Tuesday, 29 May 2012

What Is Wrong With The Future State Of Welfare (Part 3)

I meant to return to this much earlier and have only been uplifted by some efforts to restore good faith on the part of a BBC Trust representative. More on that tomorrow, hopefully. I'll start where we left off.
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31. The presenter moves onto the topic of US welfare reforms during the 90s. In doing so he takes a vastly complicated issue that is the culmination of decades of social change and simplifies it into the US 'facing a rising welfare bill' and 'politicians fearing a sense of entitlement producing a dependency culture'. Federal funding for the benefits affected by the US welfare reforms stopped keeping up with inflation after 1970, something which would have disproportionately affected poor black families. It can be interpreted that this was an intentional racialist response to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Between 1970 and 1994 the benefits for a family of three fell by 47% according to the National Coalition For The Homeless.

32. The presenter compounds this by allowing a comment from New York welfare commissioner Robert Doar to pass without correction: "Well, I think our system had developed a sense of entitlement in people that came to the government seeking assistance, that they would do something without having to do anything, or do some cash benefit without them having to do anything in return. The benefits of receiving a benefit without working were greater than the benefits of going to work." Whilst northern states like New York generally had higher benefits than in the south, the truth is that when the US 'Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Act' became law in 1996, the average monthly benefit paid per recipient had fallen to $160 dollars down from $238(both figures at 2006 prices) in 1975. It is ridiculous to suggest that generally anyone was ever better off on welfare than in full-time work.

It is also completely unmentioned that the 90s welfare reforms specifically targeted families with children. Social security payments for individuals had been relentlessly curbed for decades already.

Both of these address the US welfare issue in a cavalier and partisan way that would mislead the audience into believing the reasons for reforms were innocent and social security was too generous. It's hugely complicated so the programme can't be expected to cover it in detail, but the the makers elected to include this slanted and simplistic take on the issue seemingly because it lined up with the presenter's previous assertions of benefits being too generous and an entitlement culture creating welfare dependency.

33. The presenter speaks with Professor Larry Mead, a central figure in US welfare reform. They have an initial conversation in a New York job centre that asserts a supposed difference between the New York and UK job centres; namely that in New York a claimant is expected to already be looking for work when they make their application for assistance. This misleads the audience into believing this is in fact not the case in the UK. A jobseeker interview each new claimant for Jobseekers Allowance must have includes the question of what the person has done already to look for work and this will weigh on the decision of whether they are eligible. Jobseekers Allowance was introduced in 1996 to replace Income Support for jobseekers, apparently influenced by what was happening in the US, hence it's not enough to be unemployed: it specifically requires a claimant to be seeking work at the time they make a claim.

34. The presenter speaks with the job centre manager and poses the question "what if people say 'I don't want a job' flat out, no? Eventually, what happens to that person?" The manager tells him the conditionality requires them to so they would be refused assistance. The presenter goes on "Do people often say, 'well, hold on a minute, it is my right, my entitlement, to have this benefit'?" and the reply from the manager is that they used to but not any more. The presenter appears to be deliberately trying to reinforce his assertion of there being a cartoonish entitlement culture in the UK, which used to exist in the US but then their reforms got rid of it. The presenter did not ask the UK job centre staff the same question earlier in the programme, where he would have got a virtually identical response to the one in the US. Every UK unemployment benefit has conditionality which if not conformed to means the cessation of that benefit. Any claimant deemed fit to work who says they don't want to does not meet the conditionality requirements. Signing a jobseekers agreement is mandatory to claim Jobseekers Allowance and the agreement is legally binding. The presenter continues to misrepresent what 'entitlement' means in relation to benefits.

35. The presenter asserts that in one US state the number of welfare claims dropped by 80% and in New York it was 26%. The presenter apparently opted to not give the name of that first state because that state is Wisconsin; the state where Larry Mead's ideas were most embraced. The problem with linking the 80% reduction in that 'one state' to the nationwide reforms is that the audience gets the impression that the gains of welfare reform in Britain could be anywhere between a 26% and 80% reduction. But New York isn't an example of what could happen with reforms; despite what the presenter has tried getting the audience to believe, Britain and New York in this regard are quite similar. Reforms in the US helped make New York's welfare programme as it is now, just as reforms in Britain around the same time and influenced by the same ideas meant Britain followed in step. Individual states manage their own welfare programmes and Wisconsin went further than Larry Mead expected or wanted them to. In essence the presenter is leading the audience into believing reform will make Britain's welfare regime more like New York, even though it already is. The outcome could be compared more with Wisconsin. A number of changes made by the previous Labour government, such as the replacing of Incapacity Benefit with Employment Support Allowance, have removed far more claimants than was intended. The current Coalition are committed to going even further.

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