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Welfare conditionality or Socio-economic oppression?

Welfare conditionality or Socio-economic oppression?

I recently attended an excellent half-day conference title Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behaviour change. The conveners were presenting mid-term data from am research collaboration between six UK universities.

Specifically, they are asking:

  • How effective is conditionality in changing the behaviour of those receiving welfare benefits and services?
  • Second, are there any particular circumstances in which the use of conditionality may, or may not be, justifiable?

Research like this is vital if we are to evidence the impact of mechanisms used by the DWP to shift people off benefits. This is a contentious are and some of the debates are highlighted in this excerpt from a parliamentary debate.

This conference was a follow-up to the project’s intial report from a couple of years ago which found:

Benefit sanctions are disproportionately affecting young people under 25, and there is evidence of severe impacts on homeless people and other vulnerable groups;

International evidence indicates that benefit sanctions substantially raise exits from benefits, and may increase short-term job entry; but there are unfavourable longer-term outcomes for earnings, job quality and employment retention;

There are concerns that welfare conditionality can have unintended consequences, including: distancing people from support; causing hardship and even destitution; displacing rather than resolving issues such as street homelessness and anti-social behaviour; and negative impacts on ‘third parties’, particularly children.

The full report can be accessed here.

It was pleasing to see the researchers highlighting some of the powerful quotes which have come from the hundreds of interviews they’ve conducted across the UK.  Quotes such as “So, I can’t afford to eat at the moment…So, he [my son] has that, like he’ll wat my food, I don’t care. He even says, “Why aren’t you eating? ‘I ate earlier’” and “They shouldn’t just take money off people and leave them with nothing, do you know what I mean? It shouldn’t happen. See I had to go out robbing when they done that, do you know what I mean? I didn’t do the food banks then, I had to go out robbing”. This latter point describes what the presenters termed ‘survival crime’. In short, benefits sanctions are forcing people to become criminals in order to survive. How can we support a system which forces people into this?

Our culture allows, legislates for, and in fact supports the demonization and segregation of individuals in a manner which leaves them with choices such as ‘do I feed my children or me?’, ‘do I go to a foodbank or steal for food?’ We are all complicit in this in some way, our culture makes the space for it and we are part of that culture. Consider the following direct relationships between cultural norms and benefits sanctioning:

Public sector target culture - Leads to: Goals on how many sanctions to give

Individualising problems - Leads to: Promoting sanctions to ‘change behaviour’

Us and them positions - Leads to viewing people as deserving or undeserving

Punishment ethos - Leads to views on ‘proportional sanctions’

The language we use skirts around some of this important issues without fully engaging in them. Welfare conditionality is a useful term; it sanitises things enough for research funding to be accessed and papers to be accepted for publication. Perhaps it also means the government will listen to the experiences presented by this esteemed research group. I have a different view on the use of ‘behaviour change’ though. It holds as its start point that there are behaviours which need changing, rather than a system which is forcing people to take desperate actions in order to survive.

I am not condoning criminal behaviour, nor am I naïve enough to believe that everyone is an innocent victim of circumstance. Yes there are people who cheat, lie, and commit crime. However the numbers are small and we must not be blinded by them. I think the bigger group of people whose behaviour needs changing, are the policy makers who are socio-economically oppressing large numbers of the UK population.

It was both productive and counter-productive to hear that the research group are looking at the ethics of ‘coercion’ and questioning the assumption that ‘behaviour change is not possible without coercion’. But, yet again this starts from the assumption that the solution is one of changing the behaviour of people who access benefits, rather than changing the system which is stigmatising people.

At what point do we say ‘hold on a minute, this isn’t coercion it’s abuse’. A recent report from Just Fair stated “Welfare reforms, benefit delays and the cost of living crisis have pushed an unprecedented number of people into a state of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK…It is our opinion that the UK has violated the human right to food and breached international law”. People are dying in this country because of our benefits system, and we have the power to change it.

During this ‘Welfare Conditionality’ conference we heard people with lived experience of the benefits system saying that sanctions don’t work, researchers saying they don’t work, and Local Authorities saying they don’t like sanctions either. And yet, we allow sanctions to continue as means of punishing people on already limited income. I make no apologies for holding the view that we should never remove the one source of income a person has.

The language we adopt around these issues is of vital importance. Descriptions of ‘coercion’ as a form of ‘behaviour change’ disguises the fact that what we are talking about is depriving people of any form of income. We should not be helping people engage in more effective forms of coercion, when what we are actually talking about is finding more efficient ways to oppress people.

It is saddening to attend an event like this and hear local authorities perceiving themselves to be powerless. The enforcers are never powerless, they may perceive themselves to be, it may be convenient to hold that misperception, but it is a myth. There has to come a point where we say ‘No. We will no longer enforce an abusive regime’.

During the conference it was said that holding such views would be biased and cloud invalidate the data. This is a criticism I often hear of qualitative research, but rarely when it comes to quantitative explorations. Quantitative researchers are just as prone to bias, positioning and beliefs, as qualitative researchers are. Calling these ‘scientific hypotheses’ somehow legitimises view whish are often already held. It is just as acceptable to hold a viewpoint and then test it through qualitative research, as long as we are aware of our biases and put safety checks in place to ensure our impact on the data is as limited as we can make it. I’d highly recommend this paper by Urquhart & Fernandez (2013) as an exploration of some of the fallacies of qualitative research.

I have not attempted to hide my own views on the benefits system and in particular, sanctions. However this does not prevent me from being able to carry out robust research in the area. In many ways it is vital to be aware of one’s own position. There are safeguards one can put in place to guard against overly influencing the findings. Clinical psychology research offers many opportunities to do so, particularly as the primary researcher is often not the supervisor who is embedded in the area. I am pleased to say that I am now co-supervising three pieces of research looking at the benefits system:

  • Work Capability Assessments: The experiences of individuals with traumatic brain injury
  • Exploring the experiences of psychological therapists working in the midst of austerity
  • The Impact of Benefit Sanctions on People with a Mental Health Diagnosis

I do not know what these projects will find, but I do hope the findings can be useful and help add to the groundswell of opinion that our benefits system needs changing. I might be wrong, we might find that welfare reforms are doing their job and people are very satisfied with how they are being implemented. If so, I would hope to help disseminate the findings with as much effort, honesty, integrity and belief in the usefulness of research as I have now.

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