Sanctioning disabled claimants: interrogating the evidence

This seems like a good time to take stock of the evidence on perhaps the biggest issue in the benefits system over the past few years: benefits sanctioning. The massive ESRC-funded ‘welfare conditionality’ project has this week published its final findings, prompting headlines that “Benefit sanctions found to be ineffective and damaging and “Benefit sanctions increasing poverty and pushing people into ‘survival crime,’ finds report”. The Parliamentary Select Committee is doing an inquiry, as is the Government’s former sanctioning reviewer Matt Oakley for one of the think-tanks. And I myself have written about in a paper last year and Demos report earlier this year.

But often missed in the hubbub are the subtleties of the evidence, a deeper effort to get to the bottom of what we know. Over a few blog posts, I want to interrogate some of the existing evidence, to challenge some of the easy interpretations that get mobilised for political debate. And this week it’s the turn of the Government’s 2016 pilots of conditionality for ESA claimants, which were quietly published last August – and unlike this week’s headlines, the pilots seemed to show that conditionality was effective.

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Can poverty rise while inequality is flat?

I recently saw a great post about how there’s been a big increase in inequality within the bottom half of the income distribution (between the 3rd and 1st (bottom) deciles) from 1996-2008, which then fell but rose again 2011-2016.

The piece is on stumblingandmumbling (the great economics blog by Chris Dillow) , and I thought Inequalities readers might be interested – if so, you can read his full piece here. (I’ll occasionally link to interesting other blog posts, in between my own biweekly blog posts).

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Most people are ‘benefit claimants’ sometimes…

One of the biggest misconceptions about the benefits system is that we split neatly and permanently into two groups: ‘benefit claimants’ and ‘everyone else’. As soon as you take a long view, though, you realise how wrong this is: many people move in-and-out of struggles at different times in their lives, and one of the key roles of the welfare state is to help us smooth out the bad times. John Hills calls this ‘the welfare myth of them and us’ (the sub-title of his recent book), and has dedicated many years to challenging it.

Now in a great new piece of research, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has put together the data to show us the long view – and this tells us that the majority of people are ‘benefit claimants’ at some point in their lives (even ignoring pensions and child benefits…).

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Sanctioning disabled benefit claimants: is it fair and is it effective?

This piece was cross-posted in the Demos Quarterly, issue 13.

The sanctioning of disabled benefit claimants is a reality in Britain: over a million benefit sanctions have been applied to disabled people since 2010.

We therefore cannot avoid asking: can these be justified? One possible justification is that sanctions increase employment, and another is that they are necessary for ensuring the benefits system is fair. Yet both arguments are contentious, and little evidence on disabled people has made it into the fierce public debates about sanctioning. In a new Demos report, I look closely at the evidence – using new analyses of official data, new international comparisons, a new survey, and the wider academic evidence – and find both justifications wanting. Continue reading

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(No posts during the UCU strike)

To avoid a long silence, I just wanted to flag that I won’t be writing any proper posts during the UCU strike action which I’m part of, but I’ll return to regular posts next week from the w/c 19th March (or earlier, if UCU’s demands are met!).

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How a better WCA is possible

Ironically, sometimes it is a policy’s failures rather than successes that make it difficult to reform.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for out-of-work disability benefits has been a failure by almost any criteria – yet it is still with us, with little prospect of any change soon. One reason is that having seen the WCA unravel, people seem to have lost faith that it is even possible to have a disability assessment that is either popular or deliverable, making the risks of reform seem like a gamble that is not worth taking in the face of an inevitably losing battle.

This is why a vision for a better WCA is so important. In a new Demos report, I therefore describe a clear and realistic vision for a better WCA, based on a four-year research project that includes international comparisons, many focus groups with experts and the public, and a new survey (see here). Central to this vision are two distinct areas for improvement. Continue reading

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Highlights from the ‘Rethinking Incapacity’ blog

One of the reasons that the Inequalities blog has been quiet for a little while is that I set up a separate blog to focus on my 2014-17 project on disability, work and the benefits system, called Rethinking Incapacity.

That blog has now closed – but just in case you’re interested in what I was writing, the highlights include:

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The full return of the Inequalities blog

After a long gap and an intermittent return last year (including a great post by Paolo Brunori), the Inequalities blog is back!

We have a series of posts lined up, including on disability & the benefits system, whether the public believe ‘benefit myths’ and if this matters, whether talking about how benefit claimants are ‘deserving’ only makes things worse, and what the public thinks about health inequalities – as well as the usual takes on the latest public debates and interesting inequalities-related research that catches my eye.

I’m looking forward to resuming the conversation!


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What effect do sanctions & conditionality have on disabled people?

I have just blogged about this over at my other blog, Rethinking Incapacity – you can read the full blog post (with the link to the research articles) here.

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Sharp softening of attitudes to benefit claimants, reveals new data

Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a major and widely-reported change in British attitudes towards benefit claimants: simply put, we are less positive about benefit claimants than we used to be. More of us think that ‘large numbers falsely claim’ or that ‘many claimants don’t deserve help’, and attitudes have become particularly hostile to unemployment benefit claimants, as has been repeatedly catalogued in the annals of NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey.

But suddenly, there is a sign that this might be changing. Continue reading

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