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Means testing… December 13, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

There’s a great piece of analysis by Michael Taft on Notes on the Front from a week or so back on means testing which notes the chorus of voices – including the Troika – which demand that we means test social provision yet further as a ‘labour activation measure’. But as Michael points out in a labour market with so few jobs it pushes people to accept whatever jobs there are – a tall order, at lower wages, and secondly it is a cost-cutting exercise.

But it is his central point that is particularly notable. Point to the fact that there is ‘a powerful lobby calling for more means-testing in order to ‘direct money to those who most need it’’ he notes that of the EU 15 we have the highest percentage of social protection cash benefits that are means tested. We’re at 32.8 per cent, Spain, our nearest neighbour in that regard comes in at 14.8 per cent, under half as much again, and the UK is a paltry 11.1 per cent. Germany? 8.5 per cent. And all the way down to Sweden on 2.2 per cent and Denmark on 0.001 per cent. Even Greece – uncalm centre of the current fiscal hurricane – is on 5.2 per cent.

I’m not pointing to this in order to rewrite Michael’s piece but to raise a further point.

If means-testing was indeed the most efficacious way to direct public funds to those in need of them doesn’t it strike people that those states, and Greece, Portugal (8.9%), Italy (5.1%) and Spain in particular – but not just those states because after all social provision is a well developed area now of public policy given a century or more of it in some parts – would have introduced or developed such measures. Yet they haven’t.

And that suggests that far from means testing being a silver bullet in terms of delivery of services to those who need them, or indeed a ‘labour activation measure’ – in which case the supposedly vastly more efficient economies of Europe would see them as a centrally necessary part of their policy too – they are, as Michael points out simply a cost cutting measure.

And that makes perfect sense. Social welfare, as any of us who have had to depend upon it know, is amazingly partial and patchy in this state. It’s not simply in the provision of services that elsewhere would be free at point of use, or the constrained scale of those services, or the extra costs that are incurred in accessing them. But in the scope of the cash benefit services, in the nature of the interactions necessary to receive them and – as exemplified here in the latest wheeze to curtail jobseekers benefit to 9 months without means testing from a year – the sheer paucity of that social provision.

I’ve noted previously that means-testing is remarkably inefficient, that it generates distortions (particularly for those who fall above or below certain limits of income), that we already have a society wide means of assessing (albeit with some omissions) wealth in the form of the tax system and that in certain areas it can provide an obstacle to access – as with grants.

But it is the sense that all is contingent, that such provisions – and this is core conceptual aspect of means-testing – are at best a necessary evil and must be monitored on a continual basis because in essence those seeking them and receiving them are not trusted. That dislocation at their heart that there must be a check before access can be granted.

In a way this is a microcosm of the broadest problem in this state that it is not run for the benefit of its citizens but almost instinctively is run with the sense that any social provision is a necessary evil, usually wasteful and always reflecting back poorly on those who have need to access it. Part of this is drawn from a sense that resources are limited, although there is a telling indifference and antagonism to the counter argument that taxes can be raised and broadened.

It is the antithesis of a view that social provision is what a state should do, because it is necessary as with health and education, because it is moral, and because even that in a mixed economy it is efficient in transitioning workers from employment and through unemployment back to employment – and likewise with health and pensions, and also because we are citizens and just as we have responsibilities so the state (and society) has obligations to us and part of that is to treat citizens accessing provision in a respectful and enabling manner.


1. CL - December 13, 2012

These ‘labour activation’ measures are very similar in ideology and intent to workfare in the U.S. And U.S workfare is ideologically and historically derived from Britain’s Poor Law Reform of 1934, based on the recommendations of, among others, Nassau Senior. Senior had some interesting things to say about the Irish famine. That the Labour party is regressing to such backwardness is deplorable.


CL - December 13, 2012



Sara - December 13, 2012

It certainly ties in with Poor Law notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (19th century and earlier), as well as indoor and outdoor relief and the discretionary nature of the dispensary system. The language may have changed, but essentially that’s what the ideology boils down to.


Bartley - December 13, 2012

Speaking of the Labour Party, did anyone notice the one little means testing sting that la Burton snuck into the budget?

Those on jobseekers with a partner in work will likely lose their benefit 3 months earlier than before due to means-testing.

That I believe she is also trying to sell as ‘labour activation’ measure. Strange that she thinks people with a record of 250+ PRSI contributions need some sanction to force them back into the workforce (their prior record of hard work not-with-standing).

But as a committed socialist, obviously she understand the mind of the worker better than I ever could. No doubt she can look right into a worker’s heart and read them like an open book. A book that reads ‘cut my benefits, you know it for the best …’


2. CL - December 13, 2012

The principle underlying the Labour Party’s social policy of ‘labour activation’ is the Bentham principle of ‘less eligibility’

“one needs a balance of pain and pleasure that will lead to people doing what is socially desirable. If there is more pleasure and less pain in being on social security than in working, Bentham says, people will stop working. The implication for social policy is that being on social security should be made less eligible (less desirable) than working.”
http://www.studymore.org.uk/ssh5.htm#Less eligibility

The idea is to force workers to take any job, however undesireable, at whatever wage. This is a method of ensuring a race to the bottom.


3. Alan Rouge - December 13, 2012

The point to all of this isn’t just to save a few quid but it is also to humiliate, demonise and dehumanise people trying to survive on the €188 a week.

This passage from Judt’s Ill Fares the Land quoting Malcolm X sums it up wel I thinkl:

“The monthly welfare check was their pass. The acted as if they owned us. As much as my mother would have liked to, she couldn’t keep them out… We couldn’t understand why, if the state was willing to give us packages of meat, sacks of potatoes and fruit, and cans of all kinds of things, our mother obviously hated to accept. What I later understood was that my mother was making a desperate effort to preserve her pride, and ours. Pride was just about all we had to preserve, for by 1934, we really began to suffer.”


WorldbyStorm - December 15, 2012



4. gfmurphy101 - December 14, 2012

Reblogged this on gfmurphy101.


5. gfmurphy101 - December 14, 2012

Reblogged this on gfmurphy101.


smiffy - December 15, 2012

So good you reblogged it twice?


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