IPR Blog

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Topic: Welfare

The Right to an Opinion: Measuring the Subjective Wellbeing of Children in Care

📥  Social care, Welfare, young people

Marsha Wood is Research Assistant at the IPR. This post draws, in part, on her work on children in care, which was also recently published in Sage's journal Adoption & Fostering

There are around 70,000 children and young people in care in England, mainly because of abuse and neglect. The impact of maltreatment can be long lasting and the quality of substitute care the child receives has a significant impact on their developmental recovery. Whilst some young people will have a positive experience during their time in care and will go on to flourish as adults, there are also many young people whose experiences are less positive, who leave care without having had opportunities for recovery and who remain unprepared for independent adult lives. Yet, we know very little about the factors which influence positive care experiences.

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Whilst there is much rhetoric around wellbeing for adults and children in the general population, there is little understanding of how wellbeing measures translate for children who may have more specific needs, such as children in care – leaving huge gaps in our understanding of the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting their lives – yet it seems that that the opinions of the most vulnerable groups are not always heard.

Different lives

Most children in care have had very different lives to the general population both before entering care and throughout their care journey. Children in care may identify broad aspects of importance similar to the general child population such as ‘family’, but their lived experiences of ‘family’ can be very different to those of the general child population – and, accordingly, their needs in relation to maintaining or developing positive family relationships may vary. For example, children in care do not live with their birth parents, and may or may not live with their siblings. Whilst some may not desire any contact with their birth family, many others will still feel strong bonds and ties, and desire contact with birth family members. Many will have a strong desire to live with their siblings, although this is not always possible, and regular contact can be key.

A further area of difference for children in care, as compared with the general child population, is around relationships with professionals. All children in care have a social worker whom they should know and have contact with, and many will have a range of other professionals in their lives. Children in care will have a foster carer or a key worker if they live in a residential home. Many will have had multiple carers and will have moved placements multiple times, or will have moved in and out of care – between the family home and foster or residential care. When children leave the care system as they enter adulthood, they often have to adjust to independent living far more rapidly than children in the general population. It is the role of children’s services to ensure that despite these complexities, children and young people have a positive care experience which counters any previous maltreatment and enables them to flourish into adulthood. But what factors need to be in place to ensure that children in care have positive lives, and how can we know when things are going wrong?

Subjective wellbeing

It is increasingly recognised that understanding subjective wellbeing – or asking people how they feel about their own lives – is key to developing policy that supports our quality of life, and we cannot just rely on objective wellbeing measures such as educational results or the number of teen pregnancies. The Measuring What Matters programme (Office of National Statistics, 2011), which began in England in 2010, concluded that people’s objective circumstances can improve, but this does not necessarily translate into feeling that life is improving. For example, crime can go down, but people may not necessarily feel more secure. Children in care may have more stable foster care placements, but does this actually mean that they feel more secure? There have been substantial efforts to identify what makes a good life and to find ways to measure it recently. The New Economic Foundation (NEF) has developed a model for measuring subjective wellbeing which identifies the key areas of wellbeing (e.g. happiness, life having meaning), and how personal resources (e.g. self-esteem, optimism) play a key role in maintaining wellbeing. The NEF model is useful, but may not go far enough for children in care who often have very limited personal resources upon which they can draw.

Measuring the wellbeing of children in care

Research (Ungar, 2013) highlights how children who have been subjected to traumatic experiences are less able to use their own resources and rely much more on external factors to maintain wellbeing. For children in care, the role of children’s services are key in supporting young people to develop the resources that they need to affect their well-being. Yet how we understand and measure the effectiveness of children’s services in ensuring a positive experience for children in care is barely thought through. Unicef (2016) have recommended that children’s voices should always be built into data collection processes, stating that children need to be able to shape the questions asked in surveys of their own lives and wellbeing.

Important work has been undertaken to create national surveys to measure the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population. For example, researchers from the Children’s Society and the University of York consulted with 8,000 children, asking what they thought were the most important ingredients for good life. Children identified a common set of domains: relationships (family and friends), environment (home, school, neighbourhood, possessions) satisfaction (with appearance, life overall), happiness (current, sense of a future and life worthwhile), safety (free form bullying) and choice (a say in decision-making, opportunities). These domains have informed various subjective wellbeing measures for children such as the international Children’s Worlds survey and those developed by the ONS in their work on national wellbeing in England. However, although the evidence base for children’s subjective wellbeing has improved overall, little is known about whether the domains identified for the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population apply to more specific groups of children – such as children in care.

Recent investigations

I recently worked on a research study conducted by the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, delivered in collaboration with the children’s rights charity Coram Voice, which has sought to address this gap. Alongside a participation worker from Coram Voice, I conducted focus groups with 140 children in care to identify what they thought were the key factors to a good care journey; the key messages that came from the young people were then used to develop a subjective wellbeing measure for looked-after children. The views and experiences expressed by the young people in the study illustrate factors that can support positive care experiences. Having opportunities to do things that they had never done before, like go-karting or horse riding, for example – or engaging in participation sessions with other young people in care, or going to parliament to represent people in care.

These positive experiences helped to build confidence and to reduce the feelings of stigma associated with being a child in care by enabling the young people to speak positively about their lives. The young people also talked about how much they valued having positive relationships with adults whom they could trust and whom they could rely on to be a consistent, long-term, committed person in their lives. Some spoke of the positive role models their carers had been and how they valued being given the chance to learn to be independent; some of being trusted with responsibilities, and being given second, third, fourth and even fifth chances when they made a mistake, proving understanding and commitment from care givers. Some also talked about the positive relationship they had with their social workers, valuing those in particular who did not judge them negatively and who showed an understanding of their previous experiences and how their behaviours might be linked to those experiences.

Unfortunately, not all of the children and young people who spoke in the focus groups for the study were able to talk about such positive experiences. The young people spoke about their need to be involved in the discussions and decisions being made about their lives and at least to be informed about key changes. For example, one five-year-old spoke about how scared he felt when he was picked up from school by his social worker and, instead of being driven the normal route home, found that he was being taken on a totally different journey, ending up at a house that was going to be his new home. He had no prior warning until he arrived at the house that he was moving to a new home.

Several young people talked about the many different social workers they had had, how sometimes they did not even know who their social worker was, or how every time they rang to speak to their social worker they would end up talking to a different staff member and would have to re-tell their story, making them feel misunderstood and judged. The word trust came up over and over again in the focus groups, yet often seemed to be something lacking in the relationships that the young people had, or – where they did have trusting relationships, for example with a sibling – something that wasn’t always recognised and supported by carers and professionals in terms of assisting the young person to keep in touch with that person.

The children and young people also spoke about the need for consistent support services. For example, one young person spoke about her feeling of devastation when she found out that she would lose the long-term support she had received from a mental health professional, whom she had worked with for years and who was the only person she felt she could open up to about past traumatic experiences, simply because she turned 18 and was suddenly no longer entitled to receive support from that person.

Many young people spoke of experiences where they felt that unnecessary attention was drawn to their status as a child in care – for example, being pulled out of class to go and see their social worker, or being seen out and about with a professional who wears their ID badge.

Addressing concerns

Some of the problems identified above might be easily solved; for example, informing professionals not to wear their ID badges when out in public with the children and young people could alleviate their embarrassment. Reminding social workers to inform the children and young people who they support about their annual leave arrangements and whom they should speak to in their absence would also be a simple but effective measure. Other problems are harder to address, however; the high turnover of social workers in many areas, for example, will be related to the high pressures and caseloads faced by many social workers in children’s services, and needs to be tackled primarily through better funding of social work services. High caseloads also affect the opportunities that social workers have to spend time with children and young people, to build the trust and understanding which help them ensure that the right supports can be put in place to aid recovery from past traumatic experiences. Although difficult to resolve, these problems cannot be ignored.

The long-term costs, to both the young people themselves and to society as a whole, of a negative experience in the care system far outweigh the costs associated with putting things right for the young whilst they are still in care. Yet, we need to know what is going wrong and where in order to put things right. We also need to know what is going right, and within which local authorities, in order to share good practice examples with other areas.

From the focus groups with the young people, the University of Bristol and Coram Voice developed three age- and length-appropriate surveys (4-7 year olds, 8-11 year olds and 11+) focusing on four domains: relationship, rights, recovery and resilience. The aim of the surveys is to alert local authorities to areas where they may be failing children in their care, and also where they are doing well, to support young people and to identify the practices in place that have a positive influence on children and young people’s wellbeing – and, from this, to share the learning with other authorities and influence national policy to drive improvements in children and young people’s wellbeing. The surveys have been piloted with 6 local authorities and this year are being used by another 17.

More work to do

This work, of course, only addresses part of the problem; there are groups within groups. Care leavers may have more specific needs relating to loneliness and independent living; young parents’ wellbeing needs will centre more around support to bring up their children and access to affordable childcare; refugees and asylum-seeking children and young people may have specific concerns around the complex rights and entitlements landscape they must navigate; and there remain questions as to how we understand the wellbeing of children in care who are under the age of four. It may be that further separate measures need to be developed to capture the needs of other groups of vulnerable young people. Coram Voice have recently secured money to develop a care leavers survey, which is a positive step forward in addressing the needs of more specific groups of vulnerable young people.

