The Welfare Trait

By Bernadette Meaden
February 17, 2016

A talk on "how state benefits can 'warp' the personalities of the unemployed" was cancelled recently, due to fears that the event would be disrupted by protesters. This was perhaps not surprising, but it would have been interesting to hear Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at King's College, London, defend the ideas contained in his book,  'The Welfare Trait - How State Benefits Affect Personality'.

The book has been praised by commentators like Toby Young, and the Adam Smith Institute, which summarised the argument thus; "habitual welfare claimants tend to be less conscientious and agreeable than the average person. Such habitual claimants also tend to reproduce at higher rates than the general population....Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered  because habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities... children raised in a household with disagreeable and unconscientious parents are likely to become more employment-resistant than they would if raised in more fortunate circumstances."

This sweeping and pejorative characterisation of "habitual welfare claimants" seems to lack empathy or imagination, but as a scientist perhaps we can't expect Dr Perkins to consider the multiple tragedies, traumas or misfortunes, the sheer 'there but for the grace of God' unluckiness that can lead to people being defined as "habitual welfare claimants".  

There have also been questions raised about the statistics used by Dr Perkins, with Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research pointing out that when comparing working and workless households, only households with children are counted. So childless individuals or couples were excluded from the statistics. One would have thought this could be significant, but Dr. Perkins argues that it is not, here.

According to the figures used by Dr. Perkins, the difference between workless and working households is 0.2 children. This hardly seems to indicate that the workless are procreating at a dramatically higher rate. And if they were, how big a problem would that be? Is it an increasing problem, or a decreasing one?

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) would tend to suggest that for the past twenty years, the number of children living in workless households has been declining.

"The broad picture since 1996 is one of an overall increase in the share of working households and a declining share of workless households. There has also been an overall decline in the share of children aged 0 to 15 years old living in workless households since 1996." So even if we see children born to workless households as a problem, it would seem to be a steadily declining one, not something we should be unduly concerned about.

And what about long-term unemployment? If the welfare state erodes the motivation to work, we would expect this to be a significant problem, but how big a group of people are we talking about? According to the latest figures only 177,880 people have been on Jobseekers Allowance for twelve months or longer. That's 0.4 per cent of the population, two crowds at Wembley stadium, spread across the whole of the United Kingdom. It hardly seems to be a problem on a scale which could have a significant effect on one of the largest economies in the world, or an effect on the genetic make up of the population.

The remainder of the spending on welfare benefits, excluding pensions, goes to sickness and disability benefits, and those who are working but cannot live on what they earn, mainly due to a combination of low wages and high housing costs – all factors which are more or less beyond the control of the individuals affected.

Of those in work but claiming benefits, three million would like to work more hours to increase their incomes. But employers have enthusiastically embraced the idea of employing people on a casual, part time, or zero hours basis. Again this is a function of market forces, completely outside the control of the workers/claimants. Successive governments have allowed an economy to develop that makes benefits essential for many workers, with housing too expensive and wages not keeping pace with the cost of living. David Cameron refers to this as the "low wage, high welfare economy". But individual workers and claimants have almost no power to change this, so to blame them in any way for the situation they find themselves in would seem grossly unfair.

Dr Perkins says that one of his main concerns is to ensure that fewer children are born into disadvantage, and we can do that by adjusting the welfare state to discourage claimants from having children. The Chancellor's decision to limit child benefit to the first two children in a family would seem to be in line with this thinking. But will 'adjusting' benefits this way actually limit the numbers of children born, or will it ensure that the children who are born live in even greater poverty and disadvantage? 

The welfare state is under sustained attack as never before. People unable to work due to chronic illness or disability are set to lose the little extra support they receive. Despite their considerable difficulties they will increasingly be treated as simply unemployed, and forced to compete in the jobs market under threat of sanctions. So it seems reasonable to ask of a book such as this, whatever it was intended to achieve, what realistically is its most likely effect?

Dr Perkins freely concedes that things were worse before the welfare state, and even claimed benefits himself when he was unemployed. But he would have claimed prior to Iain Duncan Smith's Welfare Reform Act. If Dr Perkins needs to claim again in future, he could find himself falling foul of the sanctions regime, and in need of a trip to a foodbank.

The idea of benefit claimants having 'work-resistant personalities', which can be passed on through the generations, has no doubt unintended but troubling echoes of the Nazi concept of 'arbeitsscheu' or work-shy and genetically inferior individuals. This could reinforce the views of people who already regard benefit claimants as inferior human beings.  One person on social media commented, "If some more men (women) "in the pub", accused of being "some sort of Nazi" can refer to the existence of ongoing academic research and science though, even in just a fairly general way, then that would seem to give value to this sort of publication. These are the people that, in convincing each other what is right in their social intereactions, will at intervals choose the government of the day."

So by contributing further to the pejorative language and narrative surrounding benefits claimants, bolstering the workers/shirkers divide, this book is only likely to strengthen the hand of those who would like to see the end of the welfare state, something which will harm all who need help at some time in their lives. People may work hard for decades, only to find that, if they have a stroke or get run over by the proverbial bus, when they need a safety net it's no longer there for them.

Finally, Dr. Perkins says,“a willingness to challenge norms concerning work is increasing generation by generation. We should be considering reforms to reverse such a trend.” But only a few months ago, the Bank of England predicted that in the coming decades, up to 15 million jobs in the UK could be lost to automation. In light of this, it would seem that "challenging norms concerning work" would actually be the smart thing to do as a nation.

Rather than trying to force everybody into the workplace for forty hours per week, with destitution the only alternative, we need to share the work, and the wealth, more evenly. We need to stop seeing people as economic units who are only validated through work, and start seeing the contribution people can make to the welfare of society as a whole, whether through paid work or otherwise.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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