Stephen Sinclair, Introduction to Social Policy Analysis

Stephen Sinclair, Introduction to Social Policy Analysis: Illuminating welfare, Policy Press, 2016, vi + 182 pp, 1 4473 1391 5, hbk, £70, 1 4473 1392 2, pbk, £19.99

The author is clear about what his book is and what it isn’t. It is not a standard text book on social policy: the kind that asks about the history of social policy in such fields as healthcare, education, and housing; that studies the current state of social policy in those fields; and that might also discuss possible future developments. This book asks how social policy might be analysed. It approaches its task first of all by dividing up the task of analysis into four separate analyses: distributional, ethical, critical, and empirical (although the author rather loses sight of this categorisation as the book progresses); and then by asking a different question in each chapter: What is a social problem? Who benefits from welfare? Who is a member of society? How does inequality persist? Why are people so mistaken about welfare? These questions then become lenses that enable Sinclair to evaluate policy in a variety of different fields.

(In the following, for the chapter number add 1 to the number that I have allocated to each question.)

  1. In response to the question ‘What is a social problem?’ Sinclair concludes that social problems are largely determined by political ideologies and values: they are socially constructed. This means that ‘perceptions of social issues and policy responses to them are determined by political processes rather than an objective consideration of the facts’ (p. 21). 2. ‘Who benefits from welfare?’ invites the response: welfare is diverse and includes private, voluntary and domestic provision as well as public provision; and the ways in which welfare are paid for and distributed are diverse and complex. A type of welfare provision that often goes unrecognised is the ‘fiscal welfare’ constituted by tax allowances. 3. ‘Who is a member of society?’ can be answered in a variety of ways. In particular, ‘Social inclusion’ means ‘the ability to participate in mainstream social life’, and ‘social exclusion’ is an often stigmatising ‘dynamic and multidimensional process’ (p. 65). 4. The chapter on the question ‘How does inequality persist?’ outlines some of the drivers of increasing inequality, and draws particular attention to the ways in which social groups exclude outsiders from access to various ‘capitals’ ( – this section might usefully have employed Bill Jordan’s ‘clubs’ terminology). 5. The chapter entitled ‘Why are people so mistaken about welfare?’ discusses a number of apparently unshakeable myths about welfare (for instance, that the best way to reduce poverty is to let wealth ‘trickle down’ from higher to lower income groups). Such myths are as much in need of analysis as every other aspect of social policy, and an important element of that analysis has to be study of the ‘echo chamber’ effect of the media. The myths are a signal that social policy is a creation of normative values and beliefs rather than of social facts, and to tackle them we need to frame social issues and social policy in ways that circumvent them. As Sinclair points out, ‘perceptions do change, as shown in attitudes towards sexuality and disability in recent years’ (p. 137).

In relation to the Citizen’s Income debate, some tentative suggestions in relation to the questions that Sinclair asks might be as follows: 1. The social problems that Citizen’s Income researchers discuss will often be shaped by the proposed solution of a Citizen’s Income. 2. Citizen’s Income would be a rare example of entirely transparent equal provision of welfare for every individual. 3. Citizen’s Income would generate additional social inclusion for everyone. 4. A Citizen’s Income would reduce marginal deduction rates, would enable households to increase their disposable income more easily, and would therefore provide a mechanism for decreasing inequality: but still each Citizen’s Income scheme will need to be carefully constructed to ensure that at the point of implementation it does not exacerbate inequality. 5. Simply offering evidence that contradicts unfounded objections to Citizen’s Income will not reduce the potency of those objections. Citizen’s Income might need to be framed in ways consistent with the myths.

In his concluding chapter, Sinclair suggests that social policy ‘contributes to addressing social problems by asking questions, clarifying thinking and analysing options’ (p. 147). There is a sense in which the Citizen’s Income debate is driven not only by a list of social problems that a Citizen’s Income might ameliorate, but also by a commitment to Citizen’s Income both as a foundation for a good society and as a solution to some social problems. This raises an interesting question about Citizen’s Income’s relationship to social policy as an academic discipline. As we have seen, social policy is positively useful in the context of the Citizen’s Income debate. This suggests that there are in fact two possible starting points for social policy analysis, and not just one. It can either set out from social problems and ask about solutions, or it can ask how proposed solutions might relate to social problems and to a vision of a good society. Discuss.

This well-organised and comprehensible book by a seasoned teacher of social policy analysis will be of enormous benefit to teachers, students, researchers, and social policy practitioners. It will be particularly useful as a template by which continuing analysis of Citizen’s Income might be undertaken.