The recent controversy around the book The Welfare Trait is part of a long-standing debate on whether poverty is caused by structure or behaviour, writes Mireia Borrell-Porta, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford.
Here, she offers her own reading of the book and explains why claiming benefits is not simply a question of personality; instead, a number of other factors – including structural economic and environmental – need to be taken into account.
Mireia also cites my own article – Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism – and like me, she draws a parallel with Adam Perkins’s basic antiwelfarist proposition and the New Right supremicist thinking of Charles Murray.
She says: “‘The Welfare Trait’ by Adam Perkins is currently the subject of controversial debate on mainstream and social media. Having been praised (albeit with some nuances) by the Adam Smith Institute and the Spectator, it has been criticised by The Equality Trust and the Guardian among others. The book’s main argument is that welfare benefits are a ‘production line of unfit children’, and that the welfare state is gradually making new generations ‘resistant to employment.’ This is the result of two phenomena, according to Perkins. First, benefits have the effect of increasing childbirth in workless households more than in working ones. Second, individuals with ‘employment-resistant’ personalities are over-represented among welfare claimants, who then pass these ‘inconvenient traits’ on to their children, making them also less likely to work.”
Mireia goes on to say: “Perkins’ argument is also reminiscent of American conservativism from the mid-1970s. A prominent voice at the time was that of political scientist Charles Murray who, concerned with the fact that poverty in the 1970s did not decline and even rose slightly, grew convinced that the culprits were the decline of the husband-wife family and the drop in work levels among the poor. These trends, he argued, were to be traced to a shift in behaviour on the part of individuals who suffered from poverty. He suggested that individuals are generally rational and make their decisions on work and having children depending on the economic incentives of the time. By increasing or decreasing benefits, the welfare state affects such incentives.
In his later writings, personal character was added to these explanations, leading to his claims that the welfare state not only generated perverse incentives, but also enabled certain people to behave as they ‘naturally’ wanted to behave (i.e. allowing them not to work if they did not want to). Personal character was therefore relevant, and at the same time welfare incentives could have a long-term (detrimental) effect on them. His solution was radical: abolish poverty programmes.”
She concludes: “Anyone studying the relationship between behaviour, character or personality and employment should take these variables into account before claiming that ‘the welfare state becomes a production line for damaged kids’. Because, with parental and children behaviour being influenced by the amount of financial resources in a household, the reasonable approach is not to decrease the level of benefits, as Perkins suggests; this is a case for increasing them.”
You can read this excellent artice in full on the LSE site.
Mireia Borrell-Porta is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD at the European Institute at the LSE and holds an MSc in European Political Economy from LSE and a BSc in Economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Mireia’s main research interests focus on the interplay between social norms and economic incentives and their joint impact on individual behaviour. Her areas of interest are social policy, and family policy in particular, and political economy.
The myth of meritocracy
This is an interesting take on Perkins’s book, (and also references my own work – Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism.)
The article is by sociologist Manufactured Controversy: Adam Perkins, the Psychological Imagination and the Marketing of Scholarship
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