Category Archives: comment

Family Support and Child Poverty

Steve Crossley, freshly released from the burden of responsibility for this blog, has penned a readable report on the role of Family Support in addressing Child Poverty: ‘Family support’ and child poverty.

Based on a review of available evaluation evidence, Steve concludes that family support projects, while important for helping families, are NOT a way of tackling child poverty, because while they tackle some issues caused or exacerbated by poverty, but do not tackle the causes of that poverty.  He points out that the scale of resources invested in supporting families is dwarfed by the resources that are being taken away from families through welfare reform, cuts to public services and falling real wages.

A responsible approach?

Today sees the publication of a National Audit Office report into Universal Credit. Many of the morning’s newspapers are carrying this story and, earlier this week, the Telegraph featured an interview with Howard Shiplee, the Director-General for Universal Credit in which he acknowledged there had been a number of ‘missteps’ alog the way. This contrasts with earlier public statements by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron who have previously failed to acknowledge any difficulties. The Prime Minister, in November last year, apparently told Parliament that ‘Universal Credit is on time and on budget’.

There is already lots of media coverage around this issue so I’ll try not to repeat much of it, but a couple of lines in an article in The Guardian yesterday caught my attention. Here they are:

The DWP said it was misleading to characterise money already spent as having gone to waste. “No one has said we’re starting again … we’re looking at enhancing not replacing [systems],” it said.

It said it did not recognise the £350m figure being lost in savings due to the slower roll out of the programme.

A DWP spokesperson later added: “The early roll-out of Universal Credit is allowing us to develop the new benefit in a safe and controlled way. This is the responsible approach.

I thought this was really interesting because the current government have always been very quick to dismiss the child poverty approach of the previous government as a waste of money. Look at the following quotes from the foreword,(written by Iain Duncan Smith) to the government’s Child Poverty Strategy:

Good intentions failed to translate into effective policies.

By transferring cash to make good on short-term relative income effects they entrenched benefit dependency, delivering both poor outcomes for society and a poor return for the taxpayer

Limited social returns were delivered despite significant income transfers

With a focus on fairness and personal responsibility, not cash handouts, this is the responsible choice in this fiscal climate.

we believe that the aims of the Child Poverty Act – to dramatically reduce levels of child poverty in the UK – will not be achieved through simply throwing money at the perceived symptoms. This approach has been exhausted, not only failing to turn the tide on income poverty, but worse still, exacerbating the problem by suppressing incentives to work and keeping families in cycles of entrenched deprivation.

It is now more important than ever to secure optimum returns on investment spending.

Just to put things into a bit of context, the last government missed their own target of cutting child poverty by half by 2010-11. However, during their term of office they still managed to reduce the number of children living in poverty by around 1 million, which, as a taxpayer, I would like to suggest was not a ‘poor return’ and nor do I believe that the last government ‘simply threw money’ at the problem. The current government, on the other hand, are likely to preside over an increase in the numbers of children living in poverty to 2015-16, the term of this parliament, of around 300,000, and it is predicted that the ‘direct impact of the current government’s announced reforms to personal tax and benefit policy will be to increase relative poverty among children by 200,000’

The point I’m trying to emphasise is that, when it suits them, this government (perhaps all politicians) are more than happy to characterise something that was making (slower than expected) progress as an ‘exhausted’ approach that failed and actually made things worse. But, when the shoe is on the other foot and something stands accused of not making planned progress, it is characterised as developing in a ‘safe and controlled way’ and the ‘responsible approach’ is to stick with it. In fact, the Press Release of the report by the NAO contains a section which, whilst focusing on Universal Credit, could easily be taken to represent the current approach to tackling poverty

The Department took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity. It was unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.

But then, belief, not evidence, is what it’s all about……

Best wishes,


New Working Paper – Using the evidence base on poverty

Today sees the publication of a new Working Paper from the North East Child Poverty Commission. The paper looks at the use, misuse and occasional ignorance of evidence in child poverty policy, drawing on over a century of social scientific research around this issue in the UK.

Poverty is an issue that has been examined for over 100 years in the U.K. and as Professor David Gordon has argued, ‘not a single study has ever found any large group of people/households with any behaviours that could be ascribed to a culture or genetics of poverty’ (2011). Despite this available evidence, the current government strategy for tackling poverty focuses primarily on changing individual or familial behaviours.

Some local authorities adhere closely to this narrative, despite a suggested focus on ‘evidence-based policy’ which should rule out many of the activities being proposed. For example, the North East Child Poverty Commission report ‘Local authorities, local duties & local action’ found that some local authorities identified ‘low aspirations’ and ‘cultures of worklessness’ as major barriers to people escaping poverty despite recent, accessible evidence from researchers in the North East which suggested alternative forms of action might be more beneficial.

