Friday, 15 January 2016

Book Review - Good Times, Bad Times: The Myth of Them and Us

I reviewed this book for Housing Studies.

Good Times Bad Times – the welfare myth of them and us

John Hills

Bristol, Policy Press, 2015, 334+xviii pp. £12.99 (pbk)

ISBN 9781447320036

The election of a Conservative majority government in the UK in May 2015, with their manifesto commitment to cut the ‘welfare bill’ by £12 billion, has meant that the public debate within the UK on the costs of the social insurance system has remained high profile. In this tour de force, Professor John Hills provides a forensic account of social policy and socio-economic inequality in the UK, trying to provide evidence to inform what is often a ‘post evidence’ political debate (see, for example: Macdonald et al., 2014: on ‘hunting the yeti’ of the policy trope of households with three generations of unemployment).

The book is based on exhaustive analysis of administrative and survey data-sets across the UK. As a structuring device, the book returns to a television programme shown on ITV in the UK in 1989—Beat the Taxman. In this original programme, Hills’ colleague Julian Le Grand showed how through taxation and benefits from universal services an affluent family—the Osbornes—actually did far better from UK government expenditure than the worse off Ackroyd family.

The device of comparing the two families, now with grandchildren, is used throughout the book, and particularly in pen portraits that start each chapter, to compare the income and assets of the households involved, the proportion of household income each family pays in tax and what benefits in cash and services each household receives. At its core, the book returns to a key insight about the role of the welfare state stated in the original Beveridge report, that its role is more about redistributing resources over an individuals’ life course than redistributing resources between individuals (Figures 3.1–3.3, pp. 50–51). One of the interesting early points also made is that compared to other welfare systems around the world, the UK state does the most ‘work’ in redistributing income; we might have a very economically unequal society, but it is even more unequal before the state has done its work redistributing.

The book will hold particular interest for housing scholars in its consideration of the way the housing market, taxation and the benefits system interact in the UK. While this is not a central focus of the book, it includes important new analysis that will be of interest. For example, Chapter 6 ‘The long wave’ focuses on retirement and wealth. With many older people now being home owners outright, and supported by good pensions, the intergenerational divide between ‘baby boomers’ and younger people is another common trope of current social policy public discourse. Through his analysis of wealth in the UK, Professor Hills clearly demonstrates that it is inequalities within generations between the extremely wealthy and those with few assets or debts that are of greatest concern at all age ranges. These inequities are far greater than those between generations. Furthermore, policy in the UK clearly supports and exacerbates these inequalities: wealth is very lightly taxed, with home ownership barely taxed at all. For those receiving out-of-work benefits, levels of marginal taxation are actually a disincentive for lower income households to save.

Professor Hills also uses extensive new analysis on the UK benefits system, including the work of his colleagues at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE, to highlight the weaknesses around the housing benefits system in the UK. Using analysis of longitudinal data in Chapter 4, he demonstrates the normality of ‘high frequency’ living in the contemporary UK—that is, for most households, income varies dramatically across the year as members move into and out of insecure work. The benefits system, and particularly housing benefits and tax credits, serve to exaggerate rather than (as might be expected) smooth these swings in household income.

This is an excellent and competitively priced book that will be of interest to a wide audience and is accessible enough to be a core text on undergraduate reading lists. A possible weakness of the book relates directly to its intellectual strength: its core messages and use of a wealth of data are intellectual hard work. Though it no doubt acts as an intellectual bulwark against anti-welfare policy arguments, one does wonder if it will succeed in more widely challenging the ‘myths’ around welfare that it intends to.

As critical analysis suggests (Jensen & Tyler, 2015) current tropes and myths of policy discourse—three generations unemployed, benefits broods, households receiving over £100,000 a year in benefits—are enormously powerful in shaping policy and political discourse. These emotive images cannot easily be countered through analysis that shows that they are non-existent, or are extreme and explicable cases. Similarly, individual examples of the hardships caused by welfare reform are very emotive—such as the widely shared story of a man who had to bathe in an inflatable children’s paddling pool in his new living room after being evicted from his adapted home due to rent arrears caused by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ (see The Liverpool Echo 22 August 2015). But ultimately, these stories appear unable to change UK public attitudes in favour of cutting welfare benefits to the poorest in society, as shown in Chapter 9. As a reader, I cannot offer any answers regarding what would more effectively counter such public attitudes, but unfortunately, I doubt this book will be the solution.

Jensen, T. & Tyler, I. (2015) “Benefits broods”: The cultural and political crafting of anti-welfare commonsense, Critical Social Policy. 

Macdonald, R., Shildrick, T., & Furlong, A. (2014) In search of ‘intergenerational cultures of worklessness’: Hunting the Yeti and shooting zombies, Critical Social Policy, 34(2), pp. 199–220. 

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