The ‘Social’ in Social Housing

August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Social Policy | 6 Comments

There are plenty of reasons why people who could afford to leave social housing opt not to do so.

The most obvious, of course, is cost; even if you did have the resources to find yourself private accommodation, you might prefer living in social housing if it leaves you with a little extra money for food, clothes, transport, a night out and the odd holiday.

The second is the security that social housing can offer. Not every private landlord is as scrupulous as a local housing association, and the further down the price scale you go, the less security you’re likely to have. Social housing can offer considerably more peace of mind for tenants.

Another reason is community. People might just prefer the part of the world they’re staying in: they’re on good terms with the neighbours; their parents live up the road; their kids go to the local school; they’re used to seeing and socialising with the same faces; they belong. Why would they want to leave those social networks – that familiarity – behind?

Although the first two reasons will be most commonly cited by those concerned about David Cameron’s social housing announcement, I think the third reason is potentially the most significant.

Functionalist sociologists – more often linked with the political right than the left – often talk about a thing called social solidarity. They believe that social harmony is best achieved by members of a community all sharing similar norms, values, lifestyles, histories and traditions. They’re the things that bind us together, that give us common ground and foster neighbourliness and a public spirit.

Now, that theory might have holes in it, but a glance at our nation’s past suggests there’s at least some truth there. When you look at our post-war history, many episodes of social unrest on the British mainland have had high population turnover as a contributing factor. Long-time residents saw their communities changing before their eyes and didn’t who their neighbours were; newcomers would be sent to areas they didn’t know, alongside people whose culture and language they didn’t always share.

Whilst most communities were (and still are) open-minded enough to adapt the changes around them (no thanks to you know who), those areas with acute social exclusion and economic inactivity would regard their new neighbours as competitors for resources that were already – are already – in short supply. Even then, bonds were (and still are) built over time: the ‘newcomers’ stick around, form relationships and embrace the community around them; the long-time residents begin to work and socialise and relate to the people they might once have treated with mistrust. Solidarity grows.

None of this is meant to diminish the problems afflicting some of Britain’s housing estates; rather, it’s meant suggest that the introduction of arbitrary fixed-term leases could make matters worse. If we know that a high turnover of population can erode the bonds which hold communities together, it is not far-fetched to conclude that a policy which leads to residents constantly moving on could erode those bonds further. If that happens, we should expect greater mistrust, dysfunction and social unrest in deprived communities. Like they need that right now.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who brings out the ‘Big Society’ as a ‘gotcha’ to thrash the coalition with each time they announce questionable policy. But a ‘Big Society’ is no substitute for an understanding of how society actually works.

David Cameron famously admitted that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. He was right on both counts. But if his coalition continues to act as if State and Society are two entirely separate entities, he will never ‘unbreak’ the Britain he inherited.

What’s missing from the debate on welfare reform?

August 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

It’s worth recognising that the New Conservative rhetoric on welfare is somewhat different from that which has gone before. For over two decades it was a mainstream belief that the blame for welfare dependency lied with the claimants themselves. Encouraged by the sub-sociological pretensions of Charles Murray, it was common to speak of an ‘underclass’ of people who had voluntarily opted for welfare over work. If you accepted this assumption, it was logical that the only way of restoring responsibility was through a more austere welfare regime which could force them to take work.

In the current debate on welfare reform, the traditional rhetoric of responsibility remains, but the focus has shifted away from the supposed personal faults of welfare dependents and towards the mediation between claimants, the state and the jobs market. It’s no longer commonplace to hear the unemployed dismissed as lazy or feckless, but rather that the state has created disincentives to work.

There are elements of this change of tack which should be welcomed. It is a positive step for conservatives to acknowledge that the long-term unemployed are not simply the authors of their own despair, but can be constrained by factors outside of their control. We can also agree that employment should always pay more than a benefits system which has the sole purpose of protecting people from poverty.

But however radical the reform of the welfare system may or may not prove to be, simply redesigning the DWPs bureaucratic mechanisms won’t have any effect on either the social causes or consequences of long-term unemployment.

Let’s return, as this discussion so often does, to the topic of our ‘Broken Britain’. The Karen Matthews’ of the world, who Fraser Nelson suggests was created by the current welfare system, were not directly caused by the welfare state. The bad behaviours and lifestyles which afflict deprived communities weren’t created by the existence of the Job Seekers Allowance, but by the slow formation of anti-social norms and values as a result of a community’s economic disrepair & long-term joblessness. As I wrote in an older post:

The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.