The paper draws a dstinction between social scientific and empirical evidence and evidence produced by organisations with close links to politicians, which fly in the face of facts. It is, perhaps, perticularly timely given the recent publication of a report on education by an ‘independent’ think-tank which yesterday drew criticism from Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who argued that

‘Sensationalist stories of parents who cannot be bothered to toilet train children make for good headlines; they have little to do with the reality of closing the attainment gap.’

Kind regards,


“How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full time job not to pay enough to live on?”

In the New Statesman earlier this week (reported on here, here and here, but no direct link available to the article at time of writing), Guy Opperman, the Conservative MP for Hexham in Northumberland, called for employers to pay their employees a Living Wage. This is significant in that he is the first Conservative MP to proactively call for employers to do this. David Cameron has previously called the Living Wage ‘an idea whose time has come’ and Boris Johnson is a big supporter, but it is not a subject that Conservative MPs regularly promote and only one Conservative council has become Living Wage employers, to the best of my knowledge.

We have also heard in recent weeks that the Conservatives may be attempting to position themselves as the ‘party of the low paid’ in the North. One could choose to see Guy Opperman’s announcement in this light, but we shouldn’t forget that he has ‘form’ in this area already. He was also the first Conservative MP to speak out against regional pay. At the time he said there was ‘no economic argument’ for regional pay and highlighted the importance of public sector pay in supporting and hopefully stimulating the region’s economy

“I am very concerned that regional pay would lead to a reduction in the pay packets of some public sector workers in the North East. I do not believe reducing public sector pay will help stimulate private economic growth.”

All of this is, therefore, very interesting for the North East. We have one of only two Conservative MPs in the North East arguing for a Living Wage, in a region with no Conservative controlled councils – but also a region with no public sector employers paying all of their staff the UK Living Wage of £7.45 per hour. So, as someone remarked to me on Wednesday, you could argue there is definitely room for a bit of competition for the votes of low paid workers in the North East.

Of course, if this is part of a Conservative plan to become the party of the low-paid, there are lots of other issues that Mr Opperman’s colleagues could address as well as pay. We know that low paid jobs are very often part-time and/or temporary and the recent attention on zero hours contracts highlights the insecurity of much low paid work that is one offer at present. Becoming a Living Wage employer doesn’t make a great deal of difference to employees if they’re only working a couple of hours a week – or none at all.

For now though, we should be grateful that MPs in the region are talking about this issue (Middlesbrough MP Andy Macdonald recently announced his desire to see Middlesbrough becoming a Living Wage town and, to be fair to him, we didn’t give that the coverage it perhaps deserved) and it is particularly heartening that a Conservative MP in the North East is offering the glimpse of a political consensus on improving the pay of our lowest paid workers.

You can – and should – follow Guy Opperman on Twitter – @guyoppermanmp

The (invisible) problem of riches


Last week on this blog, Jonathan Bradshaw argued that our ‘benefits system’ wasn’t broken and highlighted how the tax system in the UK did not do anything to help tackle poverty as it failed to redistribute wealth effectively. Whilst the tax system may not directly redistribute wealth, if everyone (including organisations) paid the tax that they were supposed to, and paid it on time, the government would have, at a conservative estimate, around £60billion more at their disposal to tackle poverty. (around £32billion ‘tax gap’ & £28billion tax debt) A phrase Jonathan has used in a presentation about the previous government’s approach to tackling poverty always stays with me. He claimed that the ‘treatment was right’ but that ‘the dose wasn’t strong enough’. A potential extra £60billion would certainly provide a metaphorical ‘shot in the arm’ for anti-poverty work in the UK.

Jonathan was absolutely right to bring the tax system back into discussions about welfare in our society. And we should also include discussion on the state of our democracy if ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ allows large sections of the same ‘people’ to live in poverty when there is no need and no absolute lack of resources across our society. Shouldn’t we be asking if parliament is broken, or at least not working, if government decisions about ‘tax and benefit reforms can account for almost all of the projected increase in child poverty over the next few years’? And which bit of Britain is ‘broken’ if public attitudes to people claiming benefits are indeed hardening?

If we continue to focus attention solely on the ‘benefits system’ or what most people call the ‘welfare state’ in our efforts to tackle poverty we risk ‘othering’ the welfare state, to use Ruth Lister’s concept. She describes othering as “a discursive practice which shapes how the ‘non-poor’ think and talk about and act towards ‘the poor’ at both an interpersonal and an institutional level.” The concept can easily be applied to how politicians, sections of the media, think-tanks and even ‘taxpayers’ and ‘hard-working families’ think and talk about the popular understanding of the ‘welfare state’. Claiming that the ‘welfare state’ isn’t working and/or needs radical reform surely misses the point that it is largely the product of the society and democracy it can be found in and is only as well-resourced as politicians allow it or want it to be. To use another phrase that I always find myself returning to, this time from John Veit-Wilsons ‘Horses for discourses’:

‘Ensuring that all the members of society, residents in or citizens of a nation state, have enough money is a clear role which governments can adopt or reject, but they cannot deny they have the ultimate power over net income distribution.’

