perhaps they do not perceive the differences in the same way as you?

How might that new knowledge help you?

 

What does research say about how each sibling thinks about the comparison?

I conducted research about the relationships between young adult siblings with and without disabilities. I spoke to 25 young people with a disability and 21 of their brothers and sisters about what their sibling relationships are like and how they navigate their lives together during young adulthood. As a researcher, I had the opportunity to ask questions that might usually be too hard to ask directly within families… I had the opportunity to ask what each thought about their respective life experiences during young adulthood, especially the comparison between them.

 

What did siblings of people with disabilities say?

The story that siblings of people with disabilities told me was usually consistent with the scenario at the beginning of this post. Most siblings of people with disabilities generally perceived themselves as advantaged during young adulthood compared to their brothers and sisters. They perceived they had easier and more numerous opportunities – and that in the future they would be able to learn, work and live where and with whom they wanted, but they were unsure if their brother or sister would get to experience the same things as them. Often they appeared to feel that this was an awkward and inequitable difference between then. Often they felt bad about it, and sometimes they felt guilty about it.

 

What did young people with disabilities say?

However, when I spoke to young people with disabilities, they told me a different story – or actually, a range of different stories. Young people with disabilities had a variety of different views about the comparison between them and their brothers and sisters, of which feeling disadvantaged was only one possible option. Across my research, young people with disabilities told me other ways they felt:

  • The difference isn’t about disability.

Some young people with disabilities did not view the comparison between themselves and their brothers and sisters as about disability at all. Instead, they explained the differences between them to be because of other factors that affect all siblings – age differences, making different choices, having different preferences or enjoying different personalities. One sister with a disability said, for example, that she did not mind that all her younger sisters were married when she as the older sister was not, because she preferred the control that comes with being single. When the comparison between siblings’ experiences was not seen as about disability, the differences between them felt far less awkward.

  • I want that too, I just don’t focus on feeling bad about it.

Other young people with disabilities did see the differences between themselves and their brothers and sisters as about disability – and they did indeed want to share their siblings’ experiences – but they did not to focus on feeling too negatively about it. One brother, for example, just stated the differences in a matter of fact way and then moved on to talking about other things he cared about more. Another person noted that she did feel jealous and frustrated about her siblings doing things she could not do easily – such as travelling or moving out of home – but said she also felt genuinely happy for her siblings’ experiences and did not resent them taking up those opportunities, in fact, she wanted them to. Others spoke about advocating or fighting for their right to be able to take up those experiences themselves, but did not blame their siblings for gaining the experiences with greater ease.

  • Actually, there are benefits to the differences between us.

Finally, some young people with disabilities noted benefits to themselves of the differences between them and their brothers and sisters. Some felt that their own experience was better, such as two young women who felt that their disability made their academic achievements appear all the better compared to their siblings. Another person felt that her sister’s experiences acted as a reminder to her family of the level of choice and autonomy that she herself should also be recognised as having, and therefore that her sister’s different experiences actually helped to safeguard her own quality of life.

This range of views highlights that young people with disabilities commonly think differently to their brothers and sisters without disabilities about the comparison between their life experiences during young adulthood. It does not discount the possibility that some young people with disabilities may feel disadvantaged and may resent the inequality they experience compared to their siblings – but it highlights that this is one of a range of possible views. The research also does not suggest that young people with disabilities do not want to share their siblings’ experiences or that they are completely satisfied with their opportunities – many would indeed like more opportunities, the research just highlights that often they are able to see this in a broader perspective of the whole of their lives and relationships. Finally, the research does not represent all young people with disabilities – although people with a range of disabilities were included, including intellectual disability, there is still more to find out about what, for example, people with a high level of support and communication needs think. The research does however show a range of possible views.

 

Why does this matter? What can be gained from listening to what young people with disabilities say?

The findings of this research matter because they highlight that young people with disabilities have different views to their brothers and sisters, and that sometimes they may see their own experiences during young adulthood as more normalised, more empowered or in a different perspective than their siblings without disabilities do. Understanding young people with disabilities’ own views about their lives is important, not only for hearing what they have to say, but also because appreciating their perspectives may help sibling relationships.