Whilst the above description might only refer to a small (but significant) section of the unemployed, these are people who lack some of the social, emotional & intellectual capabilities which are required to work. I’m talking about the mum of three who can’t read; the alcoholic who lives with his parents; the heroin addict who’s been shunned by her family; the kid who’s just been convicted for carrying a knife. Whilst their experiences of unemployment may differ considerably, they are all the kinds of people for whom the barriers to work are more numerous & serious than the government seems prepared to consider.

Responsibility is important; indeed, it is an essential component of citizenship. But a welfare state is only credible when it demands responsibility of those who already possess the capabilities which fit the job market. Where those capabilities are missing, the role of the welfare state should be provide opportunities for people to build them, and remove the social, emotional & intellectual barriers to steady employment and social well-being. That means more widespread provision of adult education, rehab for substance abusers, tax rebates for companies who train teen apprentices and a penal system which makes the most of a prisoner’s time behind bars. That would be the difference between a genuinely empowering welfare system and an ineffectual bureaucratic fiddle.

Update: corrected a few lousy spellings/sentences.

How important is ‘civility’?

July 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

manners copy

In my school sociology class, we used to hear a lot about the ‘Golden Age ‘. We used to learn that for every age of innocence evoked by the media or our older relatives, there were still plenty of dangers, tragedies & traumas, and that we should treat with scepticism those claims that life was much safer, healthier & more civil than the times in which we live.

The ultimate lesson from all this – that our best days are not, in fact, behind us – was a formative influence on my political journey, and the rejection of the idea that society is in irrevocable decline has guided much of what I write here. Yet the sense of decay still lingers – in certain sections of the media, in the political rhetoric of the day & even in the minds of the general public – and I’ve been interested in where this ennui comes from, whether there’s any truth to it, and whether we can rediscover what many feel has been lost.

Last month, I discussed the Rowntree Foundation’s publication on ‘social evils‘, which reported that the public believed the modern age had made us more selfish & individualistic, less honest & compassionate. Then last week I looked at the Conservative crusade against the ‘broken society’, and pondered why that campaign had found resonance where John Major’s ‘back to basics’ had failed. Responding to that post, Joe Hallgarten linked to this report from the Young Foundation which explores whether a renaissance of civility could help us shrug off this societal gloom.

As with the report on social evils, defining what does and does not constitute ‘civility’ is difficult because we don’t all interpret each other’s behaviours in the same way. Likewise, there’s no research method available which could tell us whether we’re being more or less civil to each other; the only thing we can measure is whether people feel they experience civility, and even then you’re relying on the subjectivity of human experience. It’s simply impossible to measure this kind of thing objectively.

Still, the report’s authors do make a decent stab at pinning down what they mean, and it all seems perfectly, well, civil: giving up seats to elderly or pregnant women, smiling & greeting strangers, picking up litter, being a good neighbour, volunteering when you have the time & donating to charity when you have the money. I don’t think any of these behaviours has gone out of fashion, and they can all contribute positively to society.

But whilst the report tries to universalise the quest for civility as essentially classless – it chides everyone from ASBO teens & binge drinkers to bickering politicians & greedy bankers – the absence of a serious discussion of class or inequality does make you wonder whether the authors are merely tinkering with the artifice of British society. Even if we were to accept the premise that Britain is a less civil place and that there are things which individuals, social groups, companies & even governments can do to promote more civil social norms, the following question remains: can you really increase civility without first seeking to reduce inequality?

When you consider that people in deprived communities are more likely to be the victims of crime and less likely to have achieved well in school, their access to this more civilised future is bound to be retricted. This isn’t to say that working class folk are intrinsically less civilised than anyone else; merely to note that those incivilities which are most damaging, both to society & the taxpayer, can be located in these areas. There is a big difference between being a victim of a knifepoint mugging and being the victim of rudeness.

For all the suspicion I feel towards the concept of ‘golden ages’ or of our tendency to mythologise the past, there’s still something positive about people in civic society taking a look at the way they live & communicate with others, and wondering whether we could all be doing better. But the task of achieving a happier society won’t be achieved simply by promoting good manners, but by trying to nudge us towards a society enjoys greater equality of opportunity. For that reason, whilst this is a thoroughly interesting topic to read about & debate, it should remain just one part of a much broader conversation.

