7 April 2015

Why Can’t We Trust the Word ‘Welfare’ in Policy Making?

Dr Hayley Bennett , Research Associate at What Works Scotland, reflects on a talk given by Professor John Hills, London School of Economics (LSE) at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, on Friday 20th March. 
Dr Hayley Bennett's research interests include British employment policy, minimum income provision, and activation programmes.
I’ve been broadly working on the design and delivery of welfare policies for several years now and it is highly likely that I am not alone in recognising that the British welfare state has undergone much change in the past decade. 

Along with major policy reforms there has been a notable rise in the discourse of ‘welfare’. To me this has been both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand labour market and demographic changes warrant discussions about how to change welfare policies and services if they are to be fit for purpose in a new economic environment. On the other, the rise of an all-encompassing and ill-defined notion of ‘welfare’ means that these influential debates are often marred. For example, the term is used to cover and account for different aspects of public policy by different people and their usage rarely tallies with government financial reporting.
I recently attended a talk by Professor John Hills from LSE who outlined this point in much greater detail. Using extensive statistical data and evidence he discussed the politics of welfare spending and how the idea of ‘them’ (who take from the system) and ‘us’ (who pay into the system) distracts from the complex way that we all interact with different aspects of the welfare system over our life cycle. 

Furthermore, drawing on his book “Good Times, Bad Times: The welfare myth of them and us” he showed how policy reforms play out for different groups (such as younger people, those in more affluent housing and labour markets, etc.) and demonstrated that we need a more nuanced discussion of the welfare state during times of large-scale policy reforms. His work, along with his colleagues in LSE in their project “Social Policy in a Cold Climate,” help to debunk the myths about what we actually mean when policy-makers outline welfare spending and cuts. For example, as Hills outlined in the Guardian at the end of last year, “only £1 of every £12.50 spent on the welfare state goes on benefits or tax credits for non-pensioners who are out of work. Jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit for people who are unemployed (as opposed to sick and disabled or lone parents) only account for 20p out of that £1.” Such statements contrast with some popular notions that public spending primarily supports unemployed citizens.
After the talk I put my What Works Scotland hat on and thought about the difference between the popular discourse of welfare and the data and research evidence. Amongst many questions I wondered how we can make policy reforms and changes to public services to support those in need (which will indeed be ourselves at a different points in our lives) if we make decisions and reforms based on inconsistent use of terms and data. To me it appears that we need to recognise the complex nature of the relationship between citizens and the welfare state and give this evidence a central role in policy-making and service delivery. To achieve this we could begin by questioning the word ‘welfare’ and looking more carefully at the statistics and data put before us in the discussion of welfare state reform.

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