Understanding young people with disabilities’ broad range of possible views means that the awkward sense of inequity that some young adult siblings of people with disabilities feel may not always reflect what their brother or sister is actually experiencing – it may reflect a more difficult or troubled view of what disability means in their brother or sister’s life than what that brother or sister actually feels themselves. Understanding the broad range of possible views should not stop siblings of people with disabilities acknowledging and challenging the inequities of their comparative opportunities – however, it does suggest that sibling relationships might improve, and feel less awkward, if young adult siblings of people with disabilities knew more about their brother or sister’s perspective. With this knowledge, young adult siblings with and without disabilities can perhaps together have relationships where they see their comparative experiences in a new light, building on each other’s understandings.

 

Ariella Meltzer is an adult sibling and a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

The full article is available for free in the month of December 2017. You can download it here.

How to start dismantling white privilege in higher education

Racism is still alive and well in US and UK academia, writes Kalwant Bhopal, author of White privilege. She argues that to dismantle it, there is a need for radical action from universities, which must start by acknowledging the existence of institutional racism and white privilege.

Originally published by the LSE British Politics and Policy blog on 28th November 2017. 

Kalwant Bhopal

Despite many claims to the contrary, racism is alive and well and robustly shaping the educational experiences of black and minority ethnic students in the United Kingdom and the United States. The evidence that this is happening in schools, when accessing elite (and non-elite) universities and later when applying for better paid or higher status jobs is scrutinised in my new book, White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. I argue that in neoliberal contexts, policy-making ensures covert and overt forms of racism, and exclusion continues to operate at all levels in society in which white identities are privileged. The talk may be all about a ‘post-racial society’, but in reality the status quo remains unchallenged.

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism. At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors or occupy decision-making roles. The white space of the academy perpetuates and reinforces white middle class privilege; consequently our higher education continues to be dominated by a white elite. I have researched educational inequalities for 30 years and it often feels like we are going around in circles: the more things change, the more they stay the same. A radical shift is needed from universities to acknowledge their long-standing role in privileging whiteness and implement change that addresses the inequalities this has fostered.

Credits: pxhere (CC0 Public Domain).

Higher education must firstly acknowledge institutional racism and white privilege; a failure to acknowledge racism results in a failure to act upon it. Institutional frameworks to facilitate change at local and national levels include universities monitoring racist incidents, identifying measures to address racism, and action plans with specific outcomes. Such action plans need to be characterised by their ‘clarity’; they need to demonstrate a clear link between identifying a problem, providing solutions, and measuring outcomes. Additionally, they need the ‘clarity’ we might associate with being ‘out in the open’, in which racism is publically acknowledged and addressed. Such clarity would ensure that it is the outcome of change that is assessed, rather than the rhetoric of what should happen.

Secondly, universities should be held to account for their lack of representation of black and minority ethnic groups in senior decision-making roles through monitoring and reviewing their staff profiles on a regular basis. A greater visibility of black and minority ethnic staff is needed in senior decision-making roles so that there is a specific recognition and valuing of diversity in staff representation. Unconscious bias training should be mandatory for all staff: at the very least, this training should be a requirement for individuals who are involved in promotion and recruitment panels. Simple measures such as the introduction of name-blind job applications to avoid the ample evidence that non-Eurocentric names are disadvantaged in recruitment processes are easy to implement and immediately signal a willingness to tackle issues of diversity. To support black and minority ethnic staff to reach their full potential, all universities should be expected to provide formal mentoring and training to staff who wish to progress in their careers.

Thirdly, universities must address the racial makeup of their student bodies. Oxford University was recently accused of ‘social apartheid’ for not admitting a single Black British student in nearly one in three of its colleges. Too often institutions that fail to recruit Black British students talk about their commitment to diversity by highlighting the numbers of international students they have recruited. These are discourses that demonstrate a lack of clarity. The value of international students for universities is closely tied to their greater economic contribution compared to home students. When the playing field is level, when white home students and black home students are paying the same fees, it seems remarkable that diversity is suddenly not accounted for.

Universities must be held accountable for failing to admit a diverse body of home students. I suggest a quota system should be introduced for selective universities, as well as elite universities, such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group in particular. The persistent failures of these publically-funded universities to address their inability to recruit the brightest students if they have the ‘wrong’ skin colour is, in the language of civil servants and policy-makers, not delivering value for money. Measures such as outreach programmes targeting poor areas, underperforming schools and underrepresented schools; offering support packages to pupils to develop their university applications; training for interviews; bursaries and scholarships to Oxbridge, are in no way about lowering standards. They are simple, necessary steps to move towards an inclusive approach for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are not currently finding they have access to the same opportunities afforded their white, more wealthy, privately-schooled peers.

