Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Welfare Island

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett in The Class Sketch. Via BBC.

Book Report Day for David F. Brooks ("The Welfare State is Broken. Here's How to Fix It") and a book by the British "social entrepreneur" Hilary Cottam, Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State. I suppose I'll have to get to him eventually, but I'd like to start with Melissa Benn's review in The New Statesman, which appeared when the book came out in June 2018:
In the last years of Gordon Brown’s premiership, Swindon council embarked on a bold experiment. It asked Hilary Cottam, a celebrated young social entrepreneur, to find a new way of dealing with what the state was then calling “chaotic families” (later to be repackaged as “troubled families” under the coalition). What could Cottam do for those such as struggling mother Ella and her family, who lived in “roiling turmoil” in one of the large postwar estates on the edge of the town, with up to 73 professionals involved in their lives at an estimated annual cost to the state of £250,000?
Cottam, once described as being “to social design what Conran is to sofa design”, takes a deceptively simple approach. Instead of trying to contain ongoing chaos or impose unrealistic but unbending targets for improvement, she and her team set up base on one of the estates and began with dialogue, asking the families what changes they would like in their lives to see how they could be helped to turn things around.
The Swindon experiment, known as Life, had tangible results. Slowly, Ella’s family got back on track: work was found, family relationships improved, the teenagers began to attend school again. There were no overnight miracles or amazing transformations (no one ended up at Oxbridge) but progress was positive and sustained and all at a fraction of the cost of existing services.
Except I don't find any indication that any of the 73 workers were fired or any of the beneficiaries' grants cut off. The 12 families of the pilot project worked with a team of 10 professionals on secondment from various departments for an outlay of just £190,000 over the two-year period, and Cottam's Participle company thought it could save the government £1.5 million during that time off the budget of those people's case management when The Guardian issued a pretty positive report on it in 2011, and the borough council was planning to expand the program to 40 families. But in 2011-12, per their own report, they were still serving just 48 individuals and the savings were still an in-house estimate:

And by 2014
the Life Programme working, for example, in Wigan for 1 year with 50 families saw an estimated £132,802 cost savings. Over all four regions and 3.5 years, we estimate total direct savings were £727,890.
That is a lot less than the £6 million or so they were predicting.

But Participle hasn't updated reporting on the Life programs, and the Internet trail on what happened subsequently to it grows extremely cold after that; and this, from the UK Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills in 2016, seems ominous:

I expect the programs weren't renewed or mostly likely weren't meant to be renewed (they were "pilot" programs), and weren't followed up by the local governments, and Participle wandered away to other projects, so that's where the data ends, and the Conservative government that took office in 2010 does not encourage such adventures.

I'm bound to say I'm charmed by a couple of aspects of this program, not just its hope of cost-cutting, and I'm ready to believe they can make a major difference in the effectiveness of welfare programs: the simple engagement of clients in the design of their programs, by asking them what they wanted, what kinds of changes they would like see in their lives and what kinds of goals they would like to attain; and the radical engagement of the team members, often more than they were bargaining for:
The Life work can be very demanding on the team. More than 60% of their time is spent on face-to-face contact with the families and the aim is to increase that even further. It's significant that in the first round of interviews for the Life team, families did not opt to work with social workers, picking instead officers from housing or education....
Tina Biberger, a team member says: "I used to work as a resettlement officer in housing and I always thought I had quite good relationships with the people I was helping. But working on Life I got a lot more than I bargained for. I don't think I realised the extent of the relationships you can have – they can be very intense. We are the only people around for some of the families on the programme."
John Garbutt, assistant team manager, agrees that Life has challenged the way he used to work. "I was a housing officer for 13 years before I was seconded to the Life project. In every area of the council, professionals think they know best, but in this project it's the families themselves who lead the change. That is radically different.
"I was sceptical to begin with, but I've seen how it can change people – both the families and the professionals. "
But I'm skeptical, like Melissa Benn, that it was going to go anywhere without a different kind of relationship to government and government goals than were available under the Cameron administration:
There are some wry descriptions of meetings with politicians – including David Cameron – who initially lap up Cottam’s ideas but too often try to repackage them into more standard welfare or health proposals that drain the human richness and meaning from the projects. It is no surprise that some of the experiments have been taken up enthusiastically by Tories wishing to implement small policy “nudges” and looking for Big Society rationalisations for dramatically reduced spending. However, they have also struck a chord with a new generation of Blue Labour politicians who want to see the state move beyond being a nationalising big spender and act instead as a mediator of large-scale cultural change....
By the end, I became interested in how her approach might work in the context of a more radical political and fiscal strategy, a blending of Blue and Red Labour. She is definitely on to something exciting in her insistence on the potential of both relationships and new technology to promote and sustain long-term human prospering. With a government prepared to invest in a radically modernised welfare state, Cottam’s ideas could help transform the way we all live. If it hasn’t done so already, I hope that the Labour front bench will call her in.
I think they should have started by asking why 73 professionals were devoted to 12 families and spent all of their time filling out forms instead of working with their clients, 40 years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister with the intention of demolishing the welfare state—where did all those extra civil servants come from Maggie? It's because British welfare programs since then have been focused on preventing the undeserving from getting any more stuff than the government can help, on mistrust and contempt for the clients, and transforming the old quantification-crazed bureaucracy into a hunt for cheaters, and instead of getting smaller the government just gets bigger, as it acquires what amount to police functions in imposing the increasingly arduous conditions on what's known in Britain as "conditional welfare".

