Monday, 29 April 2013

On social security, universality and public support for the welfare state

As the Government moots the idea of means-testing certain benefits for pensioners, Owen Jones writes for The Independent that universality is an integral component of a good welfare state.  In response, Sunny Hundal writes that universality does not automatically generate support for social security.

In defence of his view, Sunny argues (quite rightly) that overall support for extra spending on benefits has dwindled since the 1990s.  But to what extent does this prove his idea that universality does not increase support for social security?  What Sunny's graph shows is that there is little evidence linking very specific introductions of universality (winter fuel payments for example) with broad support for the welfare state as a whole.

The picture is quite different if we break down support for specific parts of the social security system.  The graph below shows the percentage of respondents from the British Social Attitudes survey by aspects of the welfare state they prioritise for extra spending.

Percentage that prioritise specific area of social security for extra spending (British Social Attitudes)

Over the New Labour years, large amounts of extra spending was targeted at two different groups: a) pensioners and b) families with children.  And as the graph above shows, over the late 1990s and 2000s increasing proportions of the public would prioritise extra spending on these 'growth' areas of the welfare state.

Alternatively, during the same years unemployment benefits became a) worth less and b) available to a decreasing pool of people.  As it happens, the number of people prioritising extra spending on the unemployed dwindled to, at one point, just 2 per cent.

The UK welfare state can be thought of as a hybrid system: there are pockets of universality and pockets of means-testing.  What I think the graph above shows is that where universality is dominant (for pensioners and families with children) there is strong public support.  Of course, the same can be said for the NHS: the universal principle leads to widespread public backing.

But where means-testing and highly selective coverage dominates - such as for the unemployed - public support is very low.  So whilst Sunny is right on one point - winter fuel payments alone won't boost support for the entire welfare state  - he is wrong to misjudge the effect universality can have on specific parts of the social security system.  It's difficult to imagine how the welfare state could sustain the levels of solidarity it requires without universal benefits; the left, at its peril, supports their demise.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Evidence shows 0% of long-term unemployed people are failing to look for work

There is a lot of debate, particularly fuelled by the political right and the tabloid press, about the extent to which unemployed people are genuinely looking for work.  People on the right argue that there needs to be a tighter sanctions regime so those who are failing to look for work are encouraged to do so.  People on the left claim that the problem is not lack of effort, but lack of vacancies.

To clear this debate up a bit, I thought I would share some interesting data from the Annual Population Survey (APS).  The APS is an exceptionally large dataset of over 300,000 people.  This means that anything found in the data is quite likely to be true of the wider population.

The APS asks a simple question to all its respondents: 'Have you looked for paid work in the past 4 weeks?'.  If the right are correct, we might expect a decent proportion of unemployed respondents to answer 'no'.  If the left are correct, we'd be expect a very low figure to answer 'no'.

The number of unemployed not looking for work is tiny - 2%

In total, 11480 unemployed people answered this question.  Of this group, 98% (11,428) said they had looked for work and just 2% (232) said they hadn't.  This suggests 'idleness' amongst the unemployed is a relatively small problem: just 1 in 50 of the total out of work.

Nevertheless, this is a slightly misleading - and exaggerating - number.  Much of the time, the right is generally focused on people who have been out of work for a decent period of time: those who have, in the jargon, been 'parked on benefits'.

So what about the long-term unemployed?

Thus a better way to assess whether we have a 'scrounger' problem is to look exclusively at the job-seeking efforts of the relatively long-term unemployed, say those who have been out of work for 6 months or more.  Reducing the sample in this way gives us 6148 long-term unemployed (54% of the total out of work).

Now, here is the interesting statistic.  Out of the 6148 people who have been out of work for 6 months or more, just 15 - yes, 15 - had failed to look for work over the past month.  This is 0.2%: or, if you like, a small enough group of people to make 'idleness' essentially non-existent amongst the unemployed.

