A Generation of Change, a Lifetime of Difference? by Martin Evans and Lewis Williams

Policy Press, 2009, ix + 339pp, pbk, 1 847 423047, £24.99, hbk 1 847 423054, £65

Whether you’re an undergraduate studying social policy or a policy-maker trying to understand income maintenance policy and its effects, this book is a wonderful learning tool.

Social policy makers often divide people into categories: one set of policies and rules for children, another for working age adults, and another for the elderly. Evans and Williams take a rather different ‘lifetime’ approach, asking how different policy regimes since the 1970s treat people’s entire lifecycles. To do this they take us to a theoretical world in which the rules of a particular decade’s policies remain constant for an entire lifetime. The sets of policies and regulations they choose are those in force in January 1979 (Old Labour), April 1997 (Thatcherism) and December 2008 (New Labour). The authors restrict themselves to policies which directly influence income, and they achieve accessibility in a complex field by studying five hypothetical families: the Nunns (no employed), the Lowes (50% of median earnings), the Meades (median full-time earners in 1979, 1997 and 2008), the Moores (twice median earnings), and the Evan-Moores (very high earners).

After introductory chapters on how the welfare state and the economy have changed during the past thirty years, each of the main chapters takes one section of the lifecycle (childhood, working age – here four chapters tackle different policy areas – and old age) and asks how the three different sets of rules would affect different hypothetical families. A chapter on aggregate outcomes of the three different sets of policies follows, and then a discussion of the Lifetime Opportunities and Incentives Simulation (LOIS) computer model. The final chapters use the model to show how the three different policy sets would affect the hypothetical families across their lifetimes rather than just during particular parts of them.

The book is packed with detailed results ( – particularly interesting is the material on the effective marginal deduction rates and the attendant work incentives which the different family types experience under different policy regimes); and the concluding chapter is equally packed with important detail, and particularly the finding that taxation has become more regressive. The authors’ more general conclusion is that the Meades are in much the same position as before; the Moores have done ‘very nicely, thank you’ (p.312); and the Lowes experienced serious losses between 1979 and 1997, a partial recovery by 2008, and ‘are now more firmly locked into low-income lifetimes than they were in 1979 due to a combination of risk and policy response’ (p.314). A higher risk of employment interruption and of means-tested benefits not keeping up with average earnings means a worsening position for low paid families.

This is an important book: full of relevant research findings, clear exposition, and judicious judgements. However, there is one verdict which I think we must question: ‘If a policy lasts the term of a government unchanged it is unusual’ (p.3). This is surely not true of income maintenance policy. Since the Elizabethan Poor Law we have divided people into categories to which we have allocated different income maintenance regimes; and since the Beveridge Report in 1942 income maintenance strategy has been based on insurance benefits, means-tested benefits (including tax credits), and a universal benefit for children (originally Family Allowance, now Child Benefit). The names have changed and the regulations have changed, but the structure hasn’t changed.

As the authors recognise, today ‘the losers and the gainers are further apart than ever. A new architecture for financial risk suggests new structures for sharing risk, and social policy must respond accordingly’ (p.315). The structures haven’t changed for nearly seventy years. Perhaps it’s time they did.