This feeds into the results that followed from a visit by UN special rapporteur Philip Alston in January as reported by the Basic Income Earth Network:
Alston’s visit to the UK has spurred the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee to conduct an inquiry on UK’s welfare system, along with rising evidence of debt, hunger and homelessness across the country. In fact, a recent (June 2018), deep study on British welfare had already demonstrated that the attribution of conditional benefits has more drawbacks than positive outcomes, which turns the present system counterproductive. So, it seems that poverty, social stigma and arbitrary sanctions are not only the product of some filmmaker’s imagination (e.g.: I, Daniel Blake), but real, verifiable facts.
Among the cited evidence can be found the contribution of the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT). Given the grim scenario of UK’s poorest or most financially insecure social layers – wages below the poverty line, high unemployment, high insecurity within the job market, increasing conditional welfare – the CIT, headed by Malcolm Torry, recommends that UK’s welfare system should be covered with a new level of unconditional income security.
Which means, according to the Basic Income Earth Network, an unconditional basic income, and that's a Red Labour idea right there; payment to every working-age adult (they're thinking a scaled benefit by age running around £63 per week, paid out of new income taxes).

Or that's one way; the general principle, that benefits need to be made less conditional (as the beloved National Health Service always has been), is what I'd emphasize, thinking about how much sheer stress it could take from the process of being a welfare client to be not always dickering about money, and how much more time it would allow for the kinds of really useful discussion that Cottam's program featured.

And then there's David Brooks, seduced by that word "social entrepreneur", and impressed by some of the impressive stuff:
Members of the team spent 80 percent of their time with the family and only 20 percent on administration. Ella and the team worked together to stabilize her most immediate issue — negotiating away eviction notices. Then the team worked to improve inter-family dynamics so there wasn’t so much violence and screaming.
That's right; freed, temporarily, from the burden of constantly checking that nobody was getting away with something, the team members and clients were able to work on real problem in a slow and therapeutic way. But I don't think he's understood the importance of giving the clients permission to think about what they want—instead, his picture is of a wider punitive community that includes everybody you know, not just the state, judging you:
Basically, Cottam’s programs create villages within the welfare state. Her systems are not designed around individual clients, but around relational networks. People tend to have better outcomes when they are held accountable by a network of peers. Three-quarters of the smokers in Wellogram [a Cottam program for the chronically ill] successfully quit, 44 percent lowered their blood pressure, 64 percent started work or went back to school.
The old legacy welfare programs were designed for people enmeshed in thick communities but who had suffered a temporary setback. Today many people lack precisely that web of thick relationship. The welfare state of the future has to build the social structures that people need to thrive. This is one way government can build community.
That's so Brooks; the government magically creates a "community" by ordering people around iinto peer groups, and then the community somehow does all the work he doesn't want the government to do.

But that's not at all how it works. The old welfare programs were designed for people who had suffered a temporary setback and then taken over by administrators who believed they were skivers who would never go back to work unless forced by threats. That—the triumph of David Brooks's comrades—was and is the problem. Thick community or no thick community, the value of the Cottam type of program is in its development of the relationship between government servants and the people they are meant to serve, is its recognition of workers as members of the same community themselves, and of welfare recipients as fellow humans capable of responding to autonomy, which is why a Conservative government wouldn't let it happen, because their chief interest is in stopping those lines of class distinction from blurring.

It's funny that he's writing, in that connection, with no reference to British party politics a week after the British party system seemed to be exploding, with the Conservative Party finishing fifth in elections for the Euopean Parliament, and with no apparent awareness that that might make a difference as to what's possible in the UK.

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