Findings from the current surveys are also beginning to illuminate potential questions for the care system. For example, initial findings indicate lower wellbeing scores for girls in care compared to boys, and raise questions over how the care system should operate in relation to different groups of young people. It may be that, as more local authorities take up the survey, other pictures start to emerge. For example, wellbeing experiences may differ for other groups also – such as those from minority ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, or those from certain age groups. As more local authorities take part, we can identify the problems that are locally specific as well as those that are cross cutting, in order to develop both local policy and target national developments.

Looking to the future

Children’s services are so financially constrained that they often feel they are only able to scratch the surface in their work with children and young people, and are unable to reach and therefore tackle the problems that lie beneath. Social workers’ cries for help to improve services are largely ignored. Instead ensues a rhetoric of blame towards social workers, who are working under severe resource constraints. Crisis points often materialise after children leave care. Although there is recognition of the need to support care-leavers, services are currently insufficient. Ofsted report that two-thirds of care-leaving services were judged to either require improvement or to be inadequate (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2015). A recent report by the Children’s Society (2016) highlighted the problems of financial exclusion faced by care-leavers, with many young people falling into debt and financial difficulty and nearly 4,000 receiving benefit sanctions in 2015. In the year ending March 2015, 39% of care-leavers aged 19 to 21 were not in education, employment or training. Within two years of leaving the care system, a third of young care-leavers become homeless (Stein, 2010). Research also consistently shows that care-leavers are over-represented in studies on people in custody.

Returning to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting them. It is hoped that through measuring the subjective wellbeing of children in care using measures identified by the young people themselves, the most vulnerable young people in our society have more of an opportunity to voice their opinions – opinions that, by right, must not be ignored.

 

For more information about the research, please see Marsha's published paper or the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care studies' brochure on the project.

 

References

Office of National Statistics (2011) Measuring What Matters. London. Office for National Statistics.

House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. (2015) Care leavers’ transition to adulthood: Fifth Report of Session 2015-16. London. The House of Commons Library.

The Children’s Society (2016) The cost of being care free: The impact of poor financial education and removal of support on care leavers. London. The Children’s Society.

Ungar, M. (2013). Resilience after maltreatment: The importance of social services as facilitators of positive adaptation. Child abuse & neglect, 37(2), 110-115.

United Nations (1990) Convention on the Rights of the Child

Unicef (2016) Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries. Unicef.

Wade, J & Dixon, J. (2006,) Making a home, finding a job: investigating early housing and employment outcomes for young people leaving care, Child & Family Social Work, vol 11, no 3, pp 199–208.

 

Timing it wrong: Benefits, Income Tests, Overpayments and Debts

📥  employment, future, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Peter Whiteford is a Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath.

Unexpected bills can be a challenge for any household. But for people who rely on social security payments, unexpected news of a significant debt – sometimes dating back years – can be bewildering to say the least. This is exactly what tens of thousands of Australians have experienced in recent months.

Since just before Christmas, Centrelink’s use of a new automated data-matching system has resulted in a significant increase in the number of current and former welfare recipients identified as having been overpaid and, thus, being in debt to the government. The data-matching system seems to have identified people with earned income higher than the amount reported when their benefits were calculated.

timing

 

Many of these people were alarmed when Centrelink contacted them about the assumed debt. Their stories have been recounted over the past two months in the mainstream media and social media. The controversy prompted the Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney to request an auditor-general’s investigation. After receiving more than one hundred complaints about problems with the debt-recovery process, independent MP Andrew Wilkie asked the Commonwealth Ombudsman to step in, and he has since launched an investigation. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee will also examine the new process.

This is by no means Australia’s first social security overpayment controversy. The last storm was sparked by the expansion and fine-tuning of family tax benefits in 2000. Under that new system, families were given the option of taking their payments as reductions in the income tax paid on their behalf by their employer. To ensure that this group was treated in the same way as those who received cash benefits from Centrelink, the government introduced an annual reconciliation process. Before the beginning of each financial year, families were asked to estimate what their income would be in the subsequent tax year; later, after they had filed their tax returns, an end-of-year reconciliation process would bring income and family benefits into line.

This seemed like a rational system. People who had been underpaid could receive a lump sum to ensure their correct entitlement. People who had been overpaid would pay back the money that they weren’t entitled to keep. The reconciliation would correct any mistakes people made when they estimated their income for the year ahead (not necessarily an easy task to get right!) and make the system responsive to changes in income during the year.

But many families’ estimates at the start of the year proved to be poor guides to income received during the year. This happened in both directions – some estimates were too high, some too low – but most often real annual incomes were higher than predicted. The result was a very large increase in overpayments and, thus, in debts. Before the new system was introduced, just over 50,000 families had debts at the end of each year; in the first year of the new system, an estimated 670,000 families received overpayments. Overall, around one third of eligible families incurred an overpayment in the first two years of the new system.

This is how the system was designed to work. But for the families who found themselves owing sometimes large and usually unexpected debts, the experience created confusion, stress and anger. It also generated considerable controversy in parliament and the media. So, in July 2001, just before an important by-election, the Howard government announced a waiver of the first $1,000 of all overpayments, which reduced the number of families with debts to around 200,000. Further fine-tuning came in 2002, also aimed at reducing overpayments and debts. Then, in 2004, an annual lump sum was added to family tax benefit A with the aim of offsetting any overpayments.

***

At around this time, Britain was designing and introducing a new system of tax credits for people in work (the working tax credit) and for families with children (the child tax credit). The system had some features in common with the Australian approach, had some features in common with the Australian approach, including an end-of–year reconciliation. The British government was keen to avoid the sort of controversy that had blown up in Australia, so it included a mechanism for changing the level of tax credit not just at the end of the year but during the year as well.

The assessment for credits was initially made on the basis of gross family income in the previous tax year. If recipients reported changes in income and circumstances during the year, then the award was adjusted, and at the end of the year total credits and income were reconciled. But many changes in income and circumstances went unreported during the year and so, in practice, considerable adjustment was required. Over the first few years of the system, about 1.9 million cases of excessive credits occurred each year.

As in Australia, the system caused significant hardship and generated adverse media coverage and much concern. In 2005 and 2006, the British government introduced a number of changes designed to reduce overpayments, including a very substantial increase in the level of the annual income “disregard” from £2,500 to £25,000. This meant that family income could rise by up to £25,000 in the current award year before tax credits were reduced. The amount has since been brought back to the original £2,500, which will probably mean overpayments will start to rise again. Processes exist for recovering overpayments of tax credits and housing benefits, and these sometimes attract some media attention, most recently in relation to the use of private debt collectors.

***

Together with the current Centrelink controversy, the experience of these earlier cases offers four main lessons for social security policy.

First, getting payments “right” in any means-tested system is a complex process necessarily involving trade-offs between responsiveness and simplicity. If the aim is to precisely match income and benefit in real time, then there must be constant updating and checking of income and adjustments of benefits. But such a system would be very intrusive and administratively complex. So systems are designed to pay first and reconcile later, which makes overpayments almost inevitable.

Governments can minimise the impact by disregarding some overpayments, as both Australia and Britain have done in the past. But that is not part of the design of Australia’s latest program of debt recovery. People are being chased partly because the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Act 2016 toughened repayment compliance conditions for social welfare debts. New conditions include an interest charge on the debts of former social welfare recipients who are unwilling to enter repayment arrangements, extended Departure Prohibition Orders for people who are not in repayment arrangements for their social welfare debts, and the removal of the six-year limitation on debt recovery for all social welfare debt.

People ardently dislike systems that they don’t understand and feel are unfair, or that seem to create debts beyond their control. A very stringent approach to collecting overpayments can cause real hardship and generate controversy. It has even been suggested that there may be a punitive element to this, with Centrelink staff not encouraged or required to help people to correct errors.

Second, IT systems are not by themselves the cause of these problems. It is easy to blame the technology when things go wrong, and some problematic factors do indeed appear to be technological. The names of employers provided to the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink don’t always match, for example, and it appears that in some cases the same income is counted twice because the assessment process matches names rather than Australian Business Numbers.

More significantly, Centrelink’s formula can produce false estimates of debts when individuals are asked to confirm their annual income reported to the Australian Tax Office, because it simply divides the reported annual wage by twenty-six. That overly simplified calculation will only produce a useful figure if individuals receive exactly the same income each fortnight, which is often not the case, especially for casual workers, students and other people with intermittent work patterns.

But these problems are not necessarily the fault of the IT, which is only doing what it has been designed to do. More checking by humans would probably reduce errors, but outcomes that result from the design of the policy can’t be resolved by technical fixes.

Third, IT systems are not by themselves the solution either. It is possible that the earlier problems with overpayments of family tax benefits may recur very soon. In early February, the federal government introduced a new omnibus savings bill to parliament, combining and revising several previously blocked welfare measures into a single piece of legislation in order to save nearly $4 billion over the next four years, after allowing for increased spending on childcare and family tax benefits. By far the most significant of the projected savings in the bill – $4.7 billion over four years – results from phasing out the end-of-year supplements for family tax benefit recipients, which were introduced to solve the overpayment and debt problems referred to earlier.

So why would the government think that the overpayment of family payments and the subsequent debt problem will be resolved, as this saving seems to assume? The answer is not entirely clear, but seems to relate to the update of Centrelink’s computer system announced in 2015. “The new technology to underpin the welfare system will offer better data analytics, real-time data sharing between agencies, and faster, cheaper implementation of policy changes,” Marise Payne, then human services minister, said at the time. “This means customers who fail to update their details with us will be less likely to have to repay large debts, and those who wilfully act to defraud taxpayers will be caught much more quickly.”

