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Illuminating welfare

In this distinctive introduction Stephen Sinclair illuminates the subject of Social Policy by showing readers how Social Policy analysts think about welfare issues and policies.

From what influences the decision to have children to how everyday terms such as ‘youth crime’ or ‘poverty’ reveal the structural processes shaping society, the book illustrates the insights which Social Policy analysis offers to understanding the social world and its problems.

Written by an academic with extensive experience of teaching Social Policy analysis to new audiences, the book provides a stimulating introduction to the study of the factors and polices shaping wellbeing. Each chapter includes boxed summaries, applied examples illustrating key issues, and bullet points clarifying key concepts and theories.

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Successive UK governments have sought to increase financial inclusion by investing in credit unions. However, responses within the British credit union movement to the government’s latest modernisation and expansion proposals reveal a conflict over perceptions of the purpose of credit unions between those who regard them as a means to provide financial services to low income communities, and those who regard them as self-help organisations offering an alternative to mainstream financial services which should remain independent from government initiatives. While this division is not new, it highlights potential limitations to the viability of achieving social inclusion through voluntary mutualism.

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My aim in this book is to introduce readers to Social Policy1 analysis and to help them think coherently about social problems and how societies collectively respond to them. It is not intended to be a systematic introduction to social policies or to the ‘welfare state’ in general. There are already many such books and readers can turn to them to learn more about the details of policies. Instead, the purpose is to introduce the distinctive nature of Social Policy analysis and some of the insights provided by this way of looking at social issues. I hope to show readers how to think like a Social Policy analyst by illustrating how a selection of ideas provides insights into some of the basic questions raised by social welfare. Thinking about such issues requires analysis, that is, unravelling the relationships between the different components of complex issues, examining how social systems function, unpicking arguments and interrogating the evidence used to justify social policies. Studying Social Policy also requires synthesis: recognising connections between different concepts and factors, such as how poverty relates to inequality, or the relationship between social exclusion and citizenship.

Each chapter considers an important question about social well-being and introduces what, in my experience, have been some of the most illuminating ideas applied to understand and answer them. My aim is to describe and demonstrate the value of these concepts: how they contribute to understanding the social world, help summarise the key features of important developments or make sense of large amounts of information, and how they cast new light on social issues and challenge ill-considered assumptions.

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The meaning of the word ‘welfare’ has changed over time. It was originally used to wish someone well on a journey, which is still apparent in the word ‘farewell’. By the 14th century, it meant happiness or prosperity.1 The term ‘welfare state’ was first used in 1941 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, where he contrasted it with the ‘warfare state’ of fascism and Nazism.2 However, the term was not generally known until the former US President Herbert Hoover used it in 1949 to describe it as ‘a disguise for the totalitarian state’.3 Very quickly, therefore, the concept of a welfare state had a negative meaning for some, and by the early 1960s, Richard Titmuss observed that ‘to many people, “welfare state” is now a term of abuse’.4 It is significant that Titmuss made this comment at the height of what has sometimes been regarded as a ‘Golden Age’ of political consensus and support for the welfare state5; it shows that state welfare provision has always been controversial and disputed. In the US, the word ‘welfare’ is now ‘a term of opprobrium’, although ‘social security’ (meaning social insurance for old age and disability) remains relatively popular.6 In contrast, in much of Europe, public welfare and social protection are still favourably regarded. Public attitudes towards welfare in the UK are somewhere between the US and European positions.7 There is support for some of the principles behind a welfare state and attachment to particular policies and institutions in the UK, but there is also ambivalence about some aspects of state welfare.

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A characteristic of societies with a liberal 1 political tradition (such as the UK and the US) is that many people are rather ashamed to admit to receiving particular forms of welfare support. Such societies attach great importance to the idea of self-sufficiency, and relying on state support is regarded by many as a sign of failure. There is also some suspicion of certain welfare claimants in such societies. For example, 54% of respondents to the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey believed that ‘most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one’, and 49% felt that the government should spend less on supporting unemployed people, while only 15% thought that more should be spent.2 However, not all forms of support are associated with this negative idea of welfare dependency. In the UK, for example, receiving a state pension or using National Health Service medical care are generally regarded as acceptable. There are several reasons for such distinctions. Among the most important are what people consider to be a ‘welfare’ service, and who they think uses different services. These are not straightforward issues. For example, should the criminal justice system be regarded as a welfare service? There might be good reasons for thinking so. Among the functions of the criminal justice system are protecting the public from harm and rehabilitating offenders, including, in many cases, providing those convicted with education and training. If education provided in state schools is a welfare service, is similar provision in prisons or institutions for young offenders not also welfare? If the criminal justice system is regarded as a welfare service, who are its users or beneficiaries: convicted prisoners, rehabilitated ex-offenders or the public who are protected by the system? Different answers could be given to these questions, and this is important because there is more at stake than semantics.