White privilege is awarded to those who are already privileged. This reinforces and perpetuates a system in which white elites are able to maintain and reinforce their position of power at all levels. Within a neoliberal context, policymaking is legitimised through a rhetoric that reinforces the benefits of neoliberalism as a universal value. I argue, however, that it reinforces whiteness and white privilege. It fails to acknowledge the role that race and inequality play in perpetuating advantage over disadvantage and that neoliberalism does not benefit all members of society equally.

Furthermore, to argue that the aftermath of the Macpherson report on institutional racism in the UK police has resulted in a post-racial society is utterly absurd (as I highlight with Martin Myers in a recent paper). Such discourses only serve to further marginalise black and minority ethnic communities. Racism exists at every level of society: it permeates our schools, our colleges and our universities. It is alive in all elements of society, our popular culture, our media and the social spaces that we occupy. We do not live in a post-racial society. What you look like – if you are black or from a minority ethnic group determines how you will be judged. Race acts as a marker of difference in a society poisoned by fear, insecurity, and instability. If we continue as we are, then whiteness and white privilege will continue to dominate in higher education institutions, with white groups doing whatever they can to protect and perpetuate their own positions of power.

 

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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.

Carers Rights Day: International Perspectives

By Jo Moriarty, Social Media Editor, International Journal of Care and Caring

Every year Carers UK holds Carers Rights Day to help carers find out about their rights and how to access help and support. There is overwhelming evidence that many family carers often care for many years without knowing what support they are entitled to. However, carers’ rights need to be embedded within wider health, social, and employment policies, as two articles published in the journal this year reveal.

This year’s Carers Rights Day in the UK comes shortly after publication of the third issue of the International Journal of Care and Caring for 2017.

As the journal’s first year of publication draws to an end, it seems a good opportunity to think about carers’ rights in an international context by highlighting two articles that have appeared this year.

1. Collateral damage: Australian carers’ services caught between aged care and disability care reforms by Ara Cresswell FREE DOWNLOAD

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that almost a third of Australian primary carers provide more than 40 hours of care per week. One third also live with some form of disability themselves. Almost three quarters rely on welfare benefits as their main source of income, meaning that their incomes are much lower than those who do not care.

Services for carers in Australia built up in a fragmented way and were often piecemeal, explains Ara Cresswell of Carers Australia. Set against this, flexible funding meant that support could be targeted on different types of carer and carers could access services as consumers in their own right. This changed in 2008 with the transfer of all funding for aged care to the national government, including grants such as the National Respite for Carers Program (NRCP). Carers Australia argues that the changes that have flowed from this have led to many carers receiving reduced support because help for them is so strongly linked to the entitlements of the person for whom they care.

A second factor was the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in 2012. It had been hoped that personal budgets for people with disabilities would help many carers return to paid employment. However, this has not proved to be the case, especially as these funds can only be used by carers themselves for training relating to caring and not to provide replacement care while they are at work.

Taken together, suggests Cresswell, an unintended consequence of these two reforms is that services for carers are ‘collateral damage, caught between aged care and disability care policies’.

2. ‘Enabling carers to care’: making the case for a European Union action plan on carers’ by Christine Marking FREE DOWNLOAD

Turning to Europe, Christine Marking, also highlights the problems when policies do not specifically consider the position of carers. She highlights the variability in support for carers across the European Union (EU). While recognising that most of the decisions that most affect carers occur at a national level, she argues that there is a place for EU wide legislation, such as the right to carers leave or help with training so carers can enter or re-enter the labour market. Another of her ideas is for a European Year of Carers, along the lines of previous years such as the European Year for Active Ageing in 2012 or the 2018 Year for Cultural Heritage. Ideas such as these could, Marking suggests, help promote a more integrated approach to support for carers and enable member states to learn from good practice in different countries. She concludes:

‘If carers are expected to continue providing care – and they are – meeting their needs should be an embedded dimension of health and social policy development.’

These are just two of the articles in the International Journal of Care and Caring (IJCC), which is a multidisciplinary journal designed to advance scholarship and debate about all forms of care and caring among researchers, policymakers, practitioners, family carers, and all those concerned with carers’ rights. The vision for the journal is set out here.