Complementing the Centrelink update are proposed changes in reporting systems at the Australian Tax Office, particularly the introduction of a single-touch payroll system. Under the new system, when employers pay their staff, the employees’ salary or wages and PAYG withholding amounts will automatically be reported to the Tax Office, which can then share this data with Centrelink.

The government seems to be assuming that computer and system updates will provide a technological fix to the problem of family tax benefit overpayments – and thus deliver a saving of $4.7 billion over the next four years. But what if the new IT systems don’t work in the ways envisaged? The Australian Tax Office’s computer system has crashed a number of times over the past year. Indeed, in the very same week that the government introduced the new omnibus savings bill, newspaper reports of this “tech wreck” suggested that the Tax Office might not be able to guarantee this year’s lodgement of returns in time for the start of the new financial year. The reports also noted that the development of the single-touch payroll system would remain one of the Tax Office’s priorities for this year.

Finally, to reiterate our first point, these problems have arisen from policy choices and design. Britain is introducing a new system, Universal Credit, which will use real-time adjustments to track changes in earnings and seek to match awards to income on a monthly basis. How well this will work in practice remains to be seen. In both countries, trends towards more insecure and variable employment patterns – and hence irregular pay packets – will make balancing accuracy and timeliness in means-tested welfare benefits more difficult. The assumption of regular and unchanging income no longer holds, and this new reality requires a policy, not a technical, solution.

This piece originally appeared on INSIDE STORY.

 

Being Female, NEET and Economically Inactive – what does that mean?

📥  Welfare, Women, young people

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR

 

‘Any evidence that we have on the NEET group is dated. We have pockets to support different types of policy development, but no way do we have good evidence…’

- (Policymaker)[1]

 

This admission by a policymaker about the dearth of evidence on which to base policy targeting those young people, currently numbering 857,000[2] according to official UK figures, who are not in education, employment or training (NEET), highlights an area crying out for substantial research and investigation.

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A contested term

We have become very familiar with the term ‘NEET’ and its widespread application to quantify levels of social and economic exclusion among young people. Leaving aside the suspicion that NEET became the preferred term partly because of our love of acronyms and partly because it was less emotionally charged than Status Zero, which was the original classification in the UK, it is important to remember that it was originally applied to 16- and 17-year-olds who could no longer be classified as ‘unemployed’ due to legislative changes. Since then, NEET has become the term used not just in the UK, but internationally, to refer to a much wider age cohort of young people (16-24 in the UK).

But how useful is the NEET label in identifying the true volume of people in this category? Significant numbers of those aged 16-18 are not identified as NEET because their destinations are not recorded, and large numbers of those over 18 who are defined as NEET fail to register for welfare or other types of support in the UK. Thus, the numbers in the claimant count are much smaller than those in the overall NEET population, leading to the conclusion that a large number of young people are unsupported by statutory services – why is this? Given the disconnect between the official NEET statistics and policy intervention to track, manage and support the estimated NEET population, perhaps it is time to re-think our application of the term NEET and, crucially, our policy responses to support young people who fall into this overall definition.

Gender differences

Irrespective of the expanded scope of the NEET group, it is apparent that gender differences within the cohort have been neglected in the literature, wider debates and, crucially, policy formation about the NEET group. Data from the January-March quarter of the 2016 Labour Force Survey and the National Online Manpower Information System highlighted differences between NEET females and NEET males. Despite its original purpose, the NEET category now includes young people who are actively seeking work, i.e. the economically active (EA) NEET group, as well as those who are economically inactive (EI), primarily because they have caring and/or domestic responsibilities or are unable to participate in education, employment or training due to long-term ill health. NEET young women outnumbered NEET young men (432,000 to 376,000); 66% of the young women were EI, compared to 43% of the young men; and young people who were NEET and EA were mostly young men (59%).

Differences are also apparent in the types of benefits received by males and females in the NEET and EI group, with young women claiming Income Support (IS) in larger numbers, as a result of caring responsibilities. Most young men in the NEET EI group claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) due to illness or disability, with the primary cause being psychological problems. Significant numbers of young women claim ESA for the same reason.

To date, relatively little attention has been paid to young women who are NEET and EI, with a passive acceptance that their ‘caring’ responsibilities sideline them from meaningful support or policy intervention. Reasons for the differences described above need to be explored in greater depth in order to provide evidence on which effective policy initiatives can be introduced. A study currently being undertaken by myself and Young Women’s Trust, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, is seeking to address some of the gaps and shortcomings in our understanding of what it means to be NEET and EI, and what impact this categorisation has on the lives of young women.

The stakeholders

During the first year of this two-year project, interviews were carried out with ten key experts, including policymakers and academics. In addition, case studies were undertaken in five localities, with local stakeholders who were involved in devising and delivering employment interventions in each area being interviewed. These stakeholders typically included local authorities, Jobcentres, Local Enterprise Partnerships, education and training providers, and voluntary and community sector organisations.

Among these respondents, there was concern about the general acceptance that all young women who are NEET and EI would remain so for long periods of time because of their early motherhood, caring responsibilities or ill-health. Rather, it was felt that this issue required ‘unpacking’ in order to gain more understanding about their needs and requirements. An important finding was the relationship between the type of welfare benefit and intervention that young people receive and their classification as either NEET EI or NEET EA. Young women, who are much more likely than young men to be NEET and EI, typically remain on welfare support for much longer periods than those who are EA, and are also far less likely to receive any form of positive support or intervention. Conversely, the support offered to young people who are actively seeking work and claiming JSA was fiercely criticised for its high levels of sanctioning, unrealistic target-setting and emphasis on removing claimants from the register at the earliest opportunity. It is only the unemployment rate that attracts national media attention and which is scrutinised by national government and by authorities such as the International Labour Office. This difference between the two groups is also reflected in the proportions of their respective claimant counts, with much lower numbers of young people (especially young women) being present in the NEET and EA category.

A preferable approach would involve claimants being provided with targeted and tailored support, instead of being subjected to demanding targets and having the threat of sanctions hanging over them. Concerns were also expressed about the impact of being NEET and EI on young women who were relatively isolated within their households and communities, notably their propensity to suffer from low self-confidence, low self-esteem and, for some, mental health issues. Their detachment from external and independent support and advice could have long-lasting effects on their health and likelihood of future employment. It was reported to be very difficult for local agencies to identify and engage with young women in the NEET and EI group.

For young mothers who are NEET and EI, major barriers to engaging in education, employment or training were deemed to be: affordable childcare; a reluctance to leave their children; access to transport; and appropriate employment and training opportunities.

The issue of the large numbers of young people who do not appear in the system and are effectively ‘unknown’, as mentioned above, was prominent in respondents’ concerns. This was attributed, in part, to cuts to local services which have placed constraints on local authorities’ ability to fulfil the requirement for mapping and tracking young people in Years 12-14. Official statistics show that, in many localities, the ‘unknown’ rates are higher than the NEET rates. This has been exacerbated by the decision to limit any tracking responsibility until the individual’s 18th birthday – when the post-18 group is, perhaps, more in need of monitoring and when the NEET rate significantly rises. Certainly, the absence of any agency or organisation with statutory responsibility for measuring the number of, or addressing the needs of, young people over the age of 18/19 who fail to apply for welfare support was perceived to be of immediate concern.

It was suggested that the reasons for young people’s detachment, leading to their destinations and circumstances being ‘unknown’, included: an unwillingness to cooperate with benefit regulations; fear of statutory bodies; family support which allows them to avoid registration for benefits; the stigma of benefit receipt; and informal or casual working arrangements. Whatever the reasons, this ‘hidden’ NEET population remains largely unquantifiable in many localities and out of the remit of statutory services. Hence, little is known about young people who fall into this category in terms of their characteristics, what has caused their detachment, and any barriers they may face.

The young women, in their own words

The in-depth interviews with ten young women who were NEET and EI provided illuminating insights into their lives and experiences, particularly in relation to their school and post-school experiences, domestic circumstances, money management, and their hopes and aspirations. In this admittedly small sample, those in receipt of IS had caring responsibilities (for their children), while those on ESA suffered from anxiety and depression – one respondent refused to claim welfare support because of her previous negative experiences of dealing with the Job Centre.

Half of the young women were living in their parental home. However, most of them continued to rely on a parent and/or family members for emotional, practical and financial advice and support, irrespective of their circumstances. This included practical help with childcare, food, clothing and personal care costs and assisting with application forms for housing or benefit receipt. Those who lived at their parents’ home contributed minimal amounts to the household budget and, in some cases, their dependence on their family resulted in a reluctance to move out of the family home, because of the perceived risks this posed to their established support networks. A lack of friendship networks, few hobbies and interests, and limited social activities were the norm. Thus, family networks appeared to both insulate and isolate young women from the outside world.

Strikingly, in the face of scarce resources, these young women were adept at managing their finances. This management took different forms, from prioritising expenditure on food, rent, fuel, children’s clothing and toiletries while eking out fortnightly benefit payments, to using loans to buy furniture and other goods from charity shops.

