Good Times, Bad Times: The welfare myth of them and us, by John Hills

Policy Press, 2014, 1 44732 003 6, pbk, xviii + 323 pp, £12.99

The title says it all: the normal experience for most families and individuals is that there will be good times and bad times; and it is simply not true that society is made up of two relatively stable groups: one group of people that pays for the welfare state, and the other that benefits from it. The political polemic of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ is precisely that: political polemic. At different points in our lives we might be net contributors or net recipients in relation to the welfare state, but there is nobody who does not at some stage benefit from its provisions. Another myth that the book challenges is that vast sums are spent on supporting people who are ill, disabled, or out of work, whereas in fact the budgets for the relevant benefits are small compared with the budgets for the pensions and healthcare from which all of us benefit.

The author employs a number of literary devices to get his message across. He writes about the different ‘wavelengths’ along which changes occur: for instance, the long wavelength within which we accumulate and then run down assets as we progress through middle age and into old age; and the short wavelength of coping with the loss of income precipitated by unemployment or illness. And throughout the book he follows the fortunes of two fictitious but recognisable families: the middle class Osbornes, and the working class Ackroyds.

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, then read the diagrams and text about these two families at the beginning of each chapter. The picture that they reveal is that both families benefit from the welfare state, and that taking the tax and benefits systems as a single system, the Osbornes do rather well out of it. But if you do have time to read the whole book then you will find that the mass of survey data discussed in the body of each chapter reveals a highly complex picture, an important characteristic of which is that what is normal for the Ackroyds is rapid and frequent change in their economic position. One week a government minister might describe them as ‘skivers’, and the next they would be praised as ‘strivers’. Another important characteristic that hits the reader time after time is the effect of initial social and economic capital on economic and social capital outcomes. The social mobility ladder seems to have some rungs missing.

Along the way, we discover how unequal predistribution is in the UK compared with most other countries, and how much harder our welfare state therefore has to work to generate a little more equality; we notice how much everyone benefits from the welfare state, particularly in childhood and old age; we discover how difficult it is for Working Tax Credits – and in the future how difficult it will be for Universal Credit – to respond to the rapid changes in income level experienced by an increasing number of households; we understand how current austerity measures reduce the incomes of low income households but largely protect the incomes of higher earners; and we find that wealth inequality is exacerbated by a tax system that rewards the already wealthy and a benefits system that takes household wealth into account when benefits are calculated.

John Hills is the Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, and this book is full of thorough analysis of social exclusion. A few questions are asked at the end about the ways in which future policy might take into account the book’s findings, but Hills leaves it to others to work out what should be done to rectify the situation that he discovers.

Of particular interest to readers of this Newsletter will be the numerous ways in which a benefits system based on a Citizen’s Income would respond to the problems explored in the book. In particular, a Citizen’s Income would cohere far better with rapidly gyrating earnings than means-tested benefits will ever manage to do. But perhaps the most important lesson that the book holds for anyone promoting debate on social policy reform is that however thoroughly robust evidence and logical argument manage to demolish myths perpetrated by the press and by politicians, those myths persist. So perhaps however good the evidence that a Citizen’s Income would be feasible, the myth will persist that it isn’t. If John Hills’ book manages to reduce the potency of the myth of them and us, then some of us might begin to hope that the myth of a Citizen’s Income’s infeasibility might one day lose some of its strength.