(Image via Wardomatic)

On ‘Social Evils’

June 11, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Social Policy | 4 Comments


Had the Joseph Rowntree Foundation been a less renowned institution, it might’ve titled its latest report Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit? Instead, Britain’s premier social think thank has given it the refined, but altogether more gloomy heading of ‘Social Evils.’

In this new survey of public feelings about the health of our society, the JRF concludes that Britain is suffering from an erosion of trust, a culture of fear and the sense that confidence in human interactions is at a low ebb.

Obviously, ‘Social Evil’ is a rather broad concept, and the authors haven’t sought to narrow it down much. Among the Bad Things currently afflicting us are: a decline in community, shared values and the importance of family; a rise in consumerism, celebrity culture and the cult of the individual; increased pressures on the lives of young people and greater wariness that older Britons feel towards the young. After that, you’ve got crime, drugs & other anti-social behaviours, the misery of poverty and, lastly, that old favourite of immigration. Surprisingly, ennui isn’t listed in the report, but it might as well have been.

All these evils are conspiring to diminish our collective happiness, turn us into more cynical social participators and ultimately erode our quality of life. If you’ve reached this point and are now thinking “God, I need a holiday”, I can’t say I blame you.

Reports like this create a dilemma for pundits & social scientists because there’s a difference between what is and what people perceive. In the past 10 years, your tried & trusted measurements for functionality have become less important to policy makers; it’s all very well printing statistics which boast that crime is falling, but if people’s fear of crime is rising, then that has policy implications regardless of whether you think it’s batty or well-founded. Likewise, it’s no longer enough to judge the NHS on how many lives have been saved and how quickly you have your operation; a patient’s perception of her/his ‘health experience’ is also regarded as important. If Ed Balls achieves his promised changes to the school league tables, this ‘customer satisfaction’ approach will soon be adopted in education as well.

So I think you can see that on top of the bottom-line statistics about service delivery, there’s also a trend towards a kind of post-coital ‘how was it for you?’ line of enquiry, and this report certainly fits within that. There’s nothing at all wrong with persuing that line of questioning, but the fact remains that all human experiences are different and all human beings interpret their realities very differently from each other. So when I read that lots of people are downcast about society, the next question I want to ask is “what’s led that person believe this?”

This is important because we have – at least on the face of it – still got a lot going for us. We’re all (fingers crossed) destined to live longer, we breathe cleaner air, bathe on nicer beaches and walk (generally) safer streets. Our cars are safer; our public transport (believe it or not) is better; we can enjoy greater access to information and communication than at any time during human history; our food is better, and our politics is (just about) more liberal. Yes, we are more unequal; no, we haven’t done enough to tackle either domestic or international poverty; and yes, we still have some huge & daunting problems to tackle. But what I want to know is: were those debits to the human experience really at the forefront of people’s minds when they gave their answers? I suspect not.

Are we ruder to each other? Are our shared values being besieged by consumerism & selfishness? Are morals eroding and manners degrading? According to the JRF, they could be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. I think we have a tendency to look at society as though it has changed but we have not; as though we’re static observers who just recoil in horror as the world collapses around us. Assuming that two decades of consumerism & a service economy have altered the way we think & behave, is it not possible that our expectations of society have risen above those our parents once had? Is it not be possible that rather than everyone becoming colder and ruder to each other, we crave greater intimacy or instant gratification from human interactions than is currently possible? Might it not also be possible that we project the values & demands of consumerism onto society in a way that previous generations never did? More bluntly, do we just want too much?

I don’t know, of course, and what’s both frustrating & so attractive about social inquiry is that you can never really know any Absolute Truth. But what I do think is that in the course of asking different questions and considering many different answers, you’ll probably be a bit more optimistic about the prospects for society than a bunch of numbers would have you believe.

Picture courtesy of PostSecret.

“Tough on crime” and other bad jokes

May 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Prison Reform, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I wasn’t planning on writing anything tonight, but I’d just like to highlight an excellent – if disturbing – piece of journalism which aired on BBC’s Look North earlier this evening.

Towards the end of last year, it became apparent that the National Probation Service – the folks whose job it is to ensure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend – would have to join just about every other branch of the public sector in having their budgets slashed. The cuts, estimated to be as much as £30 million, would have to be made in each area the country and the probation union NAPO warned that this would reduce the service’s already limited capacity to reform offenders, placing the public at greater risk of crime.