Conclusions

Questions must be raised about our ability to implement effective and appropriate (meaningful) policy interventions when there is clearly a dearth of knowledge and understanding about the NEET group – both in terms of its expanded age cohort, and its inclusion of both the EI and EA groups, which have been shown to have very different needs. Moreover, we have what appears to be a growing army of young people who, under the age of 18, have ‘unknown’ destinations – or who, over the age of 18, may have the classification of being NEET within the statistics, but fail to engage with the welfare system. This leads us to the conclusion that the extension of the umbrella term ‘NEET’ to cover a much wider age cohort has failed to be accompanied by an expansion in understanding about the characteristics and needs of young people who fall into this category; perhaps just as importantly, the wider implications for inclusion and policy responses has not been acknowledged.

Assumptions about young women who are NEET, have caring responsibilities and are likely to remain EI need to be challenged. Is the welfare system and its categorisation of individuals, based on criteria for benefit entitlement, labelling them for the convenience of the system, rather than seeking to design initiatives which engage with them and facilitate their easier access to education, employment and training? Also, while many young women may wish to spend time caring for their children or relatives and may not wish to feel under pressure to (re)join the labour market, this needs to be accompanied with access to appropriate support and intervention when it is required. As it stands, young parents are ‘left alone’ within the benefit system until their youngest child reaches the age of five and are then immediately expected to find work or training if they wish to claim benefits. They need sustained transitional support.

It was evident from the case studies that, at a local level, agencies providing support for the NEET group had established strong and effective partnership working to identify the young people’s needs and to develop local initiatives. More problematic was the short-term nature of funding for these initiatives, and, thus, an absence of long-term strategy or planning. Factors which were perceived to pose a threat to future support for excluded and marginalised young people were: a lack of programmes funded by central government; initiatives being reliant on short-term funding and with a variety of outcome measures; the impending removal of EU structural funds; and a growing reliance on charitable and philanthropic funding to support NEET intervention projects.

The term NEET and the inclusion of the terms EI and EA within it are in urgent need of reappraisal. Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and to question whether ‘NEET’ continues to qualify and quantify the scale of social and economic exclusion among young people in Britain and, if it does, then what policy interventions can be delivered to address the whole population rather than selected sub-groups within it. Finally, questions must be asked about the appropriateness of using access to welfare support facilitated through registration with DWP as an adequate and effective mechanism to engage with young people who are NEET. The existing evidence would suggest that it is failing to meet the needs of many young people, particularly young women.

 

You can read the Summary Report and Full First Year Report on the Young Women's Trust website here

[1]Maguire, S and McKay, E. (2016) Young, Female and Forgotten? London: Young Women’s Trust (p.25)

[2] ONS (2016) Young People Not In Education, Employment or Training (NEET), UK: November 2016. Statistical Bulletin.

 

Citizen's Income: the long history of an inevitable idea

📥  Economy, Finland, future, living wage, policymaking, political parties, research, Switzerland, universal basic income, Welfare

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a prolific author on the subject of Citizen's Income.

On Tuesday 11 October the Institute for Policy Research hosted a seminar on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. An account of the seminar is available on the IPR’s website. I shall not here repeat what was said at that seminar: instead, I shall begin with a different seminar.

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Following the publication of its report on Citizen’s Income, the Royal Society of Arts hosted a seminar on the history and prospects of the Citizen’s Income debate. In his presentation Karl Widerquist, Co-chair of BIEN, the Citizen’s Income international umbrella group, recounted the history of the idea from the 18th Century onwards, and made suggestions as to the different ways in which the debate might now develop.

The subsequent discussion recognised that the more intense debate of the past two or three years has a variety of causes: think tank engagement with the issue, represented by the RSA’s and Compass’s reports, and interest at the Adam Smith Institute; successful pilot projects in Namibia and India; planned pilot projects in Finland and Holland; a referendum in Switzerland; political party interest in the UK (with the Green Party and the Scottish National Party supporting the idea, and Labour interested) and in other countries too; new trade union interest; and perhaps even the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 30 years of research and publications.

The current debate already has its own history, constituted by three phases: discussion of whether giving everyone a Citizen’s Income would be desirable, interest in whether it would be feasible, and discussion of which would be the best way to implement the policy. There are no firm boundaries between these three phases (if a Citizen’s Income could not be implemented, for example, then it would not be feasible – and if it wasn’t felt to be desirable then it wouldn’t be feasible either), and each new phase has been in addition to a previous phase or phases, rather than being a replacement – but the progression is significant because it is evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate. The think tank reports listed above belong to the ‘feasibility’ phase, as does my own recent Institute for Social and Economic Research Euromod working paper and recent book. A significant contribution to the new focus on implementation will be an Institute for Chartered Accountants consultation on the subject in November.

Where will the debate go now?

Luke Martinelli’s recent Institute for Policy Research blog discusses the diversity of the current debate in terms of, firstly, the diverse political ideologies of some of the players, and secondly the diversity of Citizen’s Income schemes discussed. A Citizen’s or Basic Income is always the same thing. It is always an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. But there are of course a wide diversity of different schemes, with each scheme specifying the levels of Citizen’s Income for different age groups, and the changes that will be made to the existing tax and benefits systems when the Citizen’s Income is implemented. Compass called a scheme that retains means-tested benefits a ‘modified’ scheme. It is not. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income, so the scheme is a genuine Citizen’s Income scheme.

There is a history to this diversity. As with the three phases of the current debate, so the longer-term debate has evolved by addition rather than by replacement. Thomas Paine’s suggestion, that those who no longer have access to expropriated commons should be paid compensation, has been a continuing theme, represented today by Guy Standing’s campaigning scholarship. Today’s most high-profile representative of the libertarian argument for a Citizen’s Income is Philippe Van Parijs, and Charles Murray represents well the extreme version of this tendency, which would like to scrap all other welfare provision on the implementation of a Citizen’s Income. But this is to suggest – as Martinelli’s blog post does – that arguments for Citizen’s Income, and accompanying preferred Citizen’s Income schemes, can be located in clear ideological categories. I suspect that this is less and less the case. There are no longer clear categories, and there are no reliable spectra on which positions can be located. Our age is increasingly one of radical diversity. My first book on Citizen’s Income, Money for Everyone, discussed political feasibility in terms of identifiable political ideologies. The following book, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, simply offers 101 different reasons, recognising that for each individual a particular bundle of reasons might be significant. A handful of the reasons offered are framed in terms of political ideologies, because for many people those are still salient – but most of the reasons are simply listed in such broad categories as ‘economy’, ‘society’, ‘administration’, etc. My most recent book, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, recognises that we are a community of communities, and that particular communities might have their own distinctive reasons for supporting or rejecting Citizen’s Income. As the Citizen’s Income debate becomes increasingly mainstream, we shall find the same tendency that we find with other current issues: that they will become political footballs – that is, they will be pushed around by political considerations, rather than in relation to their own characteristics. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has for a long time recognised that we shall one day need a Citizen’s Income, and that the idea needs to be carefully studied by government. He spoke at the Citizen’s Income Trust’s conference in 2014, invited the Trust to organise one of his People’s Parliament events, and since becoming Shadow Chancellor has reiterated his interest. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, has also been clear about his support. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith stated his view that Citizen’s Income wasn’t credible. Whether he had read any of the research I don’t know – but it certainly appeared that the motive for his objection was that his opponent had supported it. It is regrettable when positions are taken for reasons proceeding from a personal political career, or for factional advantage, rather than on the basis of evidenced and reasoned argument – but incidents such as this are useful because they signal the fact that an idea is understood, and that it is understood to be significant. What is then required is a sustained emphasis on the idea’s feasibility.

The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income understands feasibility as multifaceted, and recognises that specifically political feasibility is just one aspect of feasibility. In order to be implemented, a Citizen’s Income scheme would need to pass two kinds of financial feasibility test, with regard to both the feasibility of paying for it and the need to avoid imposing losses on low-income households at the point of implementation; it would need to pass psychological, behavioural, and administrative feasibility tests; and it would need to be able to negotiate the complex policy process from idea to implementation. The book concludes that there are Citizen’s Income schemes that could achieve all of that. A conclusion that might have been more explicit is that conformity of the scheme to a political ideology or ideologies might be fairly unimportant. A conclusion that is drawn matches one that Martinelli draws: that deeply embedded convictions, relating to reciprocity, deservedness, and so on, will need to be recognised at the implementation stage, because only those implementation methods that could achieve public approval can be regarded as feasible. The popularity of both the NHS and Child Benefit suggest that unconditional benefits fit the British psyche just as much as ideas of reciprocity and deservedness do; so as long as age groups generally felt to be ‘deserving’ are the first to receive Citizen’s Incomes, psychological feasibility should not be too difficult to achieve. Governments can move ahead of public opinion if they are moving in the same direction – recent examples are the ban on smoking in workplaces and public places, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – and legislation can sometimes shape public opinion (as equalities legislation has done). This suggests that any government that saw good reason for implementing a Citizen’s Income scheme would be able to do so, as long as it started with age groups generally believed to be deserving – that is, children, retired people, the pre-retired, and the 16+ age group.