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In 2009, the mother of a pupil attending a primary school in Inverness threatened to take the local authority to court for breaching disability rights legislation. Her daughter had Muscular Dystrophy and would have been unable to participate in a planned school trip to an adventure park. She objected that her daughter was being excluded from joining in an activity available to every other pupil. Some of the parents of other children in the school argued that simply because one pupil was not able to enjoy this activity was no reason to deny it to everyone. In the end, the local authority and school proposed an alternative event in which all pupils could participate.1

Although the ‘thought is often expressed that “social exclusion” is no more than a relabelling of what used to be called “poverty”’,2 this case shows how the idea of inclusion raises issues beyond low income and how some people may be excluded from everyday activities by a variety of barriers. Social inclusion and exclusion mean more than poverty – they are concerned with participation and rights, what it means to be a member of society and how involvement may be limited or denied. The case of the Inverness school pupil raises several questions in relation to social exclusion – was this mother justified in claiming that her daughter’s rights had been denied? What is required for social inclusion? What are the normal social activities in which everyone has the right to engage? If some people cannot participate in mainstream social activities for various reasons, how much reasonable adjustment should the majority make to enable them to do so? Was this girl unable to participate because of her condition, or should her school have anticipated her needs, or should the facility that would host pupils have accommodated and adapted to her requirements? Does it matter that this was a publicly funded school trip – should public and welfare services be expected to be more inclusive than private ones?

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Inequalities of income and declining social mobility are troubling many people and shaping the political agenda as never before. President Barack Obama expressed his concern about a ‘relentless, decades-long trend’ in the US: ‘a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead’.1 Similarly, all of the major British political parties express their commitment to promoting social mobility and claim to be concerned about growing inequalities of income and wealth. The former British Prime Minister John Major stated that his ambition was to make Britain a ‘classless society’.2 His successor, Tony Blair, declared that his mission was ‘to break down the barriers that hold people back, to create real upward social mobility, a society that is open’.3 These sentiments were echoed by the UK Coalition government elected in 2010, with Prime Minister David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg stating: ‘We both want a Britain where social mobility is unlocked; where everyone, regardless of background, has the chance to rise as high as their talents and ambitions allow them’.4

The extent of social mobility is often taken as a measure of the equality of economic and social opportunity. High degrees of social mobility suggest an open and meritocratic society, where achievements reflect ability and effort rather than unfair advantages, such as inherited privilege or favouritism.9 There are also believed to be economic benefits to enabling competition for higher occupations. It has been estimated that if the UK had the same level of social mobility as the most open societies in the developed world, national income would increase by £150 billion each year, equivalent to gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 4%.10

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Most people have little awareness of the details of social policies. The general public have only the vaguest idea of the scale of some important issues or how the institutions established to deal with them actually work.1 It is unrealistic to expect everyone to have an informed understanding of complex social problems and policies. However, a striking feature of many opinions on social policy issues is that they are not held tentatively. In fact, many people have very firm views on questions of welfare based on what are sometimes rather shaky foundations.2 This can be demonstrated by the following examples of opinions about social welfare that are widely held in the UK (and in several other countries3):

  • There is no real poverty in contemporary Britain.

  • The welfare state redistributes heavily from the richer to the poorer.

  • The best way to reduce poverty is to let wealth ‘trickle down’ to lower-income groups.

  • Social welfare gives too much to the undeserving, is a disincentive to employment and many claimants defraud the system.

  • A high level of welfare spending is unaffordable and makes a country economically uncompetitive.

Some of these opinions are discussed in other chapters, where they have been shown to be misconceptions. For example, the first is considered in Chapter Four, where the meaning of ‘poverty’ is analysed. The second view is discussed both in Chapter One, where the economic dimension of Social Policy is outlined, and in Chapter Three in relation to the ‘social division of welfare’.

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In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked what people in the UK thought were the main ‘Social Evils’ – the most serious and threatening problems facing society.1 The issues that troubled people most were the following:

  • individualism, consumerism and the decline of community;

  • drugs and alcohol abuse;

  • a decline of values;

  • problems with families and young people;

  • inequality and poverty;

  • a democratic deficit – unresponsive institutions and political apathy;

  • violence and crime;

  • gender inequality;

  • religious tensions and intolerance;

  • social diversity, immigration and intolerance;

  • health and care services; and

  • environmental issues.

Several other issues could be added to this list of concerns since the research was conducted. For example: living standards have been stagnant or have fallen for several years in many developed countries; many younger people doubt that they will enjoy the opportunities or living standards of previous generations; employment seems less secure and competition for the most attractive jobs is increasingly intense; and fewer people feel that they are able to save and many are struggling with debt, particularly with housing costs. Despite longer-term economic growth and greater overall wealth, there is a widespread sense of instability and social unease in Britain and this is even more apparent in several other countries.2 The pace and scale of social change feels threatening and beyond control. Many societies appear gripped by what Émile Durkheim called a condition of anomie: anxiety and dislocation caused by social upheaval.3 Critics might suggest that the discipline of Social Policy has done little to help solve or reduce these social evils.

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Theory, Policy and Practice

Social innovation has become a prominent theme in discussions of social policy reform across the world. This book examines why social innovation is important to social policy analysis. It discusses the theoretical and policy context of this concept; its origin and background; why it has emerged to prominence in recent years and how it has been applied.

The book relates social innovation to key debates and issues in social policy. These include competing agency and structural explanations of and solutions to social problems; the relative efficacy of government and civil society initiatives, and the capacity of community and/or service user-led responses to address social problems. The book will be a valuable resource for a wide, international readership including social and public policy analysts, policy makers, practitioners and students.

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