In the midst of the argument we in the UK are currently having about welfare, it’s worth highlighting one factor that’s standing in the way of honest debate. This is politicians’ routine, wilful abuse of numbers.
It’s an old complaint. So old it’s basically a cliché. And this is a big part of the problem. We’re so accustomed to the idea that politicians ‘lie with statistics’ that we’re no longer shocked by even the most egregious examples of the form. We just accept it as par for the course, when there’s absolutely no reason we should.
I’m going to pick on a single example here today, but know that I didn’t exactly have to struggle to find one. The present government’s courageous willingness to back up policy decisions with meaningless numbers means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for the amateur political fact-checker. This means I’ve developed quite a thick skin when it comes to dodgy statistics; but even I was stung when reading some recent comments from Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps. Defending the government’s welfare policy changes, here’s what he had to say: “Welfare makes up a third of this country’s spending, so it’s our job to make sure it’s getting to the people who really need it [my emphasis]”.
This number is not wrong –as in it’s not factually inaccurate. Welfare does indeed make up about third of total government spending. But crucially this is only true if you include a lot of things people probably don’t think of when you say ‘welfare’. Things like child benefit (for which any family with children with a partner earning less than £50,000 is eligible), tax credits for working people, and (the big one – around half the benefits bill) the state pension. With apologies for repeating a previous post, only about 2% of total government spending goes on welfare for unemployed working-age adults. Even if you include everyone on the Disability Living Allowance, this number only goes up to about 4.5%.
You might say this is just standard political practice – using any vaguely relevant number to back up a point. But does that make it any better? Given the context of the quote (the changes to welfare for unemployed and disabled people), Mr Shapps must have known how the figure would be interpreted. He must have known people would think that the “third” referred to unemployed people. He’s not a complete idiot – he intended for people to come away with this impression. Because welfare cuts are easier to defend when people think we spend vast amounts of money on a group they think of as ‘scroungers’. This is not ‘cynical’ or ‘a dubious use of statistics’. It’s flat out intentional deception. It’s a lie, basically, and should be treated as such. Just because you use a ‘real’ number to do it doesn’t make it any less morally bankrupt.
The point is that politicians should be afraid to get caught doing this, but afraid they most certainly are not. This is a real problem for those of us who do research with an eye towards policy. What we do, essentially, is create numbers; facts (or as close as we can get) that we hope will make public policy better. But what is the point of this effort if this is how facts are treated by the people who make the policies – their strategy is “Policy first, then just stick in some numbers to make the point, no matter if they fit or not”?
I don’t know what we do about this exactly. Except that we should make a fuss. As many people as possible should write them letters, go to their surgeries, and generally give them a hard time. Basically, we should try our best to make “Welfare makes up a third of this country’s spending” as much of a scandal as “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.
Update: After writing this post, I noticed that Declan Gaffney and Jonathan Portes have written something making broadly the same point on Guardian’s Comment is Free. Their example of number abuse is from the government’s claims about the ‘rush’ of benefit claimants trying to avoid the new, more stringent assessments for disability benefits. What did I say about low-hanging fruit?