Martinelli suggests that the Citizen’s Income debate will exhibit a variety of different Citizen’s Income schemes, with each kind relating to a different set of political convictions. I’m not so sure. It is a reasonable assumption that for the foreseeable future any initial Citizen’s Income scheme in a developed country will need to be revenue neutral, and possibly strictly revenue neutral (in the sense that only tax allowances related to earnings would be reduced to help to pay for the Citizen’s Income). Microsimulation research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown that a revenue-neutral Citizen’s Income scheme can only avoid imposing unacceptable losses on low-income households if current means-tested benefits are left in place and are recalculated to take account of each household’s Citizen’s Income and changes in net earnings. Recently updated figures show that a working-age adult Citizen’s Income of £60 per week could be paid for on this basis. This is not large, but neither is it insignificant. Compass’s recent report takes a similar approach. The RSA report does not – but neither has it tested its proposed scheme for low-income household losses at the point of implementation. We look forward to the results of current IPR microsimulation research. We are now more aware than before that although it is possible to construct a wide variety of Citizen’s Income schemes in theory, in practice only a narrow range of that diversity could ever be financially feasible in both senses of that term. If the debate about Citizen’s Income remains mainstream, and if it becomes increasingly so, then any infeasible scheme will be put under considerable pressure (as the Green Party’s proposed scheme was before the 2015 General Election) – and the result will be convergence on a narrow range of revenue-neutral schemes that would not impose losses on low-income households at the point of implementation.

The increasingly flexible and diverse nature of the employment market, family structures, and society and the economy generally, and the way in which the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour, mean that sooner or later we shall need a Citizen’s Income – and that we shall need to find some means of paying for it. But that could still be a very long process. Maybe by this time next year everybody will have lost interest, and the idea will have to await another upsurge in interest in a generation’s time; or maybe there will be both developing and developed countries taking the first steps towards implementation. More likely, we shall experience a situation somewhere between those two. Whatever the debate is like next year, it will have been important for high-quality research to have facilitated it. For this reason it is a pleasure to see the Institute for Policy Research contributing to the research that we shall need, and to the widespread debate that is now required.

This blog post develops on themes discussed by Dr Torry in a recent IPR Seminar. You can view the seminar and slides in full on our online lectures page, or listen to the podcast on our Soundcloud playlist.

Have you been in a Jobcentre lately?

📥  employment, future, political parties, Welfare

Dr Rita Griffiths is Research Programme Lead for the IPR.

“Anyone who thinks Jobcentres are like [those in The Full Monty] … would be pleasantly surprised by visiting [one today],” quipped Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in his address to the Conservative Party Conference last week; “no screens, no queues … no sense of sullen despair.” He is right in his observation that Jobcentre Plus offices today look very different from how they did in the 1980s and 1990s, when The Full Monty – along with films like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off – depicted the humiliation and shame wrought on working class men forced to sign-on after being made redundant from jobs in mining, steel and other heavy industries.

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It is true that the metal security screens have gone, and dole queues no longer snake out of the doors of benefit offices – which have long since disappeared, along with the traditional industries and breadwinning jobs these men were once employed in. However, it is debatable whether, as claimed by Green, this is down to the transformative power of a modernised and rebranded Jobcentre Plus better equipped to meet the employment needs of ‘ordinary working-class people’ in the post-industrial era. Some would argue it says more about the depersonalised, contracted-out and digitised nature of today’s benefit and employment services – director Ken Loach, for example. His latest offering I, Daniel Blake, for which he won the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, sits uncomfortably alongside Green’s resolutely upbeat account of the changing landscape of government employment support. The protagonist of Loach’s drama, a skilled man in his 50s whose working career is curtailed after he suffers a heart attack, finds himself cut adrift amidst the faceless, ‘digital by design’ bureaucracy of Jobcentre Plus call centres, online benefit processing and the impersonal, one-size-fits-all responses of government-funded advisers. So who is right?

In their own way, both are. Today’s Jobcentre Plus may have upholstered seats, carpets and jaunty, modern graphics – but just try getting past one of those burly security guards if you want help to get a job, or secure better-paid work. Austerity-driven civil service staffing cuts mean that, unless you are an existing benefit claimant required to attend a mandatory appointment with an adviser as a part of your ‘Claimant Commitment’[1], you will likely be turned away – told instead to search for jobs online, or to contact a call centre (using your own mobile and, until recent lobbying persuaded the DWP to change its stance, at a premium call rate). If the security guard allows you entry, you will be directed to a Jobpoint, a touchscreen monitor for online job-hunting – that’s if they haven’t already been removed, along with the free-to-use telephones, as Jobcentre Plus moves inexorably towards full digitisation. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to find a Jobcentre in your local area; in the last five years, scores of them have been closed – including many in rural areas where the nearest alternative may be over an hour’s travel away.

Reduced Jobcentre footfall is of course an undeniable product of the changed nature of work, and online recruitment methods now used by most employers and applicants. However, research is beginning to show that another important factor in the decline of Jobcentre use is the increasingly punitive way in which ‘jobseekers’ and other benefit claimants are dealt with, and a corresponding rise in the incidence of benefit disentitlement and sanctioning.[2] Arrive late for a mandatory appointment, or apply for fewer jobs than is stipulated in your ‘Claimant Commitment’, and you risk being sanctioned. Too many sanctions and you risk losing your benefits altogether, potentially for up to three years.[3] The government claims that sanctions are used infrequently and only as a last resort, but the evidence tells a different story. Research by David Webster from the University of Glasgow found that between 2007 and 2012, one fifth (19%) of all JSA claimants – equivalent to almost a million and a half people – had been subject to sanctions or disallowances.[4] In the context of an increasingly stringent, parsimonious and punitive welfare system, some eligible groups are simply not bothering to claim, further reducing the claimant count.

This brings us to another reason that Jobcentres may seem less desperate places these days: increasing localisation and discretion in the delivery and payment of welfare. In what Frank Field describes as “the most radical departure in welfare since the Atlee government"[5], emergency financial help and other discretionary support intended to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable people in society from falling through the safety net has been devolved from central government to local authorities. This has occurred, it should be noted, with limited public debate about the issues and implications localisation raises. So the queues, over-crowded waiting rooms and sense of despair have not gone away, they have simply relocated – into the burgeoning network of council ‘one-stop shops’ and food banks, where cash-strapped local authorities and volunteer workers struggle to help the growing numbers of claimants and families whose benefits or tax credits have been reduced, stopped or failed to reach their bank accounts for whatever reason.

Even if Green’s rosy vision of the contemporary Jobcentre is right, changes are afoot which may yet see a return to Jobcentre queues and sense of frustration.  Under the most radical and contentious welfare reform measure proposed to date, working people and families claiming Universal Credit means-tested financial help with housing, childcare and living costs will be drawn into a system of conditionality and sanctioning similar to that which currently applies to unemployed and economically inactive claimants. Untried anywhere in the world, a large-scale randomised control trial involving 15,000 low-paid Universal Credit claimants is piloting a new Jobcentre Plus-delivered ‘in-work progression’ service[6] targeted at an entirely new category of customer: low-paid workers and their partners. If rolled out nationally, an additional one million UC claimants will become subject to work conditionality. But here’s the most controversial part: these people will already have jobs. What is more, unless the family contains children under the age of 13, work conditionality requiring regular face-to-face meetings with a Jobcentre adviser will continue until household earnings reach a minimum threshold equivalent to both adults in a couple working 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage. Only parents with authorised caring responsibilities for younger children and other officially exempted groups, such as those with a serious health condition, will have the option to work part-time.

Encouraging low-paid workers to increase their earnings is a laudable policy goal, but when earning more means working longer hours, even in families with young children – and when working for longer is the only way of meeting mandatory conditions for UC receipt – the role of Jobcentre Plus advisers in supporting individuals to progress in work becomes somewhat compromised. Tailored, one-to-one, personalised support from a work coach which underpins the in-work progression service is similarly to be applauded, but progression implies improvement – not just in earnings, which could be achieved simply by getting another low-paid job - but in rates of pay and job prospects. Will customers be helped to access training to improve their earnings potential and jobs offering better terms and conditions, or will they simply be obliged to find more low-paid work? This raises another important question: in whose interests will this employment advice be offered? These already ‘hard working’ customers, employers proffering zero hour contracts, or a government intent on reducing social security expenditure?

Empathetic, individualised support to encourage employment progression runs counter to the work-first culture and general direction of travel that Jobcentre Plus has been moving in for more than a decade. What seems to be missing too is any acknowledgement that, although low earners eligible for means-tested help may represent a new category of customer for Jobcentre Plus, they are not necessarily a different group of people; it is well known that people in poverty and at the bottom end of the earnings distribution often cycle between work and benefits. How realistic is it to think that low-paid workers will be willing to trust the very same advisers who may have imposed a sanction on them during a previous spell of unemployment?

Not simply a cultural and logistical challenge for resource-strapped Jobcentres, through eroding the distinction between being in work and out of work and potentially extending negative representations of benefit claimants to those who already have a job, in-work conditionality also risks obscuring the hitherto strictly demarcated political dividing line between Theresa May’s ‘just managing’ families and welfare-dependent ‘scroungers.’ Hampered by the incremental and chronically delayed rollout of Universal Credit, and a paucity of up-to-date government-commissioned and academic research, only time will tell whether this new vision for Jobcentre Plus will ever be realised.

Notes

[1] Originally designed as part of Universal Credit, with a rollout that has been much slower than anticipated, the ‘Claimant Commitment’ – with its requirement for 35 hours of evidenced job search as a mandatory condition of benefit receipt – also now applies to claimants of jobseekers allowance (JSA) and employment support allowance.
[2] See ESRC-funded research entitled ‘Welfare conditionality: sanctioning, support and behaviour change’ led by the University of York.
[3] A third failure to comply with the most important jobseeking requirements will result in a sanction of 156 weeks.
[4] See D Webster, University of Glasgow
[5] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/373/37302.htm
[6] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/549/549.pdf

The rise of Bristol, success but not yet shared growth — notes for a new mayor

📥  cities, Economy, education, employment, labour market, Welfare, young people

Gavin Kelly is Chief Executive of the Resolution Trust, and former Deputy Chief of Staff at 10 Downing Street.