Many people have argued that in the investigation of the causes of poverty, we need to examine and understand the causes of wealth, which often remain relatively well hidden. As long ago as the 1700s, Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that ‘we see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent’.  In 1904, Joseph Rowntree, in a memorandum on the proposed trust he was to set up (The Joseph Rowntree Foundation today) suggested that ‘Perhaps the greatest danger of our national life arises from the power of selfish and unscrupulous wealth’. More recently Peter Townsend argued that wealth and poverty have ‘common roots in the unrestrained exercise of economic power’. Unfortunately, we (ourselves included) still spend a disproportionate amount of our time debating changes to services and systems at the bottom end of the income scale and not so much time on those systems which operate for those with more money.

Perhaps, to paraphrase Tawney, if we investigate and begin to uncover the ‘problem of riches’, we may stumble upon the solution to the ‘problem of poverty’

“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,


“In search of the scrounger” Plus ca change…


A couple of days ago I got the book ‘In search of the scrounger’ by Alan Deacon out of the library and thought I would share a few of the paragraphs from the Introduction and Conclusions chapters. The book covers the inter-ward period and, more specificially, the 1920’s. Despite the near 100 year difference, the concerns of politicians and administrators in relation to social security sound all too familiar to current discussions around Jobcentre Plus targets, sanctions, tightened  conditionality and, of course, ‘scroungers’. All emphases are mine


“Throughout the 1920s discussion of unemployment insurance in Britain became increasingly dominated by the question of abuse. In particular, there developed a bitter controversy over the administration of a series of regulations which were collectively known as the genuinely seeking work test … Between March 1921 and March 1930 nearly three million claims for benefit were refused because the claimant had failed to meet this condition. By 1927, one claim in ten was being disallowed on the grounds that the claimant was not genuinely seeking work, and in some areas the proportion was over one third. At no time in these years did any prominent politician or government official seriously suggest that the work they were supposed to be genuinely seeking actually existed.” (p1)

” … the focus of attention must primarily be upon those who were directly responsible for the formulation of policy in this area: the Ministers and senior officials of the relevant government departments. It was they who demanded that the unemployed repeatedly demonstrate their willingness to work in a period of mass unemployment, and it is their perceptions which have to be understood and their decisions which have to be explained. Those explanations, of course, must be sought in terms of their wider economic and political aims, and the role which they perceived that the test could play in the realisation of those objectives.” (p1)

“Any assessment of the seeking work test must begin by acknowledging that its abolition in March 1930 did enable some claimants to draw benefit even though they were not looking for work at the time of their claim. It is argued, however, that such abuse was largely confined to married women and that even amongst this group the extent of the practice was considerably exaggerated by contemporaries. Certainly, there was no need to impose the test on all groups of claimants, and the campaign to ‘tighten-up’ the administration between 1925 and 1929 was totally unnecessary. The question remains, however, whether that campaign was the result of folly, malice, or both.” (p87)

“In short, the test was a sledgehammer to crack a relatiely small – and often exaggerated – nut. The use of this sledgehammer, moreover, had profound consequences for the administration of benefit, and affords a classic illustration of the impact of departmental pressure upon the ways in which local officers utilise their discretionary powers.” (p88)

“In the case of the test, the Ministry of Labour left its officers in no doubt as to what was expected of them. Their task was to detect and penalise malingering, and the accomplishment of this purpose was to override all other considerations. Olive Stevenson has recently observed that the “very existence” of powers to restrict the supplementary benefits paid to unemployed men or separated wives “tends to arouse suspicion in the minds of officers or to suggest to them that higher authority wants them to be suspicious”. In the 1920s that suspicion was deliberately fostered, and by the end of the decade the staffs of the Echanges were obsessed with the aspectre of abuse.” (pp88-89)

“(A report by John Hilton) found the interviewing officers convinced of their ability to spot a scounger – ‘a groundless and dnagerous faith’ – and often neglecting their duty to help claimants secure work. This, he believed, was a direct result of the pressures put upon them from above.” (p89)

“The seeking work test was as pernicious as it was unnecessary. It led to hundreds of thousands of unemployed men and women being arbitrarily deprived of benefits which they desperately needed, and forced many more to make repeated journeys in search of jobs they knew did not exist.” (p89)

“If the seeking work test was not prompted by malice, it was ‘tightened-up’ with a callous disregard of the hardships and injustices which resulted.” (p91)

church poverty

We have previously blogged about the increase in ‘in-work conditionality’ here and the role of the DWP in arousing suspicion of benefit fraud with their ‘Benefit thieves’ campaign here

Best wishes,


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