Millar and Sainsbury (eds) Understanding Social Security

Jane Millar and Roy Sainsbury (eds), Understanding Social Security, 3rd edition, Policy Press, 2018, xviii + 273 pp, pbk, 1 4473 3947 2, £28.99

Some new editions are slightly updated versions of their predecessors, whereas some are newly written from scratch. This third edition of Understanding Social Security is in the latter category: and in that category it is always instructive to compare the contents list of the new edition with that of its predecessor. Part 1 of the new edition, ‘People and policies across the life course’, fulfils the same function as part 2 of the second edition. The new word in the contents list is ‘gender’; and it is not insignificant that ‘welfare to work’ has been replaced by ‘social security and work obligations’. Part 2 of the new book, ‘Issues in policy and practice’, fulfils a similar function to parts 1 and 3 of the second edition, ‘Foundations and contexts’ and ‘Users and providers’. Here, although some of the content of the chapters is similar to the content of the chapters in parts 1 and 3 of the second edition, all of the chapter titles, apart from ‘Social security in a global context’, are new: ‘Who benefits and who pays?’, ‘Public attitudes to “welfare”’, ‘Everyday life on benefits’, ‘Jobcentres and the delivery of employment services and benefits’, and ‘Making it simple? Universal basic income’. The titles reflect substantial changes in both the social security system and the academy’s interest in it. It is no surprise that scattered through the book there is plenty of material on Universal Credit, but it is a bit of a surprise that there is no chapter dedicated to this important new benefit and its difficulties. One further caveat relating to the book as a whole: Several authors suggest that Child Benefit has been either reduced or taxed for high earners. It has not been. High earners in households receiving Child Benefit are having to pay additional tax, but that is an importantly different matter with a variety of unfortunate consequences. But apart from those two reservations, the book’s chapters are a reliable guide to the current state of social security and to the challenges that the system faces.

Of particular interest to readers of this review will be Luke Martinelli’s chapter on Universal Basic Income. Here he discusses the problems with the current benefits that Basic Income is designed to address; arguments against Basic Income; the ‘different forms’ that it can take (by which he means different kinds of Basic Income scheme), and some of the experimental and microsimulation evidence.

Three caveats. 1. The Negative Income Tax (NIT) proposed by the Adam Smith Institute does not fulfil the definition of Universal Basic Income with which Martinelli begins his chapter, so it should not be called ‘a form of Basic Income’ (p.237); and when later he discusses NIT, perhaps he ought to have mentioned the significant administrative problems associated with NIT as compared to the radical administrative simplicity of Basic Income. 2. The TUC has not supported the idea. This myth has resulted from a resolution in the 2017 congress’s preliminary list of resolutions. As often happens, only part of that resolution was then combined with other resolutions, and the TUC voted on a composite resolution that did not explicitly support Universal Basic Income. 3. Perhaps Martinelli ought to have recognised the different approaches of different microsimulation experiments. In his own experiments, Martinelli chooses a variety of schemes and tests for their effects. Torry 2016b, Torry’s subsequent working papers, and to some extent Reed when he follows Torry, select a set of constraints and then test to see if there is a Basic Income scheme that can satisfy them. There is: and that scheme does not result in the losses for low income households that Martinelli finds for his schemes. The Torry scheme also takes a significant number of households off means-tested benefits, and for each of those households work incentives are improved and administrative simplicity is obtained. The bottom left hand box of the table on page 247 should contain ‘x/√’ and not ‘x’.

But these are minor reservations. The chapter is generally a very good summary of the issues, and Martinelli’s discussions of objections to Basic Income and possible responses are very fair. Of special importance are the conclusions that Martinelli draws at the end of the chapter. These should be required reading for anyone involved in the Citizen’s Basic Income debate as they set precisely the questions that now need to be answered.

In their concluding chapter, the editors recognise that when the previous edition of Understanding Social Security was published in 2009 they would not have predicted Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax, the benefits cap, retrenchment in disability benefits, or that Basic Income would become a serious policy debate. They rightly bemoan the derogatory language in which social security is now discussed; and quite sensibly they decide not to predict what changes will have occurred by the time a fourth edition of their most useful book is written in a few years’ time.