Any outsider asked to comment on Bristol’s prospects should, of course, tread fairly carefully. I love coming to the city but claim no special knowledge of it. I like to think I’ve been here enough to see past the standard cliché that it’s a city made of hipsters and hills, balloons and bridges. But I have no granular understanding of the different communities within the city, the twists and turns of its economy, and how its politics have ebbed and flowed.

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So I’m going to rely instead on some arid statistics to form a dispassionate external impression. Statistics are, of course, always partial and quite often misleading. They never tell the whole story  – they’re just dots on a chart. But if you join the dots you form a picture, even if it’s a sketchy one. And pictures can be very revealing. As I’ll explain, the image that emerges for me is a city that has rare strengths as well as major challenges.

What’s happened in Bristol should, I think, be of interest across the country. That’s because to some degree Bristol’s story reflects the received wisdom about the correct recipe for urban economic success. Mix physical regeneration of a city-centre with a successful and growing university, a large pool of high-skilled labour and strong transport links. Sprinkle in some cultural-cool and a high quality of life. And then sit back and watch a place thrive. On this basis, Bristol has the lot.

Given these ingredients, how does the city perform? Like most things, it’s a mixed story. Its strengths are very real: simply put, it has high employment levels, above-average pay for those working in the city, and a remarkably high share of graduates in the workforce. These are big assets. Some cities have lots of jobs but weak pay; others have decent pay but fewer jobs. To do well on both fronts is impressive. And being a magnet for graduates is more vital than ever. Every city that wants to succeed in high-knowledge, high-value sectors will always require a critical mass of highly-educated workers. Outside of London, Bristol outperforms every other city in the UK on this front with 4 in 10 of those in Bristol’s workforce holding a degree.

So far so good. Why, then, do I say the city faces deep problems? For me, three challenges stand out.

First, it is something of an understatement to say that the benefits of the city’s success have not been evenly shared. It is a city of deep inequalities. If we look at child poverty across the city we find a gigantic poverty gap with 5% of children in poverty in some wards and just under half in others. That’s a far more pronounced difference between affluent and deprived communities within a city than we see in places like Glasgow or Nottingham.

But to really get a sense of the challenge facing Bristol look at educational inequality. GCSE attainment for state schools in the city is slightly below the national average and this is mostly due to the low attainment of the poorest children. 25% of pupils on free school meals in Bristol reach the usual benchmark of 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared to 62% of non-poor pupils. That’s a big, ugly, 37% gap between the poor and the rest: only nine local authorities in the country have a larger one. Put simply, non-poor pupils in Bristol do better than the national average, whereas the poor do worse.

This inequality at age 16 is maintained as young people progress. Just 13% of those on free-school meals in Bristol at GCSE progress onto higher education (and the gap between the poor and the rest in this regard has been getting larger in Bristol over time while it shrinks nationally). To put this in context, compare it to the London story. In Inner London half of the poorest kids achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths. That’s not much lower than the overall score for all pupils in Bristol. And 42% of the poorest pupils in inner London go on to university. That’s three times as many as in Bristol. Let me repeat that: a poor child in London is three times more likely to progress to higher education than their counterpart in Bristol. And, no, it’s not just London: the 13% of poor children progressing to university compares to 30% in Birmingham and 25% in Manchester. Until this is turned around then any talk of improving social mobility in the city will be a pipe dream.

Even on wages  –  where Bristol performs better than average –  there is still a lot of poverty-pay: one in five workers earn less than the (real) Living Wage. Moreover, like everywhere else in the UK, it has been a lost decade for workers. After the financial crisis average pay in Bristol collapsed all the way back to the level it was at in 2001. As of today it has climbed back to 2005 levels. It would be very surprising if pay returns to its 2009 peak before 2020.

If the first big challenge facing the city concerns inequality then I’d argue that a second issue concerns productivity. Bristol has its very own productivity puzzle  –  and it’s a worrying one. Now, in some ways that’s an odd thing to say. Bristol  – and the South West region  – performs better than large parts of the UK on this score and, historically at least, the city looked like a strong performer outside London. The puzzle is that since the financial crash Bristol’s productivity has been sliding backwards. It now stands at just 93% of the UK average (and bear in mind that this has occurred while national productivity has itself flat-lined).

The conundrum grows when we consider that Bristol very nearly matches London in terms of the high share of graduates in the workforce. Yet it resembles places like Darlington or North Lincolnshire in terms of productivity. That’s an odd combination. It should cause pause for thought within the city’s business community and invite questions about the utilisation of skills, along with the quality of infrastructure in the city.

Finally, there is  –  of course –  the housing challenge. Again, Bristol is hardly alone in facing acute affordability issues. But the problem is particularly severe and getting worse. The average house price in Bristol has now passed £250,000. According to the ONS it has jumped 15% in the past year alone, 50% since 2010 and 255% since 2000. You don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t sustainable. To see why look at the ratio of house prices to average earnings. It leapt from around 5:1 in the early 2000s to over 9:1 today. Or to put it another way, house prices have grown more than 3 times faster than earnings in Bristol since 2002. And things are just as bad for renters. A household on a modest income in the private sector will typically spend at least a third of their total income on rent. That is what housing experts call ‘unaffordable’. And it puts Bristol in the top quarter of the most expensive places to rent in England.

Let me finish by saying that being a mayor of an incredible city like Bristol must be a remarkable privilege. But being a new mayor has to be both a luxury and a burden. It’s the former because you have the joy of being able to speak freely about the city’s challenges. And it’s the latter because you know that moment is a fleeting one and that soon all the city’s shortcomings will be hung around your neck if they aren’t addressed.

I hope and expect the new mayor will prioritise an agenda of ‘shared growth’. Doubtless he’ll already be familiar with the received views on the right recipe for a successful city. My argument is that some extra ingredients are required. I hope he won’t hold back in being candid about the scale of the challenge if the ‘shared’ part of the equation is to be made real. And he’ll need to be ambitious and innovative in his agenda for putting it right.

This piece was the basis of remarks made in response to the Inaugural Address of the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees. It first appeared on Gavin Kelly's personal blog.

 

Young, Female and Forgotten?

📥  Economy, employment, labour market, Welfare

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR, and is distinguished by her important work on the topics of education, employment and social policy.

Way back in 1988, the Thatcher government, through the Social Security Act, took most young people under the age of 18 out of the unemployment statistics by effectively removing their welfare entitlement. Then, in the 1990s, concerns over the numbers of 16-18 year olds who were not engaging in formal learning, training or employment led to the creation of the term ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) – which sought to capture the size and scale of youth disengagement and social exclusion. In the UK, as in most countries across Europe and other advanced economies, the economic turmoil of the 2000s saw an alarming rise in the levels of young people who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system. However, rather than the initial focus on a younger cage group, the term ‘NEET’ is now applied internationally to a much wider cohort, typically 16-24-year olds (and, in some countries, up to the age of 29 years), and includes young people in receipt of unemployment benefit as well as to those who claim other types of welfare support or none at all. Despite the official NEET figures in the UK falling over the last couple of years, the numbers remain persistently high. For example, in the period January to March 2016, 865,000 young people (aged 16 to 24 years) were NEET[1]. Of these, 485,000 (56%) were classified to be ‘economically inactive’, with the remainder being ‘unemployed and actively seeking work’.

ladyresized

 

A striking feature of these statistics is that young women accounted for nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of the economically inactive group, but only 40 per cent of the unemployed group. In the UK, trend data show that young women consistently outnumber young men within the economically inactive group, although the number of economically inactive young men is currently rising. While there have been a number of studies[2] which have segmented the NEET group in terms of young people’s propensity to re-engage with education, employment or training, the prevalence of high economic inactivity rates among young women is under-researched. This perhaps reflects a widespread belief that it is largely attributable to early motherhood or other caring responsibilities and that this group of young people requires little policy attention or intervention because of their domestic commitments. Such assumptions run counter to a body of research evidence which has demonstrated that periods of economic inactivity in early life leave a scar on the individual’s education and employment prospects that persists over time[3].

I am currently collaborating with the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) in undertaking a two-year study (2015-2017), with supported funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to examine economic inactivity rates and why they disproportionately impact on the lives of young women. Early evidence from the research points to the picture being far more complex than the conventional explanations would suggest. It is apparent that there has been a distinct lack of investigation into why so many young women are economically inactive, and at a time when teenage pregnancy rates have reached their lowest levels across England and Wales[4]. While engaging in ‘caring responsibilities’ is undoubtedly a significant factor, evidence about the characteristics of young women who carry this label, where they live, who they are caring for and for how long, as well as data on what types of intervention they attract or require, is thin on the ground. What is clear is that economically inactive women (and men) are assigned to different welfare trajectories than the young unemployed, with those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support (IS) and Carer’s Allowance (CA) receiving significantly less intensive support and intervention than those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Crucially, young people on ESA/IS/CA are not included in the ‘official’ unemployment statistics.