Anyway, Look North filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained the Ministry of Justice’s risk assessment document, which looked into the potential impact of any cuts. The document apparently gives ratings from one (negligible) to twenty-five (critical); in West Yorkshire, where £7m is expected to be cut, the impact was rated at twenty four. In other words, the public will be put at greater risk and criminals won’t have the same guidance to help them mend their ways.

Has there ever been a worse time to make cuts in the probation service? A time of deep recession, a time when prisons are so over-crowded that inmates are being released early or not sent to jail at all and a time when the reoffending rate already stands at 62%. Is this really the time to cut the budget of a service which is sometimes the only thing which stands in the way of offenders taking the easy route back to a life of crime?

As one anonymous probation officer told Look North: “We all came into this role to protect the public. We all feel strongly about the value the probation service has had for 100 years. We’re in the scenario now where our very existence seems to be getting stamped out by a government who seem more inclined to run the service like a McDonalds franchise.”

Quite. Of all the strategies this government’s followed in recent years, the notion that it can run the criminal justice system on the cheap has been the most baffling and will, over the long term, prove disastrous. The only irony is that they’ll only notice it when they’re languishing in opposition.

Grasping the nettle of social care

May 28, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | 1 Comment

About 15 years ago, my mother decided that her parents had grown too frail to live on their own: her dad was so crippled by arthritis that he was barely able to leave his armchair, and her mother’s eyesight had all but vanished. The most basic things – cooking, washing, cleaning – were a daily struggle, and though there was some nominal, infrequent care provided by the local authority, it wasn’t enough to assuage mum’s fears that her parents were too vulnerable.

Fuelled by a sense of love, duty & tradition (she’d cared for her own ailing grandmother when growing up), she persuaded her husband to let them move in with us; we built an extension to the house, converted a garage into a bedroom and fixed-up a disabled bathroom. Though they only stayed for about a year before passing away, for mum there was at least some solace in knowing that they lived their last days in comfort & dignity.

Comfort and dignity; that’s the most we really want out of old age and the least that any of us deserves. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years that we’re ill-equipped, both as a country and as individuals, to meet those modest standards.

In 2006, a report by Derek Wanless found serious shortfalls in the social care system: there’s a lack of joined-up service provision, delivery throughout the country was patchy and care providers are hampered by a lack of resources due to stretched council budgets. On top of that, the system of arbitrary means-testing is bitterly resented and many who fail that test are forced to sell their homes & move into nursing accommodation.

With an ageing population and rising life expectancy, Wanless warned that spending on social care would have to treble to about £30bn by 2026 just to meet the needs of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. That’s money we don’t have at present, and without it there’ll be millions of older people becoming wholly dependent on the care & charity of their families. That’s providing those families even have the ability to provide that care, of course; not everyone can afford to build extensions of the side of their bungalows.

In response to this mounting long-term crisis, the government’s in the midst of devising a Green Paper aimed at reforming the system. In anticipation of this, the IPPR has done a little research into the public attitudes to social care, what they expect from it and who they expect to pay for it. The results are a little muddled, conflicted and raise far more questions than they answer.

The first thing to take out of this report is that the public isn’t entirely sure what social care is; whilst a large majority of people can identify services like ‘meals on wheels’ or home visits, less than half were aware of the (fairly meagre) financial support for carers, and barely a third knew of the direct payments given to people needing care. This is important because the survey also found that care is an everyday part of many people’s lives, with just under a quarter of respondants claiming to offer help or support to someone close to them. Clearly, their lives could be made easier if they were more aware of the types of help available.

What’s slightly more concerning given the funding gap is the response to the question of what plans folk are making for their future care needs. Given the fact that around half of us aren’t putting anything towards a private pension, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that a large majority of us either haven’t thought about it or haven’t done anything to plan for it. In a way, this is understandable; after all, we could all be hit by a bus tomorrow, right? Sure, but the problem is that lots of us aren’t getting hit by busses, and if we all live a lot longer without planning for how we’ll be looked after when we reach old age, then we’re going to have a bit of a problem.

plansforfuturecare copy

So if we’re not doing anything to plan for our own old age, who should be responsible for it? How about our kids? After all, think of all the money parents spend on them; a little TLC wouldn’t be too much to expect in return, would it? Well, apparently it would. The chart below shows that most people from 35-70+ don’t believe that their future care should be paid for by their offspring, most likely out of a wish not to be a burden on their future success & happiness. On top of that, a large majority believe that care should be provided by health/social care professionals, rather than family members.