The IJCC welcomes research articles, debates and issues papers and book reviews which can be submitted here. Debates and Issues papers are free to access and every month a different research paper is available to read on temporary full text access.

You can recommend the journal to your librarian or take out a personal subscription here.

Read the latest issue of the International Journal of Care and Caring.

For all the latest Journal news and free articles:

Sign up to the International Journal of Care and Caring newsletter
•Follow @IJCCjournal on Twitter.

The articles featured in this blog post are free to read in the ‘Debates and Issues’ section of IJCC Vol.1 No.2

Why the left loses: Explaining the decline of centre-left parties

Are centre-left parties across Europe facing a future of decline? Drawing on a new book, Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy argue that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. However, centre-left parties now face a number of major challenges, from the rise of new parties to the erosion of their traditional support bases, and only by addressing these challenges can their decline be halted.

Originally published by the LSE EUROPP blog on November 8th 2017. 

Rob Manwaring

Paul Kennedy

Is the centre-left in terminal decline? At present, the electoral fortunes of the main social democratic and labour parties are not healthy – following Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, a suite of elections has tended to see the main centre-left party lose out.

In Britain, despite the back-fire of Teresa May’s snap election, The Labour Party has now lost three straight elections, last winning in 2005. Elsewhere, 2017 was a mostly bleak year for the centre-left, with record defeats for the PvDA in the Netherlands, and a near destruction of the French PS under Benoît Hamon in the French elections. Yet again, Angela Merkel has bested the SPD in Germany, and the left also lost in Norway, despite a close race. It also remains out of office in Australia, Spain and Finland.

In other places, the centre-left might be in office, but either in minority government or in a fragile electoral setting (Denmark, Portugal, Italy). Of course, the trend is not uniform, and the recent election in New Zealand does demonstrate that the centre-left can win from seemingly difficult circumstances. Yet, since the highpoint of the late 1990s (at one point 15 of the then 17 EU member states were headed by the centre-left), the electoral returns have been poor, often with new populist challengers on the scene.

As co-editors of a new book, Why the left loses, with our colleagues we wanted to uncover what was behind the apparent decline in the left, and also add to the wider literature. Although the snapshot which we provide hardly paints a picture of a social democracy in rude health, we are united in our belief that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. As Sheri Berman states in her contribution, “The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy”.

Yet, social democracy has no divine right to exist; on the contrary, centre-left parties must be tireless in their efforts to convince electorates that they remain relevant to their day-to-day concerns, and it is little consolation that electorates don’t appear to care much for other political families either.

As the late Peter Mair chillingly observed in the opening lines of his posthumous Ruling the Void, “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

What’s driving this downward trajectory? Institutionally, many of the centre-left parties face a fragmenting party system with new and emergent challengers, (UKIP, Podemos, the Swedish Democrats, the AfD in Germany, etc). The centre-left then becomes squeezed from both left and right. Changing electoral sociology means that the major parties suffer from class and party de-alignment. In many cases, the changing economic structures have eroded traditional centre-left support, and the parties have been unable to build enough support from other groups.

And what of agency and leadership? In many cases, some of the recent crop of centre-left leaders have not been up to the task. Moreover, much of the longstanding literature on social democracy tends to downplay the role of leadership, but in a more personalised, social-media driven environment, effective leadership is harder to deliver.

Ideationally, we tend to find that the centre-left has not really moved on from the ‘third way’ formula of the 1990s and 2000s. Commonly associated with Anthony Giddens, the third way was an attempt to renew social democracy, but also critique ‘old’ social democracy and neo-liberalism. Since the third way heyday, the centre-left has struggled to find a new ideational formula. In the UK, Ed Miliband played with ideas of ‘predistribution’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘One Nation’ and so on. This ideational restlessness perhaps reflects the ongoing struggle for the centre-left to re-state its purpose in the 21st Century.

Until these wider issues are grappled with, the risk is that the centre-left will keep on losing.

About the authors:

Rob ManwaringFlinders University
Rob Manwaring is a senior lecturer at Flinders University, in South Australia. He researches into the areas of labour and social democratic politics, comparative politics, political parties, and democracy.

Paul KennedyUniversity Bath
Paul Kennedy is Lecturer in Spanish and European Studies at the University of Bath.

 

Why the left loses edited by Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99.

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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

Dead-End lives [FC]Dead-end lives by Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £13.59.

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