High rates of economic inactivity within the NEET population are not peculiar to the UK. Young women are disproportionately more likely to be NEET and economically inactive in almost all OECD countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Spain. Female NEET inactivity is overwhelmingly linked to child or elder care and/or other domestic/family responsibilities and in some countries, to cultural expectations. As an extreme case, 40 per cent of young girls in Turkey are NEET (compared to 18 per cent of boys), of which 93 per cent are economically inactive, possibly with family care responsibilities[5]. It is contended by Assaad and Levison that inadequate global labour market demand for young people invariably leads to young women being more likely to be found doing non-labour-force work and less likely to report themselves as actively seeking work. This results in many young women not being included in the unemployment rate, especially when the ‘seeking work’ criteria are applied[6].

While large groups of economically inactive females are a common feature among most NEET populations world-wide, there is a dearth of national and international evidence about effective interventions to reverse this trend, or, in fact, to accurately quantify or qualify their composition or existence. Some commentators highlight that the NEET economically inactive group is essentially an under-researched ‘black box’, which is categorised in terms of what young people are not doing, as opposed to understanding the likelihood of young people within the overall group or subgroups (re)engaging with education, employment or training (EET)[7]. The research by the YWT is exploring the reality of the lives of young women in the economically inactive group in England, including an analysis of their circumstances and aspirations. It is being carried out in a climate where impending welfare cuts are likely to remove even greater numbers of young people from independent welfare support, including housing benefit. However, early evidence suggests that the majority of economically inactive young women live with their families or relatives, with the impact of their ‘exclusion’ being borne by themselves and their household group.

With regard to future policymaking, the research into the economically inactive NEET group also calls into question the continued rationale for assigning both the young unemployed (i.e. those ‘actively seeking work’) and the economically inactive group within the umbrella term ‘NEET’. Is such an approach an equitable or acceptable way of ensuring that significant numbers of young women (and men) are not simply ‘written off’? Given that the epithet ‘NEET’ was coined originally in the UK to define 16- and 17-year olds who were outside the unemployment count, but is now commonly applied to those over 18 who are eligible to claim unemployed status, it may be both opportune and productive to question whether ‘NEET’, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate. Certainly, if it is applied too casually, it may mask rising and unacceptable levels of inactivity among young people. Another issue is whether an age range of 16-24 is too wide, as it encompasses significantly different ‘sections’ of the life course. Pronounced differences are apparent between the under-18s NEET group and the 18-24s NEET group in the UK. Here, the percentage of under-18s who are NEET is higher for males, whereas among the 18-24s, the percentage of females who are NEET is higher than that of males. Overall, there is an urgent need to reappraise how we define the NEET group, and, as a consequence, to re-think our policy responses to the issues confronting the various sub-groups within the NEET category.

At present, policy intervention is primarily targeted at young people who are ‘available for work’ (i.e. the unemployed group within the NEET population), as opposed to those who are defined as economically inactive. In order to formulate appropriate policy measures, we first of all need to identify and locate those who are presently ‘unknown’, ‘missing’ or ‘forgotten’, as far as the statistics are concerned. Along with this process, we need to generate substantive evidence – especially relating to the legion of young women who are affected – about what support, if any, they require. Crucially, this will include understanding what works best in assisting them to engage with support services and what additional support mechanisms may be required to attain an education, employment or training (EET) outcome. As far as current policy direction in the UK is concerned, there is a need to assess the potential impact of any national roll-out of Universal Credit on the future trajectories of the economically inactive NEET group.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016), Statistical Bulletin ‘Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET), May 2016’, 26th May.
[2] Eurofound (2016) ‘Exploring the diversity of NEETs’, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
[3] Britton J, Gregg P, MacMillan L, Mitchell S. (2011) The Early Bird... Preventing Young People from becoming a NEET statistic. Department of Economics and CMPO, University of Bristol.
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/09/halving-of-teenage-pregnancy-rate-hailed-as-extraordinary
[5] Bardak, U., Maseda, M. R. and Rosso, F. (2015) Young People Not in Employment Nor in Education or Training (NEET): An overview in ETF partner countries. Turin, European Training Foundation. July.
[6] Assaad, R. and Levison, D. (2013) Employment for Youth – A Growing Challenge for the Global Economy’. Background Research Paper. Submitted to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. University of Minnesota.
[7] Tamesberger, D. & Bacher, J. (2014) NEET youth in Austria: a typology including socio-demography, labour market behaviour and permanence. Journal of Youth Studies. 17:9, 1239-1259.

Giving back control? A contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit

📥  employment, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath. Fran Bennett is Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the University of Oxford's Department of Social Policy and intervention.

As Damian Green arrives as Secretary of State in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Universal Credit must be at the top of the long list of issues he faces. And the decisions he takes will have a major impact on the incomes and living standards of those ‘ordinary working class’ families that the new Prime Minister has promised will be the focus of her government.

Coinsmall

 

An estimated ten million people will be in the Universal Credit net when the new system is fully in operation in the next five years. The current system is very complex: people have to find their way through a maze of benefits, and they have to make new claims for some benefits every time they move in and out of work. Universal Credit will smooth that transition by replacing six existing means-tested benefits (Income Based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support) with a single benefit.

Having one single benefit will, it is asserted, encourage more people to work, improve take-up of benefits and tackle in-work poverty. The idea of Universal Credit – and in particular the simplification of the system – has itself received almost universal support. This has come from political parties, from think-tanks and NGOs, from the House of Commons Select Committees, and from the Social Security Advisory Committee. There have been some cold feet about the very slow and very costly implementation, with critical reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee among others, and the recent announcement of further delays until 2022 highlight the very real challenges of making this system work. But Iain Duncan Smith’s vision for Universal Credit remains, so far, largely intact.

The fact that there is support from a wide range of interests and groups might be taken as a good sign. But policy consensus can also mean lack of scrutiny and challenge. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the design and try to understand what it might mean for those millions of people as they try to access the system. If we walk through the system, as it is supposed to work, what happens?

First, you must make your claim online. This is the only way to claim and the only way to update your claim if your circumstances change, though Jobcentres or local advice services may help complete this for you. This is a big step into the modern IT world – but perhaps not a step that everyone is able to take yet. Many people with low incomes have no access to computers at home, and must rely on friends or public systems in libraries or Jobcentres, which are not always readily available. Others will lack the experience and skills to easily negotiate complicated online forms. DWP evaluation has already found some significant barriers to the use of IT, which suggests that this area might require significant and ongoing investment.

Second, you must sign a ‘claimant commitment’. This kind of arrangement will be familiar to people who have claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, most of whom have always had full-time work requirements as part of their benefit conditions. Universal Credit extends these work requirements in various ways, depending on your circumstances. Lone parents will have to be actively looking for work once their youngest child is three, and be preparing for work before that. But so will partners with children, who have not previously had work requirements like this. And people already in part-time work may be required to try to increase their earnings or hours. A new role within DWP – the ‘work coach’ - is being introduced to support unemployed people into work and help those in work to increase their hours. The work coaches will have some discretion to vary work requirements (for example, for disability and caring obligations) but will also be responsible for sanctioning those who fail to meet their claimant requirement. Some early evidence suggests that people in work are bemused by these requirements, which they feel are very unfair.

Third, you must report changes in circumstances, apart from changes in earnings. Changes in earnings for employees will be picked up automatically by the ‘real-time information’ system that uses PAYE data – a big step forward and key to making work transitions smoother. But all other changes in circumstances must still be reported and there are many of these, in total (including earnings changes) when fully operational this could mean as many as 1.6 million per month.

Experience with tax credits shows that many people will struggle to understand what exactly they have to report and when. And when they do report, the changes will be applied on a single assessment date each month and treated as though they apply to whole of the previous month. This might be good or bad news, depending on the event and the timing. Universal Credit is paid for the month just gone, not the month to come. So if you have a baby just before the assessment date you will get almost a month’s extra benefit. But if your oldest child leaves home just before assessment you will lose almost a month. This creates a disjunction between income and circumstances, making it harder to meet current needs or to plan ahead.

Fourth, you will receive your benefit as a single monthly cash payment. This is intended to give people the opportunity to manage their money in the same way as they would in work. But the single payment will challenge budgeting practices that rely on the receipt of different sources of income at different times. There are systems to allow for alternative arrangements in certain circumstances, and support for budgeting and money management has been piloted alongside the digital support services. But again it is clear that not everyone will want, or be able, to access such support. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the conclusions reached so far is that the ‘most significant challenge in delivering personal budgeting support was that...trial participants simply did not have enough money each month...’.

Which takes us to the final point about the difference between the current situation and that under Universal Credit: there will be less money. The 2015 Budget proposed cuts to tax credits, some of which George Osborne was forced to postpone after challenge from the House of Lords. But these were not abandoned; they were instead pushed ahead to Universal Credit. Spending on Universal Credit will fall by £3.7 billion (leaving aside temporary protection for some new claimants) compared with the existing system. The impact on families may be mitigated in part for some by rises in the ‘National Living Wage’ and personal tax allowances, and much will depend on individual circumstances. But many working families will receive less from the Universal Credit system than they do now from tax credits. As a new Universal Credit claimant, you will also wait longer for your money; there are seven waiting days (for which you get no money), meaning a wait of about six weeks to the first payment.

So far, the evidence about the impact of Universal Credit is limited. The early evaluations do show some positive effects on moves into work, and increases in job search. The work coaches are generally upbeat about the personalised support they can offer, and some claimants respond well to this. But the main groups brought into the system so far are single people and childless couples. There is a long way to go before all families, with their more complex circumstances and needs, are covered. Simpler systems may work very well for straightforward cases, and this could be a huge gain for Universal Credit. But there are limits to simplification for means-tested benefits, especially when the aim is to target people whose circumstances are not secure.

