Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Ways of extending the welfare state to the poor”

‘Words make things, because they make the consensus on the existence and the meaning of things’ said Bourdieu and the language that is often used to discuss the causes of poverty and the circumstances of people in poverty has helped to construct an apparent consensus amongst certain sections of the population that people on low incomes are ‘masters of their own misfortune’ as Bowley noted, way back in 1915.

So, the need to re-frame the debate or change the rhetoric is often discussed at present. Part of the problem, in my view, is the ‘sloganization of social policy’ outside of academia, which leads to politicians framing the discussion as being a problem between ‘shirkers and workers’, ‘strivers and skivers’ and ‘hard-working families’ vs ‘troubled families’. We also have their ‘lackey intellectuals’ talking about ‘dadlessness’, ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘benefit ghettos’. Titmuss argued that:

Generalized slogans rarely induce concentration of thought; more often they prevent us from asking significant questions about reality. Morally satisfied and intellectually dulled, we sink back into our presumptive cosy British world of welfare’

But what if generalized slogans could induce concentration of thought? What if, instead of trying to beat the sloganization of social policy with reasoned arguments, we joined in the fun? Here’s some suggestions (some old and some new) to get the (dumbed-down?) discussion going….

Illth – a term used by Ruskin and others to highlight that much of what passes for ‘wealth’ is actually no such thing and the concentration of economic power in the hands of small number of individuals and families is a social illness, not something to be celebrated:

Whence it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are, they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, and eddies in a stream (which, so long as the stream flows, are useless, or serve only to drown people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should the stream dry); or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as ‘illth,’ causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, (no use being possible of anything they have until they are dead,) in which last condition they are nevertheless often useful as delays, and ‘impedimenta (Ruskin, Unto the last, 1860)

Diswelfare – there is much discussion and concern about the use of the word welfare rather than, say social security but there should be no such problems with talking about ‘diswelfare’ and the ‘diswelfare state’, as Titmuss did in 1967:

The emphasis today on ‘welfare’ and the ‘benefits of welfare’ often tends to obscure the fundamental fact that for many consumers the services used are not essentially benefits or increments to welfare at all; they represent partial compensations for disservices, for social costs and social insecurities which are the product of a rapidly changing industrial urban society. They are part of the price we pay to some people for bearing part of the costs of other people’s progress; the obsolescence of skills, redundancies, premature retirements, accidents, many categories of disease and handicap, urban blight and slum clearance, smoke, pollution, and a hundred and one other socially generated disservices. They are the socially caused diswelfares; the losses involved in aggregate welfare gains.

What is also of major importance today is that modern society if finding it increasingly difficult to identify the causal agent or agencies, and thus to allocate the costs of disservices and charge those who are responsible. It is not just a question of benefit allocation – of whose ‘Welfare State’ – but also of loss allocation – whose ‘Diswelfare State’

In the same vein, we could, potentially, begin referring to what many politicians like to call ‘handouts’ as ‘bailouts’ highlighting the fact that people living in poverty are in a precarious, dangerous position. Why do banks get ‘bailouts’ whilst individuals get ‘handouts’?

The Corporate Welfare State – this leads us nicely on to Kevin Farnsworth’s work on ‘corporate welfare’ which deserves far greater coverage in social policy discussions, especially in light of recent announcements regarding Amazon getting more in grants than it pays in taxes. It was also interesting to hear Ed Milliband comparing large corporations to ‘benefits cheats’ recently, although he missed the opportunity to highlight the difference in the scale of the two problems.

Benefit philanthropy – based on the idea of ragged trousered philanthropists helping out the ‘illthy’ people in our society by providing them with cheap labour, we could attempt to turn the argument about benefit ‘cheats’ and ‘fraudsters’ – you know, the ‘scroungers’ – on its head and highlight the substantial amount of money that people on low incomes ‘gift’ back to the state through not taking up the benefits they are entitled to. This is estimated to be between £7billion – £12 billion per year – a substantial contribution to our economy and this, in a time of ‘austerity’ should surely be ‘acknowledged’ appropriately.

