Thursday, 10 November 2011

Scroungers Everywhere? Blame Kevin Bacon.

When something tragic happens and features in the news; a death due to an accident or horrific killing, there is virtually always a shining series of character witnesses giving statements. They speak of the victim as being wholly good. They were decent, generous, funny, talented, loyal and gave many happy memories. I'm not completely socially tone-deaf, but my ability to function depends on my ability to analyse things the way I do and there is something about the probability and coincidence that makes the obvious conclusion utterly ridiculous to the socially-attuned. I am bound to end up saying something extremely inappropriate and potentially offensive because I can't see any other explanation for how victims can consistently be angels.  

It makes me glad I'm an asshole.

I should note at this point that almost this entire post was written before the tragic story of Martin and Helen Mullins broke. But still, why leave that inappropriate bit in? Because I think the idea that people should try to be better, but this extends to who ever is making the judgement also. The introduction is a black-humoured joke but once it was a genuine gaffe I made and was corrected on by understanding people. So is it a case of it being an accident at first and then any repetition of it even if meant as a joke carries responsibility that the initial gaffe did not? Again no, saying it as a joke makes what I think is a valid point: taking a complex human being with their history, hopes, likes and dislikes and turning them into a non-specific model of goodness is harmful, whether they do something great or meet with tragedy.

It is why the bar is set so high for benefit claimants: you are either a Saint, or a Scrounger. Every time one of us sticks our head out and speaks on a national platform, there is a predictable reaction from some where failure to conform to their exact standards of a deserving claimant renders our status completely illegitimate according to them. Sue Marsh featured this week on 4Thought and predictably some comment contributors on the site stated that they knew people with Crohn's disease who could work, so Sue Marsh could too. They did not bother to visit her site and look at her health history. But most striking for me: they didn't offer her a job either. When ever I am asked about my job readiness in such a way, I am sure to always ask them if they are offering me one and if not, then their point is completely illegitimate to my eyes. It's an unfair riposte to an unfair attack. Justice is balance.

Such people thrive on the idea that the country is swamped with unworthy benefit claimants 'on the fiddle'. This seems to be an attempt to justify support for measures that are wholly disproportionate in their effect on the sick and disabled; that is that such measures are so immense because the problem is so immense. Systematic problems require systematic solutions. It's also a great bit giant facade made from thin painted plywood. This is where I get to the other bit of my point in the joke; assholes are never victims. If you want to reduce the victim count among a group, make them assholes. The problem for me is that any tabloid would just have to accurately describe me to give that picture, they don't even need to embellish it. When debating welfare with people I used to always respond to outrage about specific cases of benefit fraud with dismissal; I know the fraud prevalence for each benefit to be so low that they are talking about so few cases that it can not reasonably be the basis for national policy. No systematic problem, no systematic solution required. Then I had doubts.

In February this year I read this Guardian article about fraud investigators working for the DWP. When I say that I had doubts and that I should not have been dismissive of the examples from the extremely small number of cases used as anecdotes in debate, I do not mean that these arguments had value I wasn't seeing. I mean that they had even less value than the already low value I attached to them. Their anecdotes were about assholes and assholes are never victims. Yet when benefit fraud investigators are asked for anecdotes, they seem to be very different. They do not describe many criminals or immoral workshy scroungers(one of the most common benefit frauds it seems is working whilst claiming an ineligible out-of-work or low-income benefit) but desperate people, unfortunate and close to poverty if not already swimming in it. Where they have let too much information slip I also find their version doesn't add up, like the Mail when it publicly bullied Halima Hameed who I deduced to be a full-time carer who went back to work when her daughter and her child moved back in and money became tight. Few would have been able to work that out based on the details the Mail gave without a good understanding of the benefits she was claiming.

So why do they see benefit fraud everywhere? Partly it's their own confirmation bias reinforced by their lack of knowledge about the benefits system. The other reason is the actor Kevin Bacon. I'm not making that up.