Universal Credit is supposed to be ‘like work’ and thus make people feel more independent and – to use a Prime Ministerial phrase of the moment – give them back control. But there will be no escaping the state for these millions of people, subject to ongoing means tests, having to report changes in their lives, fulfilling tougher work requirements even if already working, getting less financial support, and for many also being advised how to budget. This is a contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit. It is intended as a simplification, but the intrusion and control embedded in the design are substantial and extend both to more people and to more aspects of their lives.

Note: the above draws on the authors' published research in Social Policy and Society.

 

No love on the dole

📥  universal basic income, Welfare

 

Dr Rita Griffiths is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). Her PhD focussed on the relationship between family structure and the UK means-tested social security system.

How would you feel if, by living with your partner, you lost your financial independence and were obliged to ask him (or her) for money? What if you had children but your partner was not your children’s father? This was the situation facing Nina, a 46 year old lone parent with three children I interviewed in 2013 as part of a qualitative study of partnering behaviour among 51 low-income mothers living in the North West of England. Employed part-time as a family liaison worker, Nina faced the unpalatable prospect of losing her Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit if she started to cohabit with her new partner. In her circumstances, what would be the responsible thing to do – to throw caution to the wind by moving in together, hoping your partner would financially support you and your children? Or would you opt instead to live separately, allowing you to retain your financial independence? Like many of the low-income mothers in my research, Nina fashioned a compromise which did not entail the loss of income and control of the household finances; she delayed officially declaring her partner was living with her until she was working full-time and earning above the threshold for state financial support. Nina was not alone in challenging the indiscriminate way in which welfare rules force mothers like her into financial dependency. “[My new partner] hadn’t played a part in the children’s lives up to that time … so I thought it was unfair that we would be considered to be cohabiting in a way that meant he was responsible for providing for me and the children … That’s not to diminish [his] relationship with [them]… [but] I don’t consider him their father and nor does he, so why should he be responsible for them financially?”

hero-no-love-on-dole

 

But what if, as the research also found, this ‘living apart together’ arrangement was deemed by the authorities to be ‘marriage-like,’ and you were investigated for ‘failing to disclose a partner’? Fear of being criminally prosecuted forced Lorena’s hand. A 38 year old divorcee with an eight year old child, when Lorena’s partner began staying over more frequently she faced two equally unenviable alternatives - whether to continue claiming as a lone parent and risk being prosecuted for benefit fraud, or ending her claim and asking her new partner to financially support her. “I felt that they’re putting me in a position now where I have to be dependent on someone who really was not supporting me financially … but ... we’re not married, he was not responsible for me or [my child] … How can I just say, ‘actually ... can you give me money?’ ... It would destroy, not build a relationship … How badly as a woman you would feel … It’s a little bit like prostitution isn’t it?” Caught between the rock of potential criminal prosecution and the hard place of enforced financial dependency, her dilemma apparently resolved when she became pregnant and went on to marry her partner. However, having given up her job to care for her new baby, she remained deeply ambivalent about being financially dependent on her new husband, a situation made worse through having also lost entitlement to Child Benefit,[1] her only independent source of income.

There was to be no happy ever after for others in my research. Imperfect understanding of welfare rules led many mothers in this study to believe that they would remain legitimate claimants if their partner stayed over no more than three consecutive nights a week. But as Hattie found to her cost, there is no such rule. A lone mother with a four year old child, though her partner was stationed abroad and provided no financial support, she was found guilty of failing to disclose a partner, electronically tagged and required to repay £20,000, a monumental sum she was struggling to chip away at a little at a time from her benefits.

Whether ‘lifestyle choice’ or ‘Hobson’s choice,’ this invidious set of alternatives requiring either dependency on a partner or dependency on the state is often the context in which low-income couples reliant on benefits or tax credits are obliged to conduct their intimate relationships and make decisions about partnering, family formation and living arrangements. The dilemma arises because of two poorly understood aspects of the UK welfare system - the ‘Living Together as a Married Couple’ (LTAMC) rule and closely aligned system of family-based means testing. Using an interpretation of cohabitation as ‘marriage-like,’ outdated notions of breadwinning and financial support obligations in couples and the (often fallacious) assumption that couples who live together pool and equitably distribute their income, under these rules, couples who share the same household have no independent right to access state financial support; if eligible for help, they must claim benefits or tax credits jointly. But here’s the rub – only one person is eligible to claim. Although this can be either member of the couple, women’s typically lower earning potential and greater responsibility for childcare, together with stringent job search conditions attached to claiming unemployment benefits, mean that in couples with dependent children, the woman is rarely the claimant. And although couples can currently opt to pay certain benefits to the non-claiming partner,[2] there is no legal obligation on the person in receipt of the benefits or tax credits to transfer any part of the payment to his or her partner. Furthermore, as my research showed, inequalities of power and financial control within couples mean than, even if payments were made into a joint account, there was no guarantee that both individuals had independent or equal access to the money.

More troubling than this for the mothers in my research was the fact that entitlement for benefits and tax credits is assessed against the combined income and earnings of the couple. When a low-income mother starts to cohabit (or marries), she therefore potentially loses not only an important source of income, but if she has no or very low earnings, she risks losing her financial independence altogether. In this context, who was earning, who was entitled to claim benefits and tax credits, who received payment, how household income was accessed and shared between the members of a couple and on what and whom the money was spent, came sharply into focus. The focus was particularly keen for cohabiting couples because, unlike spouses, cohabitees are under no legal obligation to financially support one another. For lone mothers the focus was keener still, particularly if her partner was not the biological father of her child or children.

A favoured trope of the tabloids and a perennial target of welfare reform, the single mother incentivised to maximise her benefit and housing entitlement by concealing the presence of a partner or ‘pretending to separate’ is a powerful and persistent narrative. By unpicking the complexities of the regulatory and administrative aspects of the welfare system, my research found that, contrary to popular discourse, it was the extent to which mothers were able to exercise financial autonomy in different partnership and household configurations that was most influential in decisions affecting family structure and living arrangements. Whereas the aspects of welfare which facilitated a mother’s access to an independent income served mainly to strengthen couple relationships and encourage family formation, those which enforced financial dependence on a partner were apt to de-stabilise relationships and discourage cohabitation. Out of step with modern-day relationship norms and liable to reinforce gender inequality inside the household, by obliging the members of a couple to be financially dependent on each other, joint means testing and the LTAMC rule therefore acted as a significant deterrent to family formation and repartnering.

The findings give lie to simplistic and stigmatising discourses suggesting that some women ‘choose’ to become lone mothers or ‘pretend’ to separate in order to become eligible for higher levels of state financial support. Against the backdrop of a welfare system which removes an individual’s independent right to claim if they live with a partner, resisting dependency by retaining a regular and reliable source of income over which they had a meaningful degree of control was a more compelling driver of mothers’ behaviour than financial gain. Ceding responsibility for safeguarding the family’s financial well-being to a new or precariously employed partner was seen as a particularly risky arrangement. Even when her partner was the biological father of her child, the creation of a financially and emotionally stable household for raising children was a mother’s primary concern - better to withstand the challenges of lone parenthood than become financially dependent on an unreliable male ‘breadwinner’ or on a new or unproven partner.

Such unintended outcomes of welfare rules have important implications for welfare reform. Universal Credit (UC) which is being rolled out nationally in phases, amalgamates six means-tested benefits into a single, monthly payment. The LTAMC rule and a similar system of family-based means testing continue to underpin UC, but in a significant departure from legacy benefits, the monthly UC award will be made in the form of one lump sum per couple transferred into an individual or joint bank account. Couples can choose into which bank account the money will be paid, but they can no longer opt to have the payment split between the partners. Findings from this research suggest that both for lone parents and for married and cohabiting couples struggling to stay together under conditions of economic austerity and reducing welfare payments, switching to a single, monthly payment regime could create an added burden of risk in terms of family formation and relationship stability.

In showing that the aspects of welfare which institutionalise economic dependency in couples can undermine relationship stability and deter cohabitation, the findings from this research strengthen arguments in favour of reforming the social security system in ways which increase the financial independence of women and men living in couple households. Options for achieving this are many and varied. Disaggregation - operating the welfare system according to the same principles of equal and independent treatment as the income tax system - would cancel out many of the disincentive effects to family formation and repartnering highlighted in this research, but is expensive. A fiscally neutral but more modest alternative would be to equally divide or allow couples to split the payment of UC. Increasing the earnings disregard for second earners in couples would be less costly but fails to address the underlying assumption of financial dependency in couples. At the other end of the spectrum is Universal Basic Income (UBI). The advantage of UBI over simply individualising welfare eligibility or entitlement is the wholesale elimination of means testing and work conditionality, thereby removing all incentive and disincentive effects to partnership formation and dissolution, as well as to paid employment by either partner in a couple. However, in the current political and economic climate, the prohibitive cost to the public purse is likely to remain a serious obstacle.

[1] Child Benefit was a universal, non-means tested benefit paid to all families with children, regardless of income. From January 2013, households where at least one person earns more than £50,000 have their child benefit means-tested. Eligibility for child benefit is lost entirely for those earning £60,000 or more, while families where one parent earns between £50,000 and £60,000 have their benefit reduced.
[2] For example, Child Tax Credits can be paid to the main carer