Per cent of long-term unemployed who have a) looked for work in past month or b) not looked for work in past month

If we extrapolate this to the wider population, this means that out of an estimated 1,400,000 (54% of the total unemployed) people might be long-term unemployed, just 2,800 have not recently looked for work.   And it is this small minority - rather than the 1.4 million mass of long-term unemployed - that Coalition rhetoric is almost exclusively targeted towards.

A non-existent problem

There will be obvious retorts here from right-wingers.  They might say people aren't telling the truth; but they have no real incentive to lie as this is an anonymous survey.  They might also say that we don't know how much job-seeking long-term unemployed people are doing, which is true and which could be answered with the proper data.  However, what we do know from the APS is that nearly every long-term unemployed person is actively looking for a job.  A fact that makes the current furore over the benefits system even more difficult - and infuriating - to understand.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Would higher benefits increase the wellbeing of the unemployed? Perhaps not.

New research using the cross-national European Social Survey was released today, with a special emphasis on the relationship between the recession, the labour market and subjective wellbeing.  A key finding of the research is that in countries with welfare systems that generally provide high unemployment benefits (the Nordic countres), the unemployed tend to have higher levels of subjective wellbeing than their counterparts in countries with ungenerous benefits (like the UK).

This raises an important question.  Would increasing the value of benefits raise the wellbeing of the unemployed?  In theory, higher benefits could make unemployment more bearable by reducing poverty and alleviating anxieties about making ends meet.  The ESS findings come at a useful time policy-wise.  At the weekend, Labour announced new plans to back an increased level of unemployment benefit.

Looking first at the life satisfaction levels of the whole population, we can see the kind of relationship we might expect: those with the largest incomes have higher life satisfaction, those with the smallest incomes have the lowest life satisfaction.  For ease of interpretation, the results below are based upon a sample that excludes the richest 30 per cent or so of respondents; the vast majority of which are not unemployed, which makes any analysis (based upon tiny numbers) problematic.

Average life satisfaction by income group, Citizenship Survey (2009/10 and 2010/2011)

So what happens when we divide this up by employment status?  The results below are, in this instance, perhaps what we might not expect.  For those within the employed group, the higher earners have the highest life satisfaction, but only just.  This suggests that being in work is pretty good for life satisfaction even if you are on a relatively low income.

Average life satisfaction by income group and employment status

Yet the question we're really interested in here is whether a higher income protects unemployed people against a loss in life satisfaction.  And the answer seems to be no.  The average life satisfaction for unemployed people in the highest income group is 3.6; remarkably, for the lowest income group of unemployed people it is slightly (though perhaps not significantly) higher, at 3.7.

What this suggests is that unemployment corrodes wellbeing irrespective of how much money a person has whilst they're unemployed.  Yet this is not necessarily an argument against higher unemployment benefits.  The argument for higher benefits is based upon a much wider range of arguments than boosting life satisfaction: reducing poverty, giving dignity to people, easing income anxieties and allowing the children of unemployed people to be adequately provided for.

But what this does mean, I think, is that we have to consider the stigma attached to unemployment and the social costs that follow as much greater problems than purely economic ones.  So whilst higher benefits may solve some of the issues associated with unemployment - such as intense poverty and income insecurity - they cannot, at least alone, deal with some of the other problems of unemployment. Not least, why it makes people feel so bad.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Why I didn't celebrate the death of Thatcher (but why others did)

Compared to many other parts of the city, where I’m from in Liverpool is a relatively affluent area.  People aren’t overwhelmingly rich, but they tend not to be particularly poor either.  Many people own their homes, the schools tend to be good, there are relatively high levels of employment and more 18-year-olds than anywhere else in the city go to university.

I’m a product of this part of Liverpool. My upbringing was safe and secure and I went to university. So although ideologically I have always been against what Thatcherism stood for (at least as long as I have known what ideology meant), I cannot claim to be a victim of it.  For that reason, I also cannot claim to be happy that Thatcher herself is dead.