Tax evasion/avoidance as a lifestyle choice – George Osborne has suggested that, for some, being on benefits, is a ‘lifestyle choice’ which may be true, but the extent of this is probably greatly exaggerated and the ‘benefits’ to be accrued from any such choice are likely to be relatively small. However, tax evasion or avoidance is most certainly a ‘lifestyle choice’ and one which potentially brings with it much greater benefits.

Tackling the cycle of privilege – we hear a lot about the ‘cycle of poverty’ but a lot less about the ‘cycle of privilege’. The same could also be said about a ‘culture of privilege’ or ‘intergenerational advantage’ for example.

‘Landlord subsidy’ / ‘low-pay subsidy’ – these, again, are not my ideas and readers may be familiar with suggestions to re-name Housing Benefit’ as ‘Landlord Subsidy’ to clarify who it goes to and why. Similarly, calling tax-credits and/or other in-work benefits ‘low pay subsidy’ would be a lot more honest and might lead to some employers reflecting on their business practice. It might also make employees think differently about their relationships with both employer and the state.

A new ‘behaviourist paradigm’ – much of the above links back to Tawney’s suggestion that

‘what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice the problem of riches’ and ‘Improve the character of individuals by all means – if you feel competent to do so, especially of those whose excessive incomes expose them to particular temptations’.

I’ve argued before, using Peter Townsend’s work in particular, that, in trying to improve the situation of ‘the poor’, we should spend more time studying the decisions and actions of ‘the rich’. In effect, and in a desperate effort to link this back to academic parlance, I think I’m arguing for a new behaviourist paradigm in poverty research and analysis, partly inspired by John Veit-Wilson who, in a recent e-mail to me, stated that ‘the only behaviours I’m interested in are the behaviours of the rich.’ So, rather than swimming against the current of public opinion which appears to believe that poverty is the result of individual behaviours we should perhaps use the strength of that current to encourage and challenge people to see where such a view ultimately takes them.

*The title of this blog comes from Richard Titmuss who suggested that we needed to look at social security and housing (‘these instruments of change’) ‘with new vision’. He argued that ‘we might then entitle our journey ‘Ways of extending the Welfare State to the poor’.

Please do use the comments facility below to offer your own suggestions…

Best wishes,



Talking the talk……

I’ve done a guest blog for VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) on why charities really should be paying the Living Wage. The blog can be found here:

Best wishes,


Researching Relationships: Family, Friendship and Community in Cullercoats

Guest post by Professor Alison Stenning

Both academic and more popular narratives suggest that the apparently individualising impulses of neoliberalism, together with increasing geographical mobility and connectivity, erode the value of local, personal relationships (with, for example, family, friends and neighbours). Yet relationships remain at the heart of our everyday lives. They create an environment that ‘contains’ us, allows us to keep going and to tolerate stresses of various kinds, and the value of such relationships is increased, not decreased, at a time of economic crisis. Insecurity, vulnerability, loss and anxiety are experienced by many as they face the considerable economic, social and emotional challenges of austerity, and the contribution that local, personal relationships might make to weathering these challenges is a critical concern.

 The effects of over four years of economic crisis have been widely felt but they have also been uneven, socially and geographically.  Socially, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ has been identified as being particularly susceptible to ongoing crisis and cuts. Although definitions of this class are vague, the Resolution Foundation suggests that it consists nationally of some 6 million working, home-owning households with a gross income of something like £12-40,000. These households are not living in poverty but are increasingly insecure and vulnerable to the threat of labour market, cost-of-living, and tax and benefit changes. Geographically, the UK’s northern regions, and in particular the North East, have been disproportionately affected by job loss, public sector cuts and pay squeezes.


