Because more equal societies work better for everyone

The Hateful Trait: Demonisation Of Poor Reaches New Low

Thursday, 3 March, 2016

Is a mother who has just given birth and is sitting in her hospital bed, by definition, work-shy? Is a father who raises three young kids full time while his partner works by definition work-shy? If you answered no to those questions, congratulations! You have managed to understand employment statistics in a more nuanced way than Dr Adam Perkins, the new author of a breathtakingly bad book on social security.

His book “The Welfare Trait” argues that our current social security system is breeding increasing numbers of people with ‘employment resistant’ personality traits. He argues that supporting the poor and vulnerable is actually encouraging the feckless and idle to have more children, who themselves will be ‘employment resistant’. But in doing so it fails to understand employment statistics, social security, and poverty, and  as a result comes to a conclusion that is so unsupported by the evidence that it would be genuinely amusing if it weren’t being taken seriously in national newspapers from the Times, to the Telegraph and the Mail On Sunday.

One of the justifications for Dr Perkins' argument is that “work-shy” people are more likely to have children than employed people. But one big problem with this can be seen when you look at the data he uses to justify this statement. He defines ‘work-shy’ as anyone of working age currently not in employment. This includes the mother discussed above, who is not working because she’s just had a child. Rather than looking at people with a long term history of unemployment, he instead simply looks at those who are currently in employment and those that are not. This means he defines a household where one parent works full time and the other is currently looking after a child as half work-shy. He also excludes all households without any children, to focus on the number of children in households with children. If he hadn’t done so, the data actually goes in the opposite direction, with households with more people in work more likely to have children.

In effect, all Dr Perkins' statistics are actually telling you is that households with multiple children are less likely to have one person be in work, quite understandable given the often necessity for a parent to look after those children. So this is not surprising, and is not evidence that social security encourages those with an “employment resistant personality” to have children (not least because a large number of this group won’t be receiving social security).

Although the author acknowledges in his book that for some people (like himself) periods on social security are temporary, he argues that for a growing number they are a permanent feature due to their ‘employment resistant personality’. In doing so he cites evidence showing that some children raised in poverty exhibit behavioural problems. But he fails to provide any data showing a trend toward long term multigenerational unemployment (because there isn’t one). 

His solution is to reduce the overall cap on benefits, until people stop having as many children. This is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. Firstly, he offers no attempt to understand that he would be punishing the vast majority of people who use the social security system for a short period of time, such as the very many people temporarily out of work. Secondly, there is no evidence that reducing people’s incomes decreases the number of children with behavioural issues, but there is evidence that shows that giving poor families money does decrease children’s behavioural issues.

Looking at this evidence helps you reach the not-so-shocking conclusion that poverty and its symptoms are in fact about money, not about personality. Poverty is harmful for children but the idea that the solution is to make families even poorer is a suggestion that keeps rearing its head, and each time it appears these arguments make less sense and drift further from the evidence.

The problem with these poorly evidenced and wildly inaccurate arguments is that they are used to justify the idea of just rewards: that those at the top are always hard working and talented and those at the bottom are feckless and idle. This in turn is used to further rig the system in favour of those already doing well. If you want to reduce poverty, you need to focus on making sure the poorest have more money. It’s really that simple.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor

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