Monday, 3 September 2012

Is it possible to make social security popular again?

I recently came across Ben Baumberg's paper - 'Three ways to defend social security in Britain' - in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.  It is an interesting read and, in short, assesses the success that three recent contributions to the social security debate have had in meeting what Ben argues are the necessary conditions required to improve the quality of social security.  These are that policies:

  • Lead to reductions in poverty and inequality.
  • Fit existing public attitudes on the deservingness of claimants.
  • Aim to, in the long run, change such attitudes on deservingness.
Without going into great detail, Ben's central contention is that the challenge facing those who desire to make social security better is as follows.  First, there is a need to engage with existing public perceptions of 'who deserves what'.  Second, however, there is a need to ensure that engagement does not become accommodation; and that, in the long run, wider public notions of deservingness are changed.  Such a strategy will clearly involve a high degree of skilful political and policy manoeuvring. 

Can it be done?

The message then is that the kind of welfare state many on the Left would like - generous, supportive, personalised, popular - will not come over night.  And to achieve it, there must be a genuine engagement with the public: many of whom do not appear to like social security very much at all.

The key to this dilemma seems to lie somewhere in dealing with the realm of contribution and reciprocity.  The lack of engagement with these concerns is what Ben Baumberg criticises about the first two contributions he reviews: Decent Childhoods and National Salary Insurance.  The third - The Solidarity Society - attempts to deal with this dilemma (of engaging with, acquiring and changing public attitudes) much more centrally.

The problem that remains is how to rethink the relationship between social security and contribution/reciprocity without merely falling back to old ideas about social insurance or capitulating to seemingly popular notions of 'tough conditionality'.  Ben's argument is that such change will only happen in stages and that this will require engaging with the public whilst also leaving the scope open for future progress.

My own thought is that this could be partly achieved with a rethinking of conditionality (at least for claimants of JSA).  This could involve, for example, higher benefit payments to claimants who enrol on training, education, work experience or community placements.  To my mind this would a) reduce poverty, b) engage with existing public concerns of deservingness and c) change attitudes in the long-term.  

The latter is the hardest task that the Left faces with regards to social security.  Yet I would argue that a shift in rewarding claimants' contributions with higher payments would emphasise to the public what claimants do whilst they are unemployed, rather than what they don't do.  The obvious fact is that many present claimants are contributing in a wide variety of ways, yet because this is not rewarded, it goes unnoticed: and the public emphasis remains unchanged.  

As Ben argues rightly, focusing on conditionality carries certain dangers: such as that future governments will simply revert back to the type of conditionality on offer now.   Yet we have to see a better welfare state as a long-term goal.  As Margaret Thatcher found out, her goal of a worse welfare state did not come about immediately.  It took years of subtle changes to public and political debate.  Little rewards could offer big hopes.


  1. Thanks for the post Daniel - nice to get a conversation started on this!

    Your idea is really interesting; I think whether it would work or not depends on how it was presented. So the Labour attempt from the late 1990s to say loudly, 'we're taking tough action on benefit fraud' backfired, because it seemingly confirmed to people that lots of claimants are fraudulent. So if this was sold as 'most claimants are trying really hard, and should be rewarded for it', then it might be useful in changing attitudes. Which having reread this, is the distinction I think you were making in the post.

    The downside with contribution- or reciprocity-based payments is always 'what about the people left behind?' Not sure that there's a way round this, but if it was implemented in a sympathetic way then this would lessen the objection. It's still an interesting idea, and not one I've heard in this form before.

    Anyway, looking forward to continuing to chat about this in the coming months!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ben. I actually wrote something similar on Labour List at the start of the year, which I had completely forgotten about:

      How Labour and welfare state sympathisers respond to the current welfare impasse is certainly tricky. At the moment we seem to be stuck between hardliners and those who take a defensive approach, whereas I'm sure it'll take some clever and difficult thinking to succeed in successfully defending social security. It'll be interesting to see Labour's approach fleshed out more (hopefully) at the party conference.

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