This new research project seeks to explore how, in the contemporary context of crisis and austerity, the personal relationships that shape communities (between families, friends, neighbours etc.) enable so-called ‘squeezed middle’ households in Cullercoats, North Tyneside to negotiate social and economic challenges and achieve material and emotional security. This might be through the moral support they offer, or because they give time, or money, or other kinds of help that make it easier for families to get by. An innovative psycho-social approach is being developed, placing emphasis on and exploring the intertwining of social and emotional dynamics in everyday life.

This focus on relationships has developed out of previous research. In a project on households and neoliberalism in Poland and Slovakia (with colleagues Adrian Smith, Darek Swiatek and Alena Rochovska), we concluded that the families that struggled most with tough economic circumstances were those without good relationships with family, friends and neighbours, who found themselves isolated from all sorts of support networks, through which information, money, and love, amongst other things, might flow.

This idea led me to the work of the British object relations school. As far as I understand, the British object relations school of psychoanalysts (including Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfrid Bion and others) argued that the primary human motivation is relationship-building (not sex or death, as Freud would have it). They argued that humans need important others and seek relationships to build a sense of self and identity and to feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety. For these psychoanalysts, our relationships create a ‘holding’ or, later, ‘facilitating’ environment that, hopefully, is good enough to enable our well-being, within which we can be and be ourselves. Our ‘natural’ state is one of (inter)dependence. This idea is linked primarily to our earliest intimate relationships, with our mother, and then our father, and then our other close family and friends. But the idea of a holding or facilitating environment might be extended, to the community, our friendship networks, clubs and teams, workplaces and, even, the social world of the state. This is an idea that other social scientists (such as Martha Nussbaum and Valerie Walkerdine) have developed in different ways and, in this project, I’m interested in exploring it further, both conceptually and empirically.

To do this, I’m exploring psycho-social methodologies (such as those developed by Wendy Hollway, Simon Clarke, Paul Hoggett and Valerie Walkerdine) with the hope that they might allow me to think about the conscious and unconscious dynamics at play in the everyday lives of my interviewees, to think about their hopes, desires, anxieties and identities and how these are shaped by the interplay of their experiences of austerity and their relationships. At the moment, this means I’m setting up narrative interviews with ‘squeezed middle’ households in Cullercoats, aiming to achieve something approaching free association around the theme of relationships and austerity, coupled with personal community mapping (following Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl) and a relationship diary exercise. And I’m also trying to think more about my place in the research process, scrutinising what I bring to the research and what I have invested in it.

This is very much pilot research at this stage. I’m trying out new methodologies and pushing myself in new ways, and I’m also beginning to think through new ways of representing my research in new places (hence my blog and my first foray into Twitter). I’m very keen for feedback, for contacts and for suggestions about this research: this is just the beginning….

Alison Stenning

alison photo may 2013

“Brainwashing under freedom”

Yesterday, Nick Pearce from IPPR suggested in a Guardian blog that Labour should ‘drop its child poverty target’ and new measures should ‘take into account the fiscal realities we now face.‘ One of his proposals included ‘freezing child benefit in cash terms for a decade’ to ‘free up £2.5bn a year to invest in quality childcare services’ which is quite staggering, coming as it does from ‘the UK’s leading progressive think-tank’.

We blogged a couple of weeks ago about what the economic – or in this case fiscal – reality actually is and we have also highlighted the role of other think tanks (usually the CSJ) in developing policies – or ‘trailing them’ as part of a ‘market testing exercise’ – for political parties. Ruth Levitas called this ‘the privatization of policy making’ in her book The Inclusive Society? and suggested that think-tanks, including IPPR:

‘enable public response to policy options to be tested without directly implicating – or at least without committing – the party itself….Moreover think-tanks and their staff are neither elected nor accountable, and Labour’s think-tanks and the networks around them, while sometimes claiming openness, in fact, had at their core a small, self-selected, largely metropolitan and disproportionately male elite.’ (p30, 1998)