There has, for some reason, been sociology studies on the relationships between people and their inter-connectivity throughout the world. It's complicated (except that it isn't) and at some point someone got the idea that the best way to explain it is through the medium of Kevin Bacon. Thus the Kevin Bacon game was born where someone gives you the name of a Hollywood actor and you must link them to Kevin Bacon through other actors they have featured in films with. The fewer degrees of separation, the better you are at it. Or you can just cheat and use this:

Back to that Guardian article, it reports that the benefit fraud hotline gets more than 600 calls a day. The investigators say they are mostly malicious and dead-ends. It's possible, but I don't see it as likely that they are frequently calls about the same people either- whilst I often encounter people that have an anecdote about scrounging neighbours, I've not found any who actually said they reported them. (by the way, Hugo Weaving is linked to Kevin Bacon through Laurence Fishburne).

Recently I realised that the percentages I have previously described as 'prevalence' for benefit fraud is inaccurate. These percentages (such as 0.4% for DLA) are overpayments due to fraud, not fraud prevalence which so far I haven't been able to find. Everyone including myself it seems has assumed that the percentages for overpayments are accurate indicators of prevalence. As far as we know, they are and they are the best indicator publicly available it seems. I will use them as a basis. In the XLS file for fraud and error for 2009/10 it gives the total overpayments due to fraud for all working age benefits as 1.55%(ish) in Table 2 Chart 1. 600 calls a day to the national benefit fraud hotline is 219,000 a year. The number of benefit claimants according to the DWP tabulation tool is 5,765,340 and I think that is the number of people claiming, not the number of claims. (Anthony Hopkins is linked to Kevin Bacon through Julianne Moore)

1.55% of that = roughly 86,000 cases of fraud. But the fraud hotline is not the only source of tip-offs: the most productive ones seem to be from jobcentres but we don't have a figure for that. Still, if we go by just the fraud hotline, then there are at least 33,000 where people are being reported who are either not worth investigating or are completely innocent. (Jeff Bridges is linked to Bacon through Gary Oldman)

People seem to be seeing scroungers everywhere in Britain for the same reason why Hollywood is full of actors that can be associated with Kevin Bacon: 86,000 fraud cases are people who know people and yes of course an estimated fraud prevalence is not a predictor of actual fraud incidence. Even if we take Panorama seriously for a moment and accept benefit fraud is quadruple the official figure, the number that is left over is still not enough to be a serious problem, but enough to allow the suggestion of a serious problem. If you don't know a fraudster, then you might know someone who knows a fraudster and if not that, then with each degree of separation the chances multiply because you can't possibly know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone and none of them know a fraudster. According to the Kevin Bacon theory; everyone knows everyone else through what is supposedly no more than six degrees of separation through other people.

Case File #1 finds that Leonard Nimoy is linked to Kevin Bacon through John Malkovich.


  1. Sorry in advance-

    The coordinated onslaught continues unabated as special advisors at the DWP get their chums and ex colleagues primed with a suitable quote ,allegedly.

  2. Strange-top right-

  3. left-unless you are upside down

  4. I seen it and made a comment earlier. Unlikely to be published as usual.

  5. Oh my word ,have a look at this,particularly with regard to conditionality

  6. And lo the Archangel Duncan-Smith spake-"it is a sin to be unemployed for any reason, disabled,sick,in parttime work,low paid ,have Caring responsibilities and receive benefits and you are all responsible for the deficit."You have fallen from Grace and must repent and do the right thing and be pushed(subject to personalisation)to remove yourself outwith UC or disappear/die your choice"


    Taking comments now..

  8. Mine got published. Need a drink to get over the shock.

  9. yes just read it .I may be being ever so cynical but the recent Mail"Clarifications and corrections" column enables them to print ever so more ridiculous tosh without responsibility-"oops sorry-it was utter crap but we are "correcting" it with very small writing that hardly anybody reads as opposed to A SCREAMING HEADLINE ON THE FRONT PAGE-ALL BENEFIT RECIPIENTS(unless war veterans) ARE SCUM PINCHING YOUR MONEY