And as for how this social care could be funded… well, it’s enough to give a libertarian a heart attack:


As you can see, the current method of means testing isn’t very popular, and the alternative proposed by Derek Wanless of having free basic care for all, but additional services paid for, doesn’t fare much better. The large preference seems to be for free, universal care based solely on the level of help needed, similar to the NHS. This obviously poses a huge headache for policy-makers because you’re talking about a massive amount of money (certainly more than Wanless’ £30bn estimate), a significant expansion in services and an increase in the size of the public sector.

The main conclusion made in the IPPR’s report is that the government should establish an independent panel to establish the possible courses of action for improving social care and then beginning a national debate about how to proceed. I think this is certainly needed. The public needs to become better informed about the choices facing us and there needs to be open discussion about what role local & national government can play, what role the private sector can play, and what our own responsibilities are as citizens. That discussion is probably the only way to better long-term policy.

Just returning to the anecdote at the top for a moment: whenever a loved one’s birthday rolls around, I find myself reminded of the extraordinary & selfless care my mother gave to her parents, and wondering whether I’d be able to give the same level of devotion she showed to them and her two sons. Right now, I’m not sure I could, and I’m equally unconvinced that they could pay for it themselves or that the state could provide it for them. This nagging fear that my own parents – and millions like them – might one day be robbed of the right to age in comfort & dignity is why we need to discuss the options open to us, and, because each of us is someone’s son or daughter, I’d hope we could have that discussion in good faith.

Welfare & Bureaucracy

December 16, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I’d urge anyone interested in the welfare white paper – and who has about 20 minutes to spare – to read this quite wonderful analysis by Paul Cotterill over at The Bickerstaffe Record. Paul makes a number of hugely important observations, particularly in relation to ensuring unemployed parents can access good quality childcare to help them meet their new obligations. As I’ve mentioned before, the government hasn’t yet removed the costs and inconveniences of childcare as impediments to working, and there is already evidence that impoverished familes are receiving poorer care than the more well-off. He also describes – and far better than I managed in this meagre, sleep-deprived offering – the problems with the proposed ‘Work for your benefit’ scheme, and why requiring people to participate for anything less than the minimum wage is simply unacceptable.

But the most important observation in this essay relates to the difference between policy formation and implementation:

Just writing a White Paper with policy prescriptions for ‘Adviser Flexibility’ doesn’t mean you’ll get ‘Adviser Flexibility’ in real life. In fact with the ‘welfare reforms’ now proposed there’s a real risk that, given the additional bureaucracies inevitably involved, mechanisms will evolve that produce less flexibility, more ‘processing’ (i.e. dehumanising) of clients. In the US at least front-line staff’s starting culture was one geared to just processing benefit claims with no great expectation of what might happen next; in the UK, the invasive New Public Management techniques of the last 25 years mean that front line staff in Job Centre Pluses already start from a more a negative standpoint, just as inclined to ‘process’ but to do so with more of a mind to benefit withdrawal.

All taken together, there is a huge risk that the whole plus side of the reform – and at policy-making level increased personalized support is seen as a plus – will be ignored in favour of the downside; this will be about pushing people into (for them) counterproductive ‘work related activity’ in order to meet the newly introduced range of targets (and Paul Gregg’s paper is quite clear about the need for performance targets and ‘detailed guidance’ (p 78)).

There is no mention of targets for the new reforms which relate, for example, to client satisfaction and life improvement; the targets will, as now, all be about driving down the claimant count, irrespective of the actual human cost to benefit-seekers and their families.

This is absolutely correct. It’s impossible these days to find an organisation in which working practices aren’t rationalised & computerised, particularly one with such a large bureaucratic belly as Job Centre Plus, and which has to deal with such a huge volume of ‘customers’. Methods of administration invariably restrict opportunites for agency and personalisation, and unless these are explicitly codified within the adviser’s working instructions, they threaten to be lost entirely. The consequence would be a process top-heavy with instructions and sanctions, but a little light on the equally important personal touch.

But I’m really only giving you the economy version. Go here to read the whole thing.

A dose of sanity

December 2, 2008 at 10:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

I’ll try, at some point in the next few days, to write something about Labour’s proposed welfare reforms which doesn’t just amount to rocking backwards & forwards whilst muttering “it’s just not fair” over & over again.

