Inequality Redux V

Equity, entitlements and the changing nature of welfare

Hannah Lambie-MumfordIn an increasingly unequal world, we might console ourselves with the notion that certain principles which have traditionally underpinned our social policy will continue to drive progressive responses, despite the ever growing gap between the rich and the poor. This post explores how, despite their importance in mitigating against the worst effects of inequality, principles of equity and entitlement, in particular, are being eroded by welfare austerity. Drawing on food charity as a prime example of the shift away from entitlement-based assistance, the post highlights the urgency of the need to revisit these ideas and overcome the reliance on charities to step in and make up the gap between state provision and real human needs.

Equity and entitlement are two words which are central to the practice and analysis of social policy.  They also constitute key foundations of the welfare state that has been built up in Britain over many years.  Yet they are not so often invoked as social aspirations in the mainstream discourse of post-crisis Britain.

This post in SPERI’s Inequality Redux series discusses how notions of equity and entitlement are being undermined by (welfare) austerity politics and explores some of the visible, practical repercussions of this process.  At the level at which welfare reform is actually experienced and in relation to the changing nature of community-based welfare provision, we see, at first-hand, distinct movements away from principles of equity towards neoliberal notions of individualised risk and from entitlement towards charitable gifts.

Whilst the austerity politics and welfare reforms introduced in Britain since 2010 have had particularly significant impacts on the nature of the welfare state, these recent changes must also be placed within a longer trajectory of adjustments to the shape and nature of the welfare state, including the New Labour years from 1997 onwards, which themselves saw an increased and more formalised role for the voluntary sector in welfare services via programmes of diversification and increased social security conditionality.   Indeed, looking back further still to changes made since the 1970s, what we have seen generally over the last 30-40 years is the forced emergence of an increasingly individualised notion of responsibility and care, combined with increased conditionality and the appearance of communitarian and contractarian interpretations of dependency and solidarity.  Overall, these shifts have involved an undermining of entitlements and a retreat from rights and entitlement-based assistance to charitable responses and gifting.

This has been a result of two particular dynamics in state-based poverty provision.  First, as mentioned, policy shifts have increased the conditionality of social security (including, most recently, changes in sanctions policy, the insertion of waiting periods before benefits can be claimed and tightened criteria for disability benefits).  Since the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 there has also been a reduction in real terms of the levels of social security entitlements, including social security caps, abolition of council tax benefit and changes to annual uprating of social security levels.  Second, high profile policy platforms of both the New Labour and Conservative-led Coalition governments (in the forms respectively of the ‘Third Way’ and ‘Big Society’) have actively promoted a shift towards the greater involvement of charities both in formal provision of welfare services and in assuming more generally an enhanced, responsive role to community needs.

From 2000, but particularly since 2010, one particular consequence of these key changes in welfare provision has stood out as emblematic: namely, food charity.  Between 2010 and 2014 the number of food bank projects in the country’s largest organisation of food banks network – Trussell Trust Foodbank Network – rose from 20 to 405.  In 2013-14 the Foodbank Network distributed nearly one million food parcels, representing a 610% increase in provision since 2011-12.

The evolving evidence base on the growth of food charity indicates that there has been a symbiotic relationship between the changing welfare state and the growth of both the need for and provision of food banking.  On the one hand, changes to social security entitlements and processes have driven demand for food banks.  Examples include delays in social security payments coming through, lack of awareness about short term benefit advances and incorrect sanctioning decisions.  On the other hand, the changing nature of state services and the increased expectations imposed on the voluntary sector have seen charities working increasingly hard to fill gaps.  Particularly important here have been the cuts to service budgets or services as a whole prompted by austerity politics.  Building on the longer history of welfare diversification and the rise of narratives around community responsiveness, the result has been an increasingly professionalised and mobilised charitable sector.

In this sense, the rise of food charity is a telling manifestation of a stark shift in post-crisis Britain.  It represents a big step away from cash entitlements towards reliance on charities to provide gifts of food (in this case) to those in need in their communities.  We are seeing nothing less than an undermining of notions of equity in social policy provision and the emergence of unmet needs which only charities are taking responsibility for meeting.  Yet they are necessarily limited in what they can provide, the number of people they can help and how accessible they can be to their local communities.  This is without question a significant departure from a belief in, and implementation of, the right to a social-safety-net for all. Charities have been left to make up as best they can the gap between state provision and real human needs.

Importantly, however, in the context of food charity, the evidence tells us that charitable gifts do not measure up to entitlement-based systems.  We know from experience in other countries, where food charity is much more established, that not all people in need access the support available and that provision (in terms of food actually given out) can be hugely variable.  Moreover, the institutionalisation of this kind of charitable support can serve, however unintentionally, to depoliticise the very issues that gave rise to food charity in the first place.  In other words, by being responsive and meeting needs even to a limited extent, food charity can make the core issue at stake less visible.

In the context of a focus on inequality and its effects, this account of changing welfare provision and the rise of food charity in Britain inevitably raises the normative question of what a better social policy should look like.  In particular, what does the notion of ‘social rights’ mean in post-crisis Britain? Should we be talking more about entitlements and adequate social protection?  Should this shift towards individualised risk and care and away from notions of social solidarity be allowed to continue unabated?  These are big questions that are not being extensively debated in the ‘long campaign’ towards the May general election.

The rise of food charity highlights the incredible amount of compassion and innovation in the community sector, but it also reveals the sharp reality of heightened need facing those living in, or on the edge of, poverty in Britain today.  Turning back to principles of equity and entitlement could re-focus attention on the whole notion of social protection and the key matter of what is needed genuinely to protect people from poverty and alleviate it quickly when it occurs.