But you don’t have to stray too far from where I grew up to find the victims of Thatcherism and witness the devastation its policies brought about.  As you drive towards Lime Street from the far north of Liverpool, the houses become more boarded up, the shops more derelict and the streets more empty.  The neighbourhoods just north of Liverpool city centre have failed to recover from an economic war waged against them 30 years ago.  Opportunity is scarce, jobs even scarcer.  There is a sense that whole communities are dying.

The same scenes are repeated across many of the industrial cities that had the same war waged against them.  Thirty years on and not much has changed.  New Labour should – and could – have done much more.  That they didn’t is a testament to the power that Thatcherism has.

I don’t think people like me have a reason to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher: even if we disagree with the principles she believed in and the policies she implemented. This is why there is repulsion from many towards the street parties in places like Brixton.  A sense that the misery of some has been appropriated by the fortunate.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who suffered and continue to suffer as a result of her legacy. And when it comes to these people – the real victims of Thatcherism – it is difficult, and perhaps wrong, for any of us to feel too self-righteous.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Why are social policy academics absent from the national debate on benefits?

If you can believe it, the last three years have been exciting (and worrying) for anyone with an interest in the welfare state.  The Coalition have introduced huge changes to the social security system.  They have dramatically reduced the generosity of certain benefits, capped the amount households can receive, reformed eligibility and introduced stringent new work requirements for many claimants.  Further, the public debate on welfare has been relentless.  What is fair and who deserves what are conservations that stretch beyond the closed world of Westminster policy wonks.

Yet amidst the welfare storm that has swept the country, there has been one notable group that is often excluded from the debate: the UK's hundreds of social policy academics.  Last week, a silence was finally broken with a letter to The Guardian, signed by fifty social policy professors.  Now 'expert letters' have probably never had much influence in shifting the terms of policy or debate; but now, in the social media age - when news is 24/7 and everyone is given a platform through mediums like Twitter - they are probably even less effective than they were in the past.

So why have social policy academics been so quiet at a time when their own discipline is the one of the most talked about news stories: week-in, week-out?  I can't claim to have any definite answers, but I do have a few ideas.  In short, I think there is a vicious circle that exists: one in which social policy academics are excluded from debates, whilst also excluding themselves.

On the one hand then, I think the media must bear some responsibility.  If you listen to radio debates and phone-ins on welfare policy, presenters invariably go for two representatives of completely opposing sides of the debate.  They are (perhaps inevitably) less interested in a more nuanced analysis of policy and want people - such as think-tankers and political commentators - who are able to summarise opposing viewpoints in an articulate way.

However, I don't think this completely explains the absence of social policy academics from national debates.  Thus as well as being excluded from discussions on welfare, there are numerous ways in which academics exclude themselves.  The most obvious way is by failing to engage with new social media effectively.  For example, I attended one day of last year's Social Policy Association conference; an event in which there were hundreds of discussions taking place about the welfare state.  The event had a Twitter hashtag, but there were only around 10 people actively using it to promote the conference.  I also think that compared to other disciplines, social policy academics are relatively sparse on platforms like Twitter and blogs.

The second way in which I think many academics exclude themselves from debate is more complex and is to do with the intellectual relationship many have with welfare.  I think it would be fair to say that many academics working in social policy have a preference for a certain type of welfare state; one that is quite far from the type we have in the UK.  And what this means is that there is a culture of criticism (and even hostility) - empirical, theoretical and moral - that pervades British social policy when it looks at our own welfare system.  In general, I think this leads to those in control of the debate (e.g. TV and radio executives) to assume what academics will think: critical of the government, anti-cuts, pro-welfare expansion.  And if you want to air those kinds of views, you might as well look to media-friendly voices, rather than the (stereotypically) 'dull academic'.

Overall, I think there needs to be a big debate within the academic social policy community about how to engage better with national conversations about the very subject its members devote their working lives to. This will involve practical steps such as a stronger focus on social media output.  But it will also involve something more difficult: to 'open up' the discipline to a wider range of views about the welfare state, to welcome more intellectual diversity and to challenge existing ways of thinking about social security.  Sometimes academic social policy can feel predictable and insular.  And as long as that remains the case, the debate will continue to go on without it.