Whenever, I hear about the fiscal or economic ‘constraints’ we have to accept or that ‘we now face’ I am always reminded of Bourdieu’s concept of doxa (‘the naturalization of arbitrariness’ or ‘the world of tradition experienced as a “natural world” and taken for granted’) and how ‘the specifically symbolic power to impose the principles of the construction of reality – in particular, social reality – is a major dimension of political power‘ (pp164-165, 2002). Similarly, whenever I hear someone from a think-tank, supported by the media, discussing these issues and supporting the thesis that we don’t have any alternative, I am reminded of his idea of doxosophers, ‘intellectuals of the political-administrative establishment’ (Pearce is ‘a former No 10 adviser under Gordon Brown, (who) remains highly influential in the Labour party’ according to an accompanying article in The Guardianwho

Locked in the narrow, short-term economism of the IMF worldview which is also causing havoc, and will continue to do so, in North-South relations, all these half-wise economists fail, of course, to take account of the real costs, in the short and more especially the long term, of the material and psychological wretchedness which is the only certain outcome of the economically legitimate Realpolitik

Referring to the centre of the state apparatus as the right hand and front line worker as the left hand, Bourdieu goes on to argue that ‘the right hand, obsessed by the question of financial equilibrium, knows nothing of the problems of the left hand, confronted with the often very costly social consequences of ‘budgetary restrictions’.

Drawing on the work of Bourdieu, and of particular relevance to the comments made by Nick Pearce, Stabile and Morooka discuss doxosophers as ‘those intellectuals – academic and non-academic alike – who traffic only in the most superficial of debates and whose primary function is to comment on representations as if they were real‘ (original emphasis).

and ‘these intellectuals provide justifications for neo-liberal policies by dressing them up as scientific, progressive and even inevitable’ (my emphasis)(pp328-329, 2010)

Chomsky highlighted how, through ‘brainwashing under freedom’, ‘the critics, or at least, the “responsible critics” make a major contribution to the cause by bounding the debate within certain limits’ and that by presenting a range of debate within a narrow framework, ‘the debate only enhances the strength of assumptions, ingraining them in people’s minds as the entire possible spectrum of opinion that there is.’ (p13, 2003)

It is, in my view, unseemly that a supposedly progressive think-tank should consider freezing child benefit for 10 years (see this report by CPAG who spoke to people living on low-incomes about how they used Child Benefit – did IPPR do this before formulating their policy ?) and suggest that the child poverty target should be moved back and is ‘now all but impossible to meet’. There are plenty of alternative ways to end child poverty without ‘dropping the target’ (which, it should be remembered, is a legally binding commitment, although you wouldn’t think it) or moving the date back, but politicians and their ‘reassuring entourage of young technocrats’, as Bourdieu called them, are not prepared to discuss them, producing a doxic society.

It appears that the ‘truce on inequality’ that Peter Townsend wrote about over fifty years ago is still holding very firm indeed.

Best wishes,


*If anyone would like the full references for the quoatations used above, please let me know.*

“Setting the record straight”?

Earlier this week the Centre for Social Justice published its response to the Joint Public Issues Team report about poverty myths, ‘The lies we tell ourselves’. Called ‘Setting the record straight’, the first page states that the much of the JPIT report ‘is based on serious misinformation and fails to give an accurate representation of life ‘on the breadline’ today’.

It is a really interesting read, for all kinds of reasons. The first myth tackled includes the issue of ‘dependency’ and ‘worklessness’. The CSJ report states that:

The report disputes the idea of ‘dependency’ as a serious issue. This is despite the latest available data showing that more than 20 million families are now dependent on some kind of benefit

which, as Tracy Shildrick pointed out on Twitter, starts with the very big assumption that everyone receiving benefits is ‘dependent’ on them. And is the idea that we can be independent of each other not an ‘insipid illusion’, as Marx suggested. Surely there are many people whose wealth is dependent on lots of low paid workers continuing to generate profits for them. My children depend on me. I depend on my employer for my income. Is the welfare state not supposed to be something which we can depend on when opportunities to secure other sources of income are not available to us?