But until then, this post from Don Paskini is probably the sanest, most constructive suggestion I’ve read so far:

Rather than simply opposing the welfare reform bill when it is announced in the Queen’s Speech, I hope lefties will support putting amendments to it which would make it more effective at doing what we all agree is needed – providing support for people to get jobs and allowing community-based voluntary groups to help deliver services and get funding to help the people in their communities. After James Purnell has spent a few months giving speeches about how the status quo is not an option and how we need to be more radical in removing the barriers which stop people getting jobs, let’s see how he votes on, say, an amendment to make childcare free and more widely available for working parents, or to reduce the cost of transport or housing, or to make work pay with a ‘living wage’ for all workers, or to tackle discrimination amongst employers against disabled people, or any of the other sensible and moderate ideas which would remove some of the barriers to work which people experience.

There are better and more popular ways of reforming the welfare state then handing over billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to firms which are dependent on corporate welfare in the form of government handouts while at the same time taking from the very poorest in our society. I do think it is possible to get a majority of Labour MPs to understand this over the next few weeks and months and to persuade them to support some genuinely radical welfare reform, rather than playing ‘follow the banker’ and implementing David “I knew nothing about welfare” Freud’s proposals.

In the same way as Parliamentary amendments were needed to soften the harm done by the abolition of the 10p tax rate, I suspect the same will be required of these welfare reforms. Hopefully the pressure among grassroots activists, trade unions & pressure groups like Compass will be enough to encourage Labour backbenchers to get behind them.

Getting real about welfare

November 21, 2008 at 9:46 am | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

Since there’s enough in this Jenni Russell piece which is commendable, let’s get the irritating parts out of the way first:

This refusal to think about the interaction between good intentions and perverse consequences has long been a blindness of the left. It is beginning to change, notably with James Purnell’s willingness to challenge lifetime dependency in the welfare-to-work reforms at the Department for Work and Pensions. But he is seen by some in the Labour government as dangerously radical in approach. Here the government is lagging behind the public who, in the face of recession, are likely to be asking tough questions about who exactly benefits from the welfare state, what the results of its spending are, and on what basis its resources are allocated.

The first sentence is plainly wrong. When partisans on the left defend the welfare state without being self-reflexive enough to acknowledge its flaws, it’s not because they think ‘well, our intentions are good, so what could possibly go wrong?’ No, it’s invariably to counter the charge of powerful partisans on the right who fantasise about abolishing it, without themselves possessing the self-reflexivity to acknowledge the possibility that social dysfunction might well increase.

Secondly, the strongest criticisms of Purnell’s welfare-to-work reforms are practical, not ideological. As they stand now, Purnell’s reforms would have the long-term unemployed doing menial tasks like sweeping the streets in order to receive their benefits payments. But there are already people paid to sweep the streets by councils up and down Britain, and the insistance that welfare claimants do these tasks in order to claim their pittance will devalue that job to the level of about £50 a week. It’s a gross distortion of the labour market and, if Purnell & co. aren’t careful, it will disadvantage those already in work.

And finally, yes, in a recession, the public will be asking tough question about who exactly benefits from the welfare state. And when they, their family or any of their friends become unemployed, they will soon discover it.

What follows this are several paragraphs of “my anecdotal evidence conveniently proves how correct I am about everything!”, but when she stops being an armchair sociologist, there are some good points to be made.

The first is that the welfare system – like all great, heaving bureacracies – reacts far too slowly to people’s changing circumstances and is stubbornly inflexible. You don’t need your claim for Job Seeker’s Allowance to be processed in some call centre or by a Job Centre staffer who’s chained to the rigidness of form-filling procedures, and you don’t want the whole process to seize up just because there’s some small detail in your personal circumstances which the computer can’t adequately factor-in. You need a welfare agency which is quick, flexible and responsive, and this will inevitably require some decentralisation.

The second good point she makes is this:

If a culture is to change, we will need, as politicians like Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen have argued, expensive investment in all ages from nought to 18. It has to start with focused help with parenting and continue with genuinely good childcare, flexible jobs and a more responsive, emotionally intelligent education system. That wouldn’t be simple or cheap. But at a time when we are wondering how to prime the economy, it’s hard to think of a more productive way to invest the nation’s money than in rethinking the aims and failings of our welfare state.

