Ruth Patrick, For Whose Benefit?

Ruth Patrick, For Whose Benefit? The everyday realities of welfare reform, Policy Press, 2017, xiv + 255 pp, pbk 1 4473 3348 7, £24.99

As Ruth Lister’s foreword to this book points out, punitive sanctions and increasing conditionality are eating away at the public legitimacy of social security benefits, and the constant use of the term ‘welfare reform’ functions as a statement that there is something wrong with ‘welfare’, which along with ‘benefits’ is now used to define an underclass – ‘skivers’, as opposed to ‘strivers’ – rather than expressing the wellbeing of society as a whole. Lister is particularly scathing about a means-tested benefits system that seriously disincentivises second earners in the employment market, and calls for ‘a social security system that provides genuine security as part of our common citizenship’ (p.xiv).

The first chapter of Ruth Patrick’s book is a somewhat theoretical discussion of the idea of citizenship, but it usefully distinguishes between citizenship as experienced by her interviewees (often a shadow of the social citizenship that T.H. Marshall described), and citizenship ‘from above’: a contractarian notion that assumes a two-tier citizenship of taxpayers and benefits recipients. Chapter 2 provides a useful description of the ways in which social security benefits have been reformed, of the accompanying framing of social security benefits as problematic, and of the increasing emphasis on conditionality (now extended to in-work benefits) and of a constantly reiterated distinction between deserving and undeserving groups in society: a distinction reinforced by television programmes about benefits recipients.

The following chapters record interviews conducted with benefits claimants across a five year period, creating a more dynamic understanding of people’s relationships with the benefits system than a snapshot could achieve. Chapter three introduces the interviewees and explains how and why individuals find themselves in receipt of benefits. In the words of the interviewees, the chapter expresses what a life on benefits is like. It’s hard work. Chapter 4 studies interviewees’ relationships with employment, and finds a ubiquitous ‘low pay, no pay’ cycle, with all the hard ‘work for work’ that that entails. The message is the same as in John Hills’ Good Times, Bad Times: the strivers/skivers distinction is a myth. Chapter 5 records interviewees’ experience of sanctions, tests for disability, and the bureaucratic control that can destroy a sense of agency: when it is precisely a sense of agency that is required for success in employment. Particularly telling is the section on claimants’ attempts not to change their circumstances, because doing so could put their benefits at risk. Chapter 6 describes the stigma that results from the demeaning rhetoric inflicted on benefits recipients, claimants’ internalisation of the ‘scrounger’ narrative, and the tendency to regard other groups of claimants as less deserving. Chapter 7 studies the trajectories experienced by the interviewees, and finds that, whether in or out of employment, they have remained in poverty, and have remained anxious about the insecurity of both ‘social security’ and employment. The final chapter concludes that the dominant narrative of distinct groups within society bears little relation to the lived reality of ‘fluid and repeated movements between low-paid employment and benefits receipt’ (p.197). Patrick finds that sanctions destroy the self-esteem required for success in employment, ignore a ubiquitous work ethic, and compromise the kinds of supportive relationships between Jobcentre staff and claimants that might assist people into employment. ‘Work-related welfare conditionality needs to be reconsidered’ (p.200). She asks that employment should be reformed so that finding a job is always an escape from poverty; that social welfare should be reframed, as all of us are dependent on various forms of it; and that social security should be precisely that.

Given the book’s deep understanding of the problems facing our social security system, it is something of a surprise that the only suggestion for its reform is that we need ‘a revitalised and improved social security offer’ (p.214). So here is a suggestion: that Ruth Patrick should reinterview her interviewees and put to them a series of options for benefits reform – genuine reforms of the structure, rather than modifications of the current structure. One of those options should be a Citizen’s Income, carefully explained. If she were to exercise her considerable skills on this new project in the same way that she has exercised them in the project described in the current volume then the resulting book would make a worthy companion to the book under review.