Anyway, moving on to the issue of worklessness, Shildrick et al’s study of the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ was published by JRF last year (and didn’t get an individual CSJ repsonse interestingly) and it highlighted on a couple of occasions the belief amongst some practitioners that families where 3 generations of unemployed people existed:

In our own earlier research we have found that such views are popular amongst practitioners who work with the unemployed. In numerous interviews with ‘welfare-to-work’ professionals in Teesside, carried out over many years, the cultures of worklessness thesis has frequently been offered up to us as one of the main barriers to helping the unemployed into work (Webster, et al., 2004; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005; Shildrick, et al., 2010). (p13)

During eight months of ethnographic, community-based fieldwork, many strategies were used to recruit an appropriate sample (see Appendix 1). This included a set of meetings with local practitioners to help us locate families for interview. The idea of intergenerational cultures of worklessness was well-known to them. It was one that they often drew on in trying to understand the situations of the families with which they worked. For instance, a regeneration manager in Glasgow stated that he had heard, anecdotally, of families where three generations had never worked but stated that his organisation did not record such information. Similarly, a Job Centre Plus manager told us she did not know of any directly but she had also ‘certainly heard’ of families where three generations had never worked. It became apparent that most of these practitioner interviewees operated with a loose definition of the term ‘never worked’. They often meant families who experienced longer-term unemployment in different generations or families that were known to them because of their ‘multiple problems’, which might include periods out of the labour market. We met with more than 30 practitioners but none was able to direct us to potential recruits for the study (confidentiality of client records only accounted for this to a small extent). We believe this to be an interesting finding in itself; when pushed to identify families where ‘three generations had never worked’ these practitioners were unable to do so, despite their apparent belief in the existence of such families and their close engagement with local communities. (p18)

The CSJ report, however, presents statements from two practitioners as evidence that ‘intergenerational worklessness’ does exist:

At the charity we have worked for 11 years now with second and third generation unemployed…I can assure you that we do have/had clients whose grandparents became unemployed in the early 70s…and haven’t worked since. Indeed their children and grandchildren have suffered the same inactivity’.

‘There is no question that it doesn’t exist…in Portsmouth there are many families where there is unemployment through several generations. We need to be much more proactive about intervening early’

I won’t go into detail on the other myths that are addressed but there are some very interesting and, I would argue, confused points made in the report around issues such as poverty and addiction, benefit fraud and error (no mention of the scale of tax fraud or the scale of underclaiming of benefits – both much bigger issues that benefit fraud) and the role of social security or, as the CSJ prefer to call it, welfare.

We have blogged about the CSJ before (here and here) and we have highlighted the links between them and Iain Duncan Smith, who set them up. The CSJ like to call themsleves independent but if that isn’t itself a myth, it’s being a little bit economical with the truth. The current Director of the CSJ is Christian Guy who used to be Iain Duncan Smith’s speechwriter. The former Director of the CSJ, Philippa Stroud, is now Iain Duncan Smith’s Special Advisor, so there are some very strong connections there, at the very least. An interesting account of who knows who in relation to Duncan Smith can be found here, courtesy of Channel 4.

The role and influence of unelected, unaccountable think-tanks very close to (or even set up by) politicians was something that Bourdieu addressed on a number of occasions, including in the postscript to ‘The Weight of the World’. He states that ‘those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance’. He then goes on to make the point that

‘social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their “common sense” and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in  a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding.’

Finally, for one of the best critiques of the role of the Centre for Social Justice in debates around welfare reform, I would strongly recommend people read this paper by Tom Slater of Edinburgh University where he highlights the role they play in ‘manufacturing ignorance’ around the causes of poverty.

Best wishes,


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