One of the almighty frustrations about the commentary which followed the ‘Baby P’ case is that for all the vague allusions to some undefinabe ‘underclass‘ and all the hand-wringing about the harmfulness of welfare dependency, there’ve been precious few ideas for how this might be resolved.

Welfare isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that for far too long, there have been no government alternatives to welfare. If you want to reduce social problems, then Early Intervention is vital, and Graham Allen & Iain Duncan Smith offer some useful ideas about how a comprehensive programme (including SureStart & the Family Nurse Partnership) might help both parents & children. We can either commit to thinking seriously about ways of doing this, or we can just decide to moralise publicly each time poverty creates yet another newsworthy tragedy. But all those who opt for the latter will just sound startlingly insincere.


November 18, 2008 at 9:15 am | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

Whenever a tragedy emerges from the extremeties of breadline Britain which is considered ‘newsworthy’ enough for our country’s commentariat to form an opinion on, you’ll find one recurring buzzword in their analysis. Reacting to the senseless evil inflicted on a boy aged just 17 months, the dystopian Peter Hitchens diagnoses a “violent, conscience-free underclass, created by 45 years of well-intentioned but disastrous socialism.” Citing a friend’s testimony as proof, Sophie Heawood insists that yes, there is a growing underclass, and ‘non-judgemental liberals’ ‘gloss-over it’ at their peril. In The Times, Camilla Cavendish despairs that despite the attention paid to alleviating material poverty, we have failed to affect an underclass which posesses a “devastating poverty of mind and spirit”. Whilst these three writers would struggle to agree on all but the most basic of facts, when it comes to the existence of an ‘underclass’, they sigh in sorry unison.

On the face of it, ‘underclass‘ is a very serious-sounding concept; it’s been used in the social sciences for over 50 years and was popularised during the dramatic upheavals of the 1980’s. But whilst this history makes it appear scientific & trustworthy, as a method of analysing the myriad social problems in deprived communities, the term is completely useless.

People use it as some vague shorthand for ‘poor people whose behaviour we don’t approve’, and if you were to press them to be more specific, the answer often comes back garbled. They can’t define it, can’t quantify it, can’t provide any verifiable evidence of what caused its emergence and can’t offer any sure-fire solutions for reversing its apparent growth. Because of the way it’s been hijacked for political purposes, the term is just a shabby conflation of structural explanations (entrenched poverty, the consequences of having a ‘reserve army of labour’) with moral issues (crime, drugs, family breakdown) when they need to be treated separately. As the historian Michael B. Katz argues, the concept ‘muddies debate and inhibits the formulation of constructive policy’ – it lacks a consistent theoretical basis and has ‘little ideological substance’. In short, the term is empirically bankrupt.

This matters because the media’s coverage of poverty is so fleeting and threadbare that on the few occasions they can find an excuse to write about the lives of the deprived, they need to spend that time doing actual reporting rather than relying on lazy, politically-charged generalisations that make good copy and awful analysis.

Beyond that, there needs to be an acceptance that societal problems are normative; they take generations to fester and will take just as long to resolve. We also need to get serious about how much we’re willing to invest in trying to resolve social problems. Does inadequate parenting strengthen the case for expanding the Family Nurse Partnership? Are we willing to match the calls for more children to be placed in care by giving them care homes worth of the name? Can we begin to reform social services so that social workers are better paid and better trained?

I can’t tell you what all the answers are, but if the chattering classes wish to discuss the social dysfunction which plagued Baby P’s life and played no small part in his death, then it needs to be serious and sustained. Relying on defunct terminology, unreliable observations and peering at the poor on cab rides through council estates just isn’t good enough.

Image by Flickr user Neil101 (Creative Commons)

Social mobility: a reality check

November 11, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | 1 Comment

David Byrne, Professor of Sociology at Durham University, pours cold water on the government’s claim to have improved social mobility in recent years by insisting that the true test of mobility is occupation, not education:

The most important shift over the last 40 years has been the massive decline in the proportion of the population engaged in skilled manual work. At the same time, the relative earnings of many occupations which require higher levels of education have declined, to the extent that occupations which could be accessed with five O-levels in the 1960s now require a degree.

The net effect is that it is increasingly difficult for children from middle-income households to achieve the relative, and even absolute, living standard of their parents. The harsh reality is that in the bad old days of the 11-plus there was more social mobility than there is now. The UK is, by western European standards, an unequal society and all the signs are that it is likely to remain so.

I’m sure there are thousands of recent graduates out there who could identify with that.

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