Is truth-seeking inherently conservative?

Howard Becker’s 1967 ‘Whose Side Are We On?’ is one of the most famous papers in Sociology – a staple reading for generations of undergraduates, and still the subject of argument between academic sociologists about what Becker actually meant. Yet I have just discovered (thanks to Alistair Leitch at Oxford) a later 1973 paper by Becker that I think should be much more famous, for it considers the broader relationship between radical social science and radical politics, and poses more difficult questions for engaged social scientists in twenty-first century Britain. I can’t recommend reading the full paper highly enough, but in this post I want to dwell on one question it raises: is seeking the truth about the social world an inherently conservative enterprise? Continue reading

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Further increases in public support for benefit claimants

We’ve reached high summer, and this means intense heat, test cricket – and the latest installment of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, our bible for showing how our attitudes have been changing. As ever, I like to review trends in attitudes towards benefit claimants on the blog (see 2017, 2015, 2014 and 2013) – and the headline news from this year’s chapter on social security attitudes is that public attitudes are increasingly positive. Continue reading

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Does diversity help students learn about inequality?

Amidst all of the studies of public attitudes, there are relatively few studies that look at how we learn about inequality – yet if we know how people learn about inequality, then we have ideas about how people’s attitudes can be changed. So I was really interested to hear a presentation by LSE/Harvard’s Jonathan Mijs, looking at how the nature of universities influences how we learn about inequality. In this post I explain Mijs’s study (which I liked), and also his policy recommendations (which I didn’t)… Continue reading

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A temporary diversion: inequality and world football

A temporary interruption – I have a large list of half-written Inequalities articles, and normal service will be resumed next week. In the meantime, and in tribute to the start of the World Cup, I just saw this 2015 piece by the ever-intriguing Branko Milanovic, which ends with the following quote that I thought would be interesting (and provocative) to Inequalities readers:

“Well-meaning people often think that on our menu is both a more inclusive and less corrupt society. But unfortunately, our choices in real life are more likely to be either a more inclusive and less unequal society with greater corruption, or an autocratic, elite-run society with less corruption simply because those in power are already rich and powerful enough.”

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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.

Continue reading

